Sundance Shines on the Bay with Locally Made Films

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Still from 'Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir' by James Redford. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute; photo by KPJR Films)

Forget the parka and the Airborne. You won’t need those clunky, waiting-in-winter-lines boots, either. Don’t bother looking for your business cards. Stop practicing your elevator pitch. Give your celebrity-spotting peripheral vision a rest.

You’re not going to Park City, Utah. This year, Sundance is coming to you.

Like so many film events in the last 10 months, the Sundance Film Festival is going virtual and rolling to the drive-in. The festival opens online this Friday, Jan. 28 and runs through Wednesday, Feb. 3 with ticketed movies and a slew of free talks, conversations, Q&As and panels.

Locally, the Roxie is one of 20 Sundance Satellite Screens around the country, and it concurrently presents 11 world premieres (and an international premiere) with Fort Mason Flix. If you’re lucky enough to score tickets, head to the dock of the bay, not the Mission.


Four Bay Area films are included in the Sundance lineup, and three of them—Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir and Try Harder!—screen at the Drive-in at Fort Mason. Amy Tan and Try Harder!, along with Peter Nicks’ Homeroom, face off in the U.S. Documentary Competition.

Should you opt not to be the first on your block to catch the world premieres, either in person or online, here’s a taste to whet your attitude for the theatrical run and/or TV broadcast later this year.

Rita Moreno at the 1975 Tony Awards, from 'Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It' by Mariem Pérez Riera. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It
Online and Fort Mason, Jan. 29

The self-deprecating title of this long-overdue American Masters portrait—Moreno joined the rarefied EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) club back in 1977—belies the obstacles and obstruction the beloved Puerto Rican star hurdled in her (still thriving) career. Filmmaker Mariem Pérez Riera told Current magazine that she hopes to leave audiences with the question, “What is the American dream, or what [are] the sacrifices that you take to have that American dream?”

Try Harder!
Online, Jan. 30; Fort Mason, Feb. 2

Top-rated Lowell High School might be ground zero for the American dream in San Francisco, if you agree that education is the launching pad to success. Debbie Lum’s fluid documentary eschews the breadth of the high school experience to focus on seniors navigating the college-application rat race in the throes of parental pressure, unrealistic expectations and half-formed ambitions. The myths and stereotypes about Asian-Americans—the film’s title is just barely tongue-in-cheek—get a thorough whacking in this Independent Lens production from the director of Single Asian Female.

Still from 'Try Harder!' by Debbie Lum. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute; photo by Mario Furloni)

Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir
Online and Fort Mason, Feb. 2

Born in Oakland to Chinese parents, Amy Tan channeled the complex experience of growing up first-generation American into The Joy Luck Club and other best-sellers. Transcending expectations and broaching uncomfortable subjects usually has a price, which Tan bravely delineates in the late Bay Area documentary maker James Redford’s last film. This film is further evidence of the welcome turn that PBS’ American Masters has taken in recent years from bland biography to incisive social commentary in line with the subject’s themes.

Online Jan. 29

East Bay doc maker Peter Nicks follows his unflinching verité studies of Oakland’s Highland Hospital (The Waiting Room) and police department (The Force) with this high-stakes foray into the blackboard jungle. Every school year is momentous everywhere, but 2019–2020 was off the charts for Oakland High seniors. The world they were preparing to matriculate into went (further) off the rails courtesy of Trump, the coronavirus and racist cops, calling into question the students’ chances—and strategies—for achieving their dreams.

Still from 'When We Were Bullies' by Jay Rosenblatt. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute; photo by Jeremy Rourke)

When We Were Bullies
Online, Jan. 28 in Documentary Shorts Program 2

In 1994, San Francisco experimental filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt debuted his first found-footage masterpiece, The Smell of Burning Ants, at Sundance. A devastating 21-minute evisceration of the routine and unquestioned brutality of male adolescence, it garnered a shelf’s worth of awards and pioneered a unique approach to first-person documentary.

The unforgettable heart of that film, at least for me, was a cowardly act the filmmaker had unthinkingly joined in back in fifth grade. Over the course of 36 rather uncomfortable minutes, When We Were Bullies excavates and examines that same long-ago incident through the lens of personal responsibility. Rosenblatt’s investigation is complicated, however, by his total awareness that the statute of limitations (as it were) on resolution, let alone reconciliation, might have expired.

There is much, much more in the Sundance program, notably the most-watched section of the festival, the U.S. Dramatic Competition. B.Y.O. popcorn.