The Sundance Film Festival: Day Three

Thursday, January 31, 2019 - 5:00pm

NOSELL

"Where’s My Roy Cohn?"

A heavy, jam-packed third day here at Sundance. I (almost) got the bus system down, met some more cinephiles and Michigan alums and learned how to structure my eating schedule: Find the cheapest places possible (coffee shops, Subway, Five Guys) and chomp on the go.

From Sunday afternoon to night, I watched three queer-themed films: two coming-of-age stories — the enjoyable but inessential “Adam” and the dull “To the Stars” — and a documentary, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” Though the documentary was the best of the trio, “Adam” had the most engaged, enthusiastic audience. After the credits rolled, the crowd was treated to a quick Q&A session with the director and some of the cast from “Adam.”

(A quick note on walkouts before we get to the films: People ideally go to Sundance to support the artists and their work. But when someone walks out of the theater — sometimes at the beginning of the film, most times in the middle and confusingly right before the very end — it’s disheartening, entitled and antithetical to the spirit of the festival. The only valid exception for a walkout, in any given situation, is if a film is too graphic or triggering. But the walkouts I’ve observed so far, mostly in the press screenings, seem to be based more on the film’s quality and pacing than its content. Witnessing multiple walkouts during “Give Me Liberty,” “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” and “To the Stars” was distracting and aggravating, to say the least.)

‘Adam’:

“Adam,” the directorial debut of “Transparent” producer Rhys Ernst, is the kind of movie that will polarize audiences before it even comes out in theaters. Its risqué premise involves the titular character (Nicholas Alexander, “Good Girls”), a cisgender straight male, posing as a trans man in order to attract an older queer woman.

The controversy behind performing a marginalized identity is a well-known hot-button topic in Hollywood, with the intense backlash against Jared Leto and Scarlett Johansson’s attempts at playing trans characters being a pretty clear indicator that the LGBTQ+ community is adamant about proper representation in film. But even with its provocative plot, “Adam” doesn’t let its protagonist get away that easy, often forcing him to reconcile the inherently problematic nature of lying about his gender identity.

Additionally, the film, adapted by Ariel Schrag from her 2014 novel, makes plenty of room for actual queer and trans actors to play three-dimensional characters whose gender and sexual orientations aren’t the only things that define them. Funny and even touching in parts, “Adam” flips the coming-out narrative on its head, playing with our preconceived notions about gender and sexuality through the lens of a naive teenager. It may not be the most groundbreaking nor inspired queer film, but it’s a start.

The film opens on a house party during the weirdly nostalgic year of 2006, where Adam, a bumbling, gangly high schooler, hesitates to make a move on a girl. Frustrated with his inability to get out of his comfort zone and the confines of suburban life, Adam decides to spend the summer with his gung-ho older sister Casey (Margaret Qualley, in her second film at Sundance following “Native Son”), who has thrust herself in the New York City lesbian and trans scene. It’s at the Manhattan Pride Parade that Adam sees the free-spirited Gillian (India Menuez, “Nocturnal Animals”) and later meets at a post-Pride function, only to lie to her about his age and his gender in order to impress her.

Once the initial discomfort of Adam pretending to be trans subsides, “Adam” unveils itself to be a fun albeit slight cringe comedy with hints of social commentary regarding the obliviousness of the straight world interacting with the queer world. In order to fit the part of a trans person and maintain Gillian’s attraction, Adam studies and memorizes every possible facet of the trans experience, from watching hormone tutorial videos to lying about which doctor did his top surgery.

Seeing Adam struggle to adjust to this charade is both the film’s greatest and weakest asset. It propels the action forward, but it’s only a matter of time before he’s found out. During one squirm-inducing sequence, for example, Adam finds himself at a women-only BDSM party with Gillian and hides his face with a leather fetish hood when he spots Casey at the venue. It’s a silly, delightfully absurd moment, but also representative of the film’s message. Through his exposure to a marginalized community, Adam begins to understand what’s it like to wear a mask, to hide parts of himself in order to conform with the rest of society.

Again, the concept of educating a straight cis male about what it’s like to be trans may not resonate so strongly with those who feel that actual queer people should be relegated to the center of the story as opposed to the background. There are certain moments in the first act that will definitely test people’s tolerance of the subject matter, such as when Adam makes out with an intoxicated 30-year-old woman in the bathroom of a gay nightclub and, mistaking Adam for a trans man, she fetishizes him, saying that she loves “tr*nny cock.” 

