Sundance 2017: 'Crown Heights' + 'Brigsby Bear'

Lakeith Stanfield in Crown Heights (2017)

The Sundance Film Festival features two films with wildly different approaches to wrongful imprisonment, a true story reimagined in Crown Heights and a whimsical enchantment in Brigsby Bear.

Crown Heights

Director: Matt Ruskin
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Bill Camp
Rated: NR
Studio: Amazon
Year: 2017
US date: 2017-01-23 (Sundance Film Festival)

Brigsby Bear

Director: Dave McCary
Cast: Kyle Mooney, Claire Danes, Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear
Rated: NR
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Year: 2017
US date: 2017-01-23 (Sundance Film Festival)

As always, this year's Sundance Film Festival features movies addressing a range of political topics. Two films looking at wrongful imprisonment take wildly different approaches: the gritty Crown Heights draws inspiration from a true story, and Brigsby Bear offers a whimsical child's fantasy.

Since 10 April 1980, when a teenaged Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) was imprisoned for a murder he didn't commit, he's maintained a daily mantra: "Please don't let it be a cell." As Crown Heights begins, Colin is six years into his 15-years-to-life sentence. Each morning, his dreams of running on a beach in Trinidad, where he was born, give way to his current reality.

In recounting Colin's story, director Matt Ruskin keeps the flash to a minimum. News footage reminds us of the growing political preoccupation with mandatory minimum sentencing during the '80s and '90s. We see again that the effects of Ronald Reagan's "tough on crime" sentencing, leading to Bill Clinton's signing of the federal three-strikes bill in 1994, are devastating: communities are intimidated and those convicted are sent to prison without hope of release. The film shows how a staggering crime rate in early '80s New York City and a serious lack of legal representation doom Colin to a quick trial and mandatory minimum sentence. His case involves questionable police tactics, including the manufacturing of a "star witness" who was nowhere near the crime scene.

Prison nearly breaks Colin, who is consumed by bitterness over his sentencing and frustration over the difficulty and duration of filing appeals. He tries to educate himself on legal precedents and loopholes in the prison library, but he needs allies on the outside too. His friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha), also Trinidadian, assumes the lead role in exonerating Colin, but he struggles to find a competent, affordable lawyer to file the appeal. Still, he and another ally, Colin’s girlfriend Antoinette (Natalie Paul), devote themselves to the cause. When Carl’s exasperated wife asks him why he cares so much about helping Colin, he replies, “It could be me in there.”

Adapted from an episode of This American Life, Crown Heights employs a staggered narrative, cutting between Colin’s assimilation to prison life and Carl’s investigation outside. The segments presenting Colin's experience emphasize the subtleties of learning to survive inside, the psychic tolls of incarceration, and in particular, the effects of Colin's two years in solitary confinement.

As Colin finds ways to use his anger, pushing back against a system that can't acknowledge its mistakes or his innocence, the scenes following Carl's efforts aren’t nearly as involving. This story is the dry stuff of documentaries, and it clashes stylistically and emotionally with Colin’s primal struggle for survival. Watching Carl pour over legal briefs doesn't create the same sense of poignant urgency as watching Colin’s first awkward conjugal visit with Antoinette.

Still, Crown Heights is a powerful testament to the political gamesmanship, racial profiling, and social inequities that continue to shape the criminal justice system. "If Colin were imprisoned in Texas or Florida, he would have been dead long ago," observes William Robedee (Bill Camp), the lawyer who would eventually help to exonerate Colin. Even as this alarming assessment makes us think about the many other victims of this system who haven't found a way out, the movie focuses as well on those individuals working to resist and overcome.

Kyle Mooney in Brigsby Bear (2017)

The indie dramedy Brigsby Bear tackles the idea of unjust imprisonment with a sense of hopeful discovery and benevolence. It follows the adventures of James (Kyle Mooney), a 20-something man-child who loves a television show, Brigsby Bear Adventures. He has all 762 episodes recorded on VHS tapes and committed to memory. Each week, we see with James, Brigsby Bear and the Smile Sisters battle their arch-nemesis, the Sun Snatcher, for control of the universe and occasionally learn important lessons like, “Curiosity is bad,” and “Only touch your penis twice a day.”

If this sounds a bit different from Sesame Street, it’s because Brigsby Bear was personalized for James by his parents, Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams). James is the only person who has ever seen an episode of Brigsby Bear, a fact he finds most disconcerting when he is suddenly seized from Ted’s underground desert bunker and returned to the care of his biological parents in real-world Utah.

For all this dramatic set-up, Brigsby Bear makes you