The Particular Urgency of Sundance’s ‘Issue’ Films

With the 2020 presidential election approaching, this year’s festival featured titles that stressed activism through art.

As much as The Glorias may be a dramatization of Steinem’s life, it’s also meant to be a rousing call to action. (Dan McFadden)

PARK CITY, Utah—The 2020 election loomed large over the first half of the Sundance Film Festival, as movies with galvanizing political messages dominated the lineup. Issue-focused films are nothing new, but at a festival that thrives on the spirit of niche filmmaking, the prevalence of stories and programming about ripped-from-the-headlines causes made for an energizing change of pace. Given the annual event’s reputation as a dependable bellwether for the year in independent cinema, such films could signify a potential wave of policy-driven, urgent stories to come.

The Glorias, an unconventional biopic based on the life of the women’s-rights activist Gloria Steinem, plans to give away its profits to a Steinem-chosen fund dedicated to women’s issues. Directed by Julie Taymor (Frida), the film features much of Taymor’s signature maximalist flair: There are animated interludes as well as archival clips from significant moments in feminist history, plus scenes set on a bus in which the younger and older iterations of Steinem interact across time and space. To further blend her visual fantasies with reality, Taymor had planned on closing the film with footage of the real Steinem reacting to Hillary Clinton’s victory on Election Night 2016.

But Taymor wanted to end The Glorias on an uplifting note, so Steinem’s solemn reception of Clinton’s loss wound up on the cutting-room floor. Instead, she uses a clip from the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., in which Steinem encourages the crowd to resist President Donald Trump and his policies. It’s an invigorating sequence, one that makes clear the true message of the biopic: that as much as The Glorias may be a dramatization of Steinem’s life, it’s also meant to be a rousing call to action.

The Assistant, meanwhile, uses its small scale to tremendous effect. The drama tracks a day in the life of Jane (played by Ozark’s Julia Garner), an entry-level employee who works for an unseen, unnamed Hollywood executive, who will inevitably remind viewers of Harvey Weinstein. The documentarian and first-time narrative filmmaker Kitty Green directed the film—which Vulture called “the first great movie about Me Too”—like a thriller: Jane spends her long workday trapped inside a Midtown Manhattan office, fulfilling questionable tasks for her boss that hint at his predatory practices. She cleans his couch, delivers a new hire to a meeting with him at a hotel, and quietly returns an earring she finds to a woman who had stopped by for a rendezvous with him earlier in the week. The film keenly demonstrates the way abusive behavior can be kept hidden, even protected. Jane’s suspicious, but she’s operating in a world in which no one else has reported a thing.

The Assistant uses its small scale to tremendous effect. (Ty Johnson / Bleecker Street)

The movie—which will donate 10 percent of its profits to the New York Women’s Foundation—treats the issue of workplace harassment and sexual discrimination as serious and scary, not sensational. After one of the festival screenings, the programming staff invited the labor and women’s-rights activist Ai-jen Poo to join Green and Garner onstage to talk about the issues explored in the film. To Poo, The Assistant’s choice to observe a character with little power helped capture the feeling of “witnessing and bearing a thousand cuts.”

The drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always tackles a similarly heavy subject: that of an unwanted pregnancy. In her film, the writer-director Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats) follows Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a teenager from Pennsylvania who seeks a legal abortion in New York City. Like The Assistant, it examines the issue by keeping the story small and intimate, magnifying the desperation, dread, and distrust that Autumn feels in every moment of her journey.

Hittman, who attended Planned Parenthood’s annual reception at Sundance on Sunday and joined the organization’s “Storytelling as Activism” panel on Tuesday, doesn’t commend or condemn Autumn’s ultimate decision. Rather, she makes clear through her film that, in a time when the legality of abortion is being freshly debated, there is a dire need for a way to keep women out of danger.

Even with a robust slate of documentaries at the festival bringing current sociopolitical issues to the screen, narrative storytelling can raise the pressure in ways nonfiction cannot. Perhaps thanks to the prevalence of female directors at this year’s festival, women’s issues in particular took center stage in a crowded field of timely tales, including dramas about the opioid crisis (The Evening Hour), immigration rights (I Carry You With Me), LGBTQ representation (Uncle Frank, Kajillionaire), and more. Sundance once tried to avoid such topicality. “We stay free of politics … We don’t want to be tied into the current political cycle,” the actor and Sundance founder Robert Redford told The New York Times in 2017, when the festival began days before Trump took office. “That would be a terrible mistake, if we start to drive the story, when our whole mission is to support filmmakers who have stories they want to tell.” As it turns out, when another election is on the horizon, those stories become innately political.