Distressing memories are at the heart of all three Sundance films: “Exhibiting Forgiveness,” “Ponyboi,” and “Stress Positions”—in the US Dramatic Competition. Each work approaches the subject in unique fashion, through art, sex, and memoir—and are led by tremendous turns from their stars. These are films that are difficult to shake, yet, whose residue is not unwelcomed.
“Why isn’t Andre Holland in this,” is a question I often find myself asking. Though very few actors of his generation have been as consistently magnetic, sensual, and soulful as him, he has often occupied supporting roles (“High Flying Bird” being a major exception). “Exhibiting Forgiveness,” artist turned writer/director Titus Kaphar’s visceral and raw debut feature, allows Holland the opportunity to take center stage. It’s a chance he nails, landing, quite possibly, the best performance of his career.
In “Exhibiting Forgiveness,” Holland is Tarrell, a successful painter and a loving father to his son Tre (Daniel Michael Barriere) and a supportive husband to his singer/songwriter wife Aisha (Andra Day). Lately, however, nightmares so traumatic they cause him to wake up gasping for air have upended Tarrell’s life. To cope, he paints his dreams. When his father La’Ron (a sensational John Earl Jelks) returns, now clean and sober after decades of drug abuse, Tarrell learns how there are some wounds the canvas cannot heal.
It takes twenty minutes or so for Kaphar’s script to bring these elements together before arriving at its true motivation: This is a powerful film about the limits of forgiveness, and the ways religion is often misused as a tool for total redemption, no matter the sin. Despite Tarrell’s mother Joyce (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor does wonders with some on-the-nose monologues) wanting her son to absolve La’Ron of the abuse he committed, Tarrell struggles to fulfill her wish.
As father and son, Jelks and Holland are a combustible pair, made more explosive by the film’s deft compositions—cinnamon and marigold lighting—and Kaphar’s patient lens. The director allows scenes to play out, quietly observing each actor finding some way to hide broken memories. Holland’s angular face becomes a site of ache, helplessness and frustration in a film that isn’t interested in wiping a slate clean toward a feel-good ending, but in the complications that come from knowing that some things just can’t be forgotten, some hurts imprint upon the genes. “Exhibiting Forgiveness” is strikingly flawless.
A Latinx Intersex sex worker living in New Jersey, when Ponyboi (River Gallo) isn’t cruising the docks at night, he works at a laundromat owned by arrogant pimp and drug dealer Vinny (Dylan O’Brien), turning tricks in the establishment’s back room. Ponyboi and Vinny are also lovers, the latter cheating on his pregnant partner Angel (Victoria Pedretti). Vinny’s petty scheming goes awry, however, when an established gangster accidentally overdoses in front of Ponyboi on the laced drugs Vinny has been undercooking. With gangster’s cash in hand, Ponyboi must choose between either returning home to his dying father, who cast him out long ago, or high tail it with a mysterious cowboy (Murray Bartlett) toward Las Vegas.
When the director Esteban Arango’s “Ponyboi” is humming, it’s an inventive crime-thriller. Gallo, who’s also the film screenwriter, is exhilarating as the sex worker. They not only carves out pained moments of soul-crushing humiliation but also finds space to be more than a victim weighed down by memories of rejection. There is also a farcical element to this hardened crime picture; Gallo knows exactly where to lay a joke, and O’Brien as Vinny is the beneficiary of his screenwriter’s sharp comedic mind. There are gentle scenes too, such as Ponyboi using a broom stick to perform a cover of “I’m On Fire” opposite his tender cowboy.
The direction here by Arango is a marked improvement over his first film “Blast Beat,” a work whose sheen often grated against its heavy metal subject matter. Here, Arango crafts gritty set pieces where the muck can be felt and the neon can be smelled. This film knows exactly what it wants to be until it doesn’t. It lacks a final act, careening from hearty retribution to shiny wish fulfillment before providing an unnecessary explanation to its central metaphor. Though a shortcoming, the tattered final five minutes aren’t enough to erase the film’s many enjoyments: “Ponyboi” is a tremendous machine of guts and resiliency.
“Stress Positions” is a film I’ve given myself time to think about: Director Theda Hammel’s Brooklyn-set pandemic satire is a dense, witty text told from the perspective of Karla (an attuned Hammel) about the arrival of Bahlul (Qaher Harhash), a Moroccan male model living with his gay uncle Terry (John Early) following a falling out with his religiously conservative mother. On its face, the premise sounds quite serious. And yet, the inspired, side-splitting results are anything but dour.
This is a film intrigued by the ownership of story. Consider how Karla is still clearly peeved that her partner Vanessa (Amy Zimmer) retooled Karla’s story for modest publishing profits or the device of Karla providing voiceover to her own story and to Bahlul’s recollections of the past. Through her voice we come to wonder where fact and fiction collide, while contemplating the limits of social consciousness, when the consciousness is only self fulfilling.
“Stress Positions” is not only a New York COVID film—sometimes reyling on dated gags that’ll probably lose their edge in a few more years—it’s also a distinctly queer and trans film. It’s as the latter where Hammel and Faheem Ali’s script shines, following threads Hammel has previously explored on her NYMPHOWARS podcast. Through these unlikable characters, people like Terry, who have adopted progressive rhetoric with a crassness akin to fast fashion, the filmmakers critique the self-centered, vapid politics of its Brooklyn queer community. Even when the plotting becomes a tad thin, these piercing satirical zingers land with uncommon precision by way of Hammel’s deft comedic touch and slippery dramatic persona.
Most of all, the reason I’ve thought about “Stress Positions” for days is because of Hammel’s assured visual language. There is concealment here, wound tighter through masking, performing, and surveillance. There’s a shot where Terry pulls a hidden camera from the wall that is literally a projection of a man who has spent the majority of the film being a projection of moralism, which speaks to Hammel’s keen voice for interrogating hypocrisy. “Stress Positions” may not be completely legible for some, but for others, it’ll be clear that with her debut film, Hammel has totally and permanently shifted the genric mechanics of the satire.