The Best and Worst of Sundance 2015 (Documentary Edition)

The Sundance Film Festival draws to a close this weekend, but your film editor is already headed home from the land of snowy mountains, altitude headaches, crowded shuttles, and indie flicks galore. Because I managed to take in so many Sundance titles this year (34 total), we’re splitting our capsule review roundup into two parts; tomorrow we’ll look at the fest’s narrative films of note, while the focus today is on the documentary premieres and competition entrants. These 19 movies covered everything from sexual exploitation to famous faces to the movies themselves, with intelligence and grace; they (OK, most of them) are worth keeping an eye on in the months to come.

Still image from "How to Dance in Ohio"

THESE DOCUMENTARIES CERTAINLY MEAN WELL

How to Dance in Ohio

Alexandra Shiva’s documentary spotlights the Amigo Family Counseling center, which offers therapy to teens and adults on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum, as the staff and students prepare for their biggest social event to date: a spring formal. But that event is really just a clothesline for character sketches, snapshots of several day-to-day lives, and to that extent, the film is somewhat hit and miss. Scenes from a “life skills” class, where students learn such basics as how to start a conversation, provide a sobering look at exactly what we’re talking about when we’re talking about these disorders, and there’s a harrowing scene where one of the subjects, a nervous young woman named Jessica, desperately pleads with her employer to “understand” her after a disciplinary write-up. But it’s also a bit too twinkly and precious in spots, having trouble sustaining feature-length and viewer interest when dwelling solely in observation. It’s a valuable and likable film, but an oddly problematic one.

The Mask You Live In

This issue doc from writer/producer/director Jennifer Siebel Newsom and writer/producer/editor Jessica Cogden is a decidedly mixed bag. The topic is urgently important: how conventional notions of masculinity have become toxic, traced with clarity to such societal ills as rape, abuse, bullying, and mass shootings. The statistics are eye-opening, moving stories are told, and frankly, as a parent, it made me very anxious. But the thesis occasionally overreaches (an indiscriminately wide net is cast across pop culture, for example), and the filmmaking is frustrating formulaic, relying too heavily on the little tics that have become far too prevalent in activist documentaries. (“And each of us can do our part…” goes the on-screen text, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s a website you can visit!) There’s much to admire and learn; you just wish it didn’t come in such a well-worn package.