February 5, 2020

SHOWBUZZDAILY Sundance Film Festival Reviews: “Horse Girl,” “Happy Happy Joy Joy” & “Kajillionaire”


HORSE GIRL (Netflix – February 7):  Every one of the four films Jeff Baena has directed had its premiere at Sundance, with Horse Girl following Life After Beth, Joshy and The Little Hours.  It’s an impressive accomplishment for a filmmaker who hasn’t made a particular commercial or critical breakout hit.  Horse Girl may have been intended to change the latter, as it’s a considerably more serious project than the previous three.  Co-written with star Alison Brie, it’s the story of Sarah (Brie) a young woman who has a reasonably cozy life living with roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan) and working at a crafts store with Joan (Molly Shannon).  But Sarah has a family history of schizophrenia and depression, and there are hints that she may have had episodes in the past, particularly in the reactions she gets when she shows up at a local stable, where the proprietors (Toby Huss and Lauren Weedman) and students clearly want nothing to do with her.  Sarah becomes increasingly lost in her own mind, manic and prone to conspiracy theories.  Baena and Brie have their fingers on a compelling situation, and Brie’s performance in the lead has real emotional substance.  But they get lost too, determined not just to depict Sarah’s dreams and fixations but to leave a fantasy avenue open for her to be the sole chosen one recognizing a hidden truth.  The result undercuts itself, gimmicky when it would be more powerful to be plain.  (The festival’s The Father is a more successful version of what Horse Girl attempts here, planting its audience into the mind of a damaged protagonist.)  Horse Girl‘s embrace of magical realism blocks what it accomplishes when it’s at its best.

HAPPY HAPPY JOY JOY: THE REN & STIMPY STORY (no distrib):  Documentarians Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood set out to make a straightforward account of the seminal Nickelodeon animated series Ren & Stimpy, an amazing, borderline insane auteurist work created and run by John Kricfalusi that broke apart the idea of what television animation could be, and set the template for what would become the wildly successful Adult Swim type of adult-oriented cartoon.  There was plenty of story to tell, because Kricfalusi was very much in the mold of the Difficult Genius, unwilling to compromise on his vision whether his opponents were network executives or his own colleagues.  This led to Kricfalusi and his company Spumco being fired from Ren & Stimpy in its second season (it continued with other producers through Season 5 but was generally considered never again to have reached the heights of those initial episodes).  Cicero and Easterwood had access to just about everyone who worked on those Spumco seasons, and they provide fascinating detail about the good and the bad of their experiences, from the high of helping to create a milestone in their field, to the stress of working with an ill-tempered, exacting perfectionist.  When the documentary was already well into production, however, the filmmakers’ job became far more complicated, as a story broke that Kricfalusi had engaged in ugly relationships with underage girls, encouraging them to live with him.  It’s a subject the directors couldn’t ignore, but it doesn’t fit easily with the rest of the film, especially since many of the interviews had been conducted before the accounts were published.  Happy Happy, a first-rate Hollywood documentary, is grafted on to an account of an important, disturbing additional story that doesn’t receive the depth it would have required in its own right.  That’s not ideal, but the film is still well worth seeing for the tale it originally meant to tell.

KAJILLIONAIRE (A24 – TBD):  Miranda July is as representative a Sundance figure as any, with the films Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future to her credit.  Her work has quirky touches and an “indie” feel, but also a concern with recognizable relationships.  Both are on display in Kajillionaire, which is set in an unglamorous Los Angeles.  The central characters are a family of extremely small-time grifters:  Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger) and their oddly-named daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood).  In the course of a con, they come across Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who’s intrigued by the idea of helping out with one of their schemes.  But who’s conning whom?  The real stakes of the game turn out to be the heart of Old Dolio, a young woman who’s lived in such a bubble with her parents that she knows little about outside life.  Kajillionaire may seem at first like a collection of odd touches (the family lives in a space where they pay low rent–when they pay at all–because industrial foam leaks from the walls every few hours, and they clean it off before it can damage the rest of the property), and yet July has a firm grasp on the emotions driving the characters, especially Old Dolio and Melanie.  The seemingly casual plotting comes to a surprisingly acute point, all leading to one of the more moving conclusions of any Sundance narrative this year.  The cinematography by Sebastian Wintero and production design by Sam Lisenco create a very particular vision of Los Angeles, gritty and also capable of leaps into the unexpected.  The cast is at one with July’s unique worldview, with Wood especially notable as the story’s slowly awakening center.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."