January 30, 2021

SHOWBUZZDAILY Virtual Sundance Reviews: “Passing,” “Street Gang” & “Mass”


PASSING:  The actress Rebecca Hall has taken a big swing in her writing/directing debut.  Her film Passing, based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, embraces ambitious, difficult themes with sensitivity and expertise.  The story concerns Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), one-time teen friends who run into each other after several years apart, when Irene is shocked to discover that Clare has been living as a white woman, to the point of having an openly racist husband (Alexander Skarsgard) with no idea who his wife really is.  The women resume their friendship, but Irene has been thrown off her axis, uncertain about the things she’s taken for granted despite her own prosperous life and loving husband (Andre Holland, superb).  Hall charts the many undercurrents and implications of the bond between the two women, and although race is at the center of the story, the nature of friendship, marriage, parenthood and sexuality come into play.  The performances by Thompson and Negga are remarkably layered, capable of suggesting a half-dozen subtle feelings in a single close-up, and may very well find them in the 2021 Oscar conversation.  Along with Holland and Skarsgard, Bill Camp provides strong support as a friend of both women.  The look and feel of Passingbelies Hall’s lack of experience behind the camera, gorgeously shot (by Edu Grau, whose films include A Single Man) in black and white and in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and with assured skill in all other technical respects, including the production design by Nora Mendis, costumes by Marci Rodgers and score by Devonte Hynes.  Passing may not be the crowd-pleaser that CODA is, and isn’t likely to garner anything like that film’s record-breaking distribution deal, but it’s the best kind of Sundance discovery, a film that takes risks and pulls them off.

STREET GANG:  HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET (HBO Max):  A loving documentary about the history of the iconic children’s education series.  Marilyn Agrelo’s film (from the book by Michael Davis) is packed with marvelous clips and behind-the-scenes footage, and on this 50th anniversary of the series premiere, it’s a worthy reminder of how groundbreaking the show’s mix of teaching, entertainment and inclusiveness was.  There are occasional mentions of controversies related to the show, but largely the film is a workmanlike celebration.  (Notably HBO, the current home of the series, produced the film and there isn’t even a mention of the fact that new episodes of what was once the very emblem of public television are now largely available via a paid subscription service.)  Street Gang is built around the contributions of Joan Ganz Cooney, Jim Henson, composer Joe Raposo, and long-standing members of the cast and crew, and it makes a particular point of reclaiming the work of director Jon Stone, who never received the public attention of the other founders of the creative team.  Those who grew up with Sesame Street will find the beautifully preserved footage and memories delightful, especially the fascinating saga of how its seemingly inevitable elements actually came together, while those who want a grittier view of the classic may have to do some further research.

MASS:  Even more than recent examples like One Night In Miami and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fran Kranz’s Mass feels like a filmed play–although in fact it was written directly for the screen.  Almost all of its 110-minute length is set in a single small space, much of the time around one table, in the function room of an Episcopal church.  There are four people in that room, and their gathering is emotionally charged:  two are the parents of a teenager killed in a high school massacre (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton), and the other two are the parents of the shooter (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd).  They have come together in an attempt to find forgiveness and healing by sincerely listening to one another.  This is Kranz’s directing debut and first produced script, and beyond the obvious emotion and force of the situation, it can’t be said that he’s found all that much new or unexpected in the circumstances, either in terms of the specific story or the emotions one would expect to see.  A project like this, though, is largely about the actors who must shoulder the emotional baggage and enormous text, and this cast performs it to the hilt, pinpointing the transitions between politeness and wrenching memory, and between compassion, anger, grief and pain.  Dowd and Plimpton, in particular, are floods of powerful feeling.  Mass isn’t easy entertainment, and Kranz may overplay the religious overtones and indulge in too many endings.  The performances, however, make the effort worthwhile.


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."