Sundance 2/1 Dispatch: The Great Hack, Jawline, The Report, Greener Grass

The Great Hack Sundance The Great Hack | courtesy of Sundance Institute

Remember yesterday when I had prayed that the spirit of Robert Redford would forgive me for only seeing two movies on Thursday? Well, I saw four movies on Friday.

That’s two documentaries, two scripted features, oodles of discomfort, and the best hit-to-miss ratio of thus festival thus far. I’ll count that as a success.

First up was Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s The Great Hack, a sprawling 139-minute documentary concering the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Throughout 2016 through up to now, Alexander Nix’s shady organization was responsible with using people’s data histories to feed personalized media to dozens of millions of people. Nix exploited apathy and preconceived notions in order to manipulate news circulation for some and suppress others’ inclination to vote. But it was Facebook that played into Nix’s agenda the most, breaching their own terms of service for the sake of contracted work. As such, the film instead focuses on Brittany Kaiser, a former Cambridge employee-turned-whistleblower who assisted the Obamas and Trumps alike all for the sake of a job.

When we first meet her, she’s lounging in a pool in Thailand. She’s lavished, privileged, and maybe a little gaudy. Then we see the intelligence beneath the bravado and the bravado beneath the bereavement, all stemming from economic disillusionment. And then it clicks: The Great Hack isn’t necessarily an examination of Cambridge Analytica and how it exploited us. It’s about once-normal people who are corrupted by the greater evil.

The intentions are clear even if its moral alchemy doesn’t always work. Amer and Noujaim have crafted a feature with surprisingly little bipartisan politics, and while this may seem like an excuse to ride the fence, the film does job work at juggling its own viewpoints with a sympathy for those corrupted by the greater evil. It’s an astute picture for a while—that is, until it gets tangled in its own rhetoric. The movie eventually feels a need to tick off some boxes without saying much. (The last 15 minutes suddenly ape on Robert Mueller as if to say, “Wait, we didn’t mention him yet? Here you go!”) There’s also an underlying sense of telling instead of showing, which is somewhat frustrating in the context of The Great Hack’s fittingly glitchy aesthetic.

Jawline | courtesy of Sundance Institute

And with the almost technophobic bent to Amer and Noujaim’s film, it was kind of serendipitous to follow it up with Jawline, Liza Mandelup’s glimpse into the life of online influencers and the tenuousness of their careers. The documentary focuses on Austyn Tester, a 16-year-old from a low-income Tennessee household who gains fame through YouNow and Instagram. (Well, enough fame to equal 20,000 followers and a few throngs of screaming teen girls.)

He and his friends always look like they just came from a Magcon panel—the kind of boyish good looks that feel more like satire than reality. They even have a manager in the form of the not-much-older-than-them Michael Weist (yes, the guy behind the TanaCon fiasco). Michael, as it happens, seems to be the only one with a sense of practicality, but in what might be her most provocative decision, Mandelup makes no effort to contextualize anyone’s lives aside from Austyn’s. He might as well be the only person in a universe of archetypes. He’s a boy that just wants to make others feel better, yet what good is that if he’s always performing for himself?

It may be cringingly funny at times, but Jawline transcends easy schadenfreude. It’s a chalky ethnography. The faces are pale and the environments swim in gentle pastels. The music, like the lost warmth of its subject, feels like a soap bubble that freezes over once it hits the air. And despite this, Mandelup never gets cynical or frames Austyn as a disillusioned shrew. He’s a product of the human condition stuck in an alien culture. His sentiments are as universal as they are impractical—as probable as they are preposterous.

So does that make Austyn something of a tragedy? That would depend on how you look at it, but Mandelup’s film explores a place where very little exists on either end of a good/bad spectrum. It’s a bitterly unspectacular center of a much shinier world, and that’s exactly the point.

Adam Driver in The Report | courtesy of Sundance Institute

Yet while this sort of paleness was intentional in Jawline, it isn’t totally the case in Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, which, despite its several positives, fell frustratingly short for me. It tells the true story of Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), a United States Senate employee who spearheaded an almost-7,000-page account on the CIA’s torture methods following the September 11 attacks. He doesn’t seem to do anything else with his time, really—he just works on this report. No family, no friends, no other ambitions, nothing. And this goes for everyone else, too, including his boss Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) and a personification of what he finds reprehensible, shown here through Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm).

On one hand, I appreciate how journalistic Burns’s film is. This is a largely no-nonsense film that aims to have the heft of a rainforest worth of paper, and Burns—whose regular collaborations with Steven Soderbergh seem to have rubbed off on him—stages and films most scenes as if they take place in the dungeons of America itself. It’s instead up to Driver to give the film its central humanity and he does so like a tepid man who’s trying to hide his aw-shucks qualities, and as for Bening? Well, she could torture someone just by shooting a glare. Burns’s script lacks such fire. Its first half is outright erratic in its pacing and structure, and when the film gets to its meat in the second hour, the ethics often feel too pedantic or too isolated from what they decry.

It’s really quite difficult to keep up with. The movie jumps back and forth throughout the aughts without much rhythm before skipping across the first half of the 2010s in the second hour. There’s no adequate reason to begin in medias res let alone go so non-chronological. The characters are frustratingly afar as a result, but the most disappointing byproduct is how the movie simplifies its conflict. There’s a truly fascinating battle between the brawny CIA and the brainy Senate, something that speaks to the disconnect within our government and how that affects the citizens. The execution is too black-and-white, and what could have been a look at utilitarian ethics feels… ordinary.

Beck Bennett and Jocelyn DeBoer appear in Greener Grass by Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Lowell Mayer

At least the last movie of the day wasn’t ordinary. Greener Grass, written and directed by Jocelyn DeBoer & Dawn Luebbe from a 2015 short film, stars the creative pair as Jill and Lisa, two soccer moms living in bizarro suburbia. All the adults have braces on their top teeth. Every couple coordinates their outfits as if they’re chomping at the bit for a weird family photo. They all drive golf carts instead cars, and there’s also a murderer on the loose, and there’s a backyard pool with mystical powers, and there are more than a few cutaway gags that feel like deleted scenes from Satan’s favorite childhood sitcom. So just where the hell are we? Somewhere between Yanthimos, Lynch, Waters, and Tim & Eric, it would seem. Yes, this movie is weird. Just go with it.

This is some stunningly stilted comedy in the vein of Adult Swim, and while it doesn’t come close to warranting its 101-minute runtime, the attention to detail here is too strong to dismiss. There’s always something in the background, always a new gag that seems to have fallen out of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker’s drawer. It even has a beautiful symbiosis of costume design and cinematography that, when combined with the soft ‘80s lighting, lets characters radiate the seething pastels they bury themselves in. That said, part of me laments how repetitive Greener Grass can feel in its last 50 minutes when compared to its oven-fresh first half. It’s too long regardless of absurdity. But it’s also a breath of fresh air, and I’d be damned if I said it wasn’t fun.

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