February 2, 2020

SHOWBUZZDAILY Sundance Reviews: “The Nest,” “Wendy” & “Sylvie’s Love”


THE NEST (no distrib):  Sean Durkin’s first feature since 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene presents its emotions with such high-intensity beams that it often feels as though the film is going to slip into the thriller or even horror genre, but it’s actually just a family drama.  Set in the Thatcher-era 1980s, its plot is put into motion when the British-born Rory (Jude Law), who moved to the US and married Allison (Carrie Coon), together raising her daughter Sam (Oona Roche) and their son Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell), gets the itch to move the family to England, where he’s sure that he can roar into the fast lane of a financial industry that’s feeling the benefits of lowered government regulations.  Rory practices the belief that one has to act rich to get rich, and he rents a huge manor house outside London, even though they can’t afford to furnish much of the place.  Tensions rise as Rory walks a high wire at the office, while becoming progressively more estranged from his family, who are themselves suffering from isolation in that looming, mostly empty house, and the stress of remaking their lives.  In retrospect, nothing all that dramatic happens in The Nest (an unapproved teen party is about as wild as things get), but Durkin cranks up the lies and resentments so that it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if a ghost showed up or acts of violence occurred.  Law gives his fullest big-screen performance in quite a while, and Coon has her biggest feature showcase to date.  As good as the acting is, though, The Nest is dominated by the mood set by Durkin and his cinematographer (Matyas Erdely, who shot the extraordinary Son of Saul) and production designer (James Price), who turn straightforward settings into territory for nightmares.  The Nest doesn’t have the grabby story hook that Martha Marcy May Marlene did, and some were complaining that its tone was “cold,” but while it’s unreeling, it holds you in its grip.

WENDY (Searchlight-February 28):  Benh Zeitlin is another filmmaker who’s been absent for a while, since 2012’s Beasts Of the Southern Wild, which flew all the way to Best Picture, Director and Actress Oscar nominations.  Southern Wild felt truly original when it premiered, and the announcement that Zeitlin would return with an updated version of Peter Pan sounded exciting.  But Wendy, it turns out, is Peter Pan done almost exactly in the style of Beasts of the Southern Wild.  There’s the same rural aesthetic of authenticity mixed with rough lyricism, the same dialogue written mostly in argot, and in Wendy (Devin France), a heroine much like the daughter in Southern Wild.  In this rendition, Wendy is the daughter of a small-town diner owner who sees other children jump the railroad to ride to some mysterious location out of town, and one day she does the same with her two younger brothers, encountering Peter (Yashua Mack).  The visuals are certainly unlike any Peter Pan that’s come before, as Neverland is a village barely carved out of a wilderness on a volcanic island, and there’s nonstop energy.  The plot, although different in its particulars, is surprisingly faithful to the basic arc that we all know, with the themes of growing up accentuated by the fact that in this Neverland, time stops for some, while others become very old.  Zeitlin, however, has a tough time combining grittiness with a sense of magic, even though surreal events occur, and with a plot that’s difficult to follow (and dialogue that’s often hard to even understand), Wendy feels both too rarefied for a family audience, and too child-like for adults.  If Southern Wild had never existed, the style of Wendy might be striking enough to find an audience.  But by failing to leave his own stylistic Neverland, it feels like Zeitlin has taken a step backward here.

SYLVIE’S LOVE (no distrib):  Eugene Ashe’s romance takes an interesting approach to telling a story about African-Americans in the 1960s:  it more or less ignores issues of race.  In the Q&A after the film screened, he explained that he wanted black audiences to be able to experience the kind of pure entertainment that only existed for white audiences of the day.  The aesthetics of Sylvie’s Love are also decisively retro to those films, with scenes shot on old-time Hollywood backlots and with a cast that is gleamingly presented at just about all times.  The result, though, is a reminder that the soap operas of that era were often bland and predictable–and only redeemed, in the latter days of the studio system, by the glamour and charisma of the leads.  That’s the case here, as we follow jazz musician Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha, who also produced) and Sylvie (a radiant Tessa Thompson), the daughter of a record store owner (played by Lance Reddick) and an etiquette teacher (Erica Gimpel), whose ambitions lie in producing television.  Sylvie and Robert flirt and fall for each other, and there comes a point where she’s keeping a very big secret from him until, years later, the two inevitably meet again.  It’s all watchable enough, and it certainly proves Ashe’s point that a movie-movie like this can center around characters of any race, but unlike, say, Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, which used Hollywood melodrama conventions of the same era to create commentary about the films it was recalling, Ashe seems to be content with pure imitation.  He accomplishes that beautifully, with particular kudos due to costume designer Phoenix Mellow, production designer Mayne Berke, and cinematographer Declan Quinn.  Sylvie’s Love has yet to find a studio home, but when it does, the question will be whether it can appeal to an audience younger than those who remember the films it loves from their original release.

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."