Notwithstanding these cringe-worthy scenes, Ernst, a trans filmmaker himself, does a solid job of crafting queer and trans characters who exist beyond Adam’s world. Qualley, a master Movie Crier, delivers a searing performance as Adam’s sister, oscillating from supportive to combative with near seamless grace. In his acting debut, University alum Leo Sheng ‘17 shines as Casey’s roommate Ethan, who embraces Adam as an unlikely friend and holds him accountable when he’s in the wrong. “Pose”’s breakout star MJ Rodriguez makes the most out of her all-too-brief cameo during the film’s climax.

If anything, the major flaws of “Adam” lie more within its mediocre script. While there are some genuinely clever quips and meaningful lines of dialogue, Schrag’s screenplay struggles to stir up enough compelling insight into Adam’s journey from clueless to conscientious ally. The constant references to 2006 pop culture — flip phones, popped collars, M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water” — somehow feel more fleshed out than the main storyline, which seems to favor awkward humor and misunderstanding over a well-developed dissection of Adam’s incompetence.

Even with these faults, “Adam” compensates for its perfectly adequate execution with a consistent amount of charm. If viewers are willing to accept its controversial plot without dismissing it at face value, it might further the conversation on what LGBTQ+ inclusion could look like in the film industry. Just don’t go into it expecting to be the most exceptional queer film of the year. Instead, take it for what it is: an enjoyable, competent and entertaining coming-of-age story.

‘Where’s My Roy Cohn?’:

In Tony Kushner’s acclaimed play “Angels in America,” Roy Cohn is portrayed as a cruel and closeted lawyer dying of AIDS, haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. While his role is technically fictionalized, it’s not too far off from the actual Cohn, who, according to Mark Tyrnauer (“Studio 54”)’s new documentary “Where’s My Roy Cohn?,” spent the majority of his lengthy career lying not only to the public, but to himself.

A revealing, fascinating portrait of one of America’s most notorious political fixers, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” highlights the trajectory of Cohn’s rise and eventual fall from fame, starting with his crucial role in the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the 1950s and ending with his HIV diagnosis in the late 1980s. Through striking archival footage and in-depth interviews with Cohn’s closest associates (including one with the recently indicted Roger Stone), the documentary pulls no punches in critiquing Cohn for his ruthlessness, corruption, hypocrisy and manipulative influence over the political landscape during the second half of the 20th century.

Those unfamiliar with Cohn’s story will appreciate the comprehensive social and historical background used to contextualize his ascent to power. Those familiar with his story might dismiss it as just a visual extraction of Cohn’s Wikipedia page. Either way, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” holds its titular subject accountable for his immoral crimes against American law, as well as for enabling controversial figures — specifically Joseph McCarthy, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump — to assume leadership in the United States.

Like the best kinds of villains, Cohn’s upbringing was integral to his cynical attitude and abrasive personality. Cohn’s mother Dora treated him like a prince, which one of the interviewees of the documentary believed to be how he inherited a lack of ethics. The financial failure of his uncle Bernie Marcus’s bank during the Great Depression also motivated Cohn to succeed in order to rectify the shame his uncle brought onto their family.

After establishing himself as a hotshot lawyer in the early ’50s with the execution of the Rosenbergs, Cohn received the respect of Joseph McCarthy, later becoming his second-hand man during the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings. A thread the documentary weaves into this part of Cohn’s life — and later on after the downfall of McCarthyism — is the irony of his words juxtaposed against his actions. Whenever someone asked an implicit question about his closeted gayness during the Lavender Scare, for example, Cohn would consistently deflect, spinning the question back onto whoever was confronting him with vicious eloquence.

As Cohn ingratiated himself deeper into the seedy underbelly of American politics, the documentary asserts that he became even more of an enigmatic and hypocritical figure. During the ’60s and ’70s, Cohn continued to deny what was readily clear as true regarding his queerness and his legal representation of members of the Italian mafia. With each lie Cohn tells throughout the documentary, a very apparent piece of evidence is presented, often with an undercurrent of mockery. For instance, Cohn rejected the fact that he received plastic surgery, which is then followed by stock images of Cohn’s facial scars from a very obvious facelift. When the documentary isn’t busy eviscerating Cohn, it mines humor from his idiosyncrasies, including his strange love for tanning and stuffed frogs.

Although the unfolding of Cohn’s career is captivating enough to watch, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” occasionally strays on a structural level. The constant time jumps, especially when the doc cuts from the ’50s to the ’20s, are constructed in a way that muddies up the pacing. Every interviewee’s name and their relationship to Cohn appear whenever they’re on screen, a strange editing choice that isn’t particularly necessary since we learn who they are in the very beginning. These are minor errors, though, compared to the sheer breadth of information we’re given about the evil psychology that dictated Cohn’s life.

One might ask why a Roy Cohn documentary is even necessary for the year 2019. Tyrnauer, fortunately, posits a strong case. Cohn was perhaps the most effective perpetrator of “un-truth,” wherein he practiced aggressive rhetoric and malicious persuasion tactics to get what he wanted, regardless of whether or not what he was arguing was fact. This, of course, is meant to parallel with the current age of “fake news,” provoked by President Trump, whose personal lawyer during the ’70s and ’80s just so happened to be Cohn. The title of the documentary itself is a reference to a quote from Trump when he was unable to escape the Russia investigation in Jan. 2018. Both Trump and Cohn not only share the same tendency to fabricate lies without a second thought, but also reinforce the Svengalian myths they make about themselves and those who attack them.            

The biggest takeaway from “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” is that Cohn was a contradiction of a human being: he was a self-hating Jew, a legal executioner, a thief of justice. But above all, he was someone who was willing to bury the truth in order to survive, something that is still representative of the power-hungry figures who control the infrastructure of American society today.

‘To the Stars’:

Kara Hayward and Liana Liberato were made to be in a film together. The two young actresses delivered wonderful, taut performances in their breakout roles — Hayward in “Moonrise Kingdom” and Liberato in “Trust” — cementing their promising talent through their complex portrayals of women coming of age. It’s a shame then that their first movie as a duo, Martha Stephens’s boring, forgettable and frustratingly hollow melodrama “To the Stars,” is a major dud in their rising careers.

Set in a quaint small town in 1950s Oklahoma, “To the Stars” begins with the bookish Iris Deerborne (Hayward) floating in a body of water, looking up at the dreamlike night sky. This river she swims in provides a safe haven away from her destructive household, as we learn about early on through her dysfunctional dynamic with her alcoholic mother Francie (Jordana Spiro, “Ozark”) and emotionally absent father (a wasted Shea Whigham, “Homecoming”). On the way to school one fateful morning, she meets sprightly city girl Maggie (Liberato), who protects her from a group of belligerent boys driving by. Through their blossoming intimate friendship, Iris learns to live life a little more on the edge, but the turbulent collision of her world with Maggie’s engenders some dangerous consequences.

The film’s elegant black-and-white aesthetic adds a refreshing spin on the period piece subgenre, but that’s perhaps the only element worth praising. Along with its stiltled acting, ham-fisted dialogue and sluggish pacing, “To the Stars” fails to imbue any substance within the plain, unseasoned texture of its story. It’s easy to understand why the two girls would be drawn to one another — strained relationships with their parents, not falling in line with the conventions of womanhood, Iris is a shy nerd and Maggie a bold extrovert. Liberato and Hayward manage to make the most out of their half-baked characters and complement each other well, but their underdeveloped subplots unfortunately bog down their chemistry.

Similar to Iris, Maggie quietly suffers living with her Time magazine photographer father Gerald (a miscast Tony Hale, “Veep”) and homemaker mother Grace (an underused Malin Akerman, “Billions”). The more time she spends with Iris, the more animosity she stirs among her new classmates, including the popular, arrogant cheerleader Clarissa Dell (Madisen Beaty, “The Fosters”). Clarissa is one of several one-dimensional supporting characters in “To the Stars,” but her flat delivery of insults and surface-level hostility toward Maggie and Iris renders her as an embarrassingly shapeless antagonist. Akin to Clarissa is Iris’s mother Francie, whose gross flirtation with Iris’s way-too-perfect love interest Jeff (Lucas Jade Zumann, “20th Century Women”) and alcohol addiction oversimplify what could have been a melancholic character study on the emotional divides between mothers and daughters.

The first half of the film is at best mediocre and at worst tedious. But it’s in the absurd final act that “To the Stars” really misses the mark. To compensate for the lack of dramatic tension driving the story, there’s an almost out-of-nowhere conflict that’s shoehorned into the last 20 minutes, a romantic subplot between Maggie and the town’s depressed hairdresser Hazel Atkins (Adelaide Clemens, “Rectify”). Their relationship is vaguely foreshadowed in one scene during the film’s second half and then, toward the climax, their unexpected consummation sparks outrage and violence from the townsfolk. The issue with this isn’t just its clumsy execution, but the fact that it’s yet another queer love story, an uninteresting one at that, that ends in tragedy, exploited for the sole purpose of helping Iris realize her potential.

By ending on a mixed note, “To the Stars” reinforces itself as a major letdown in the canon of female-led coming-of-age-stories. Liberato and Hayward still have plenty to offer for future projects, but this one unfortunately isn’t worth recognizing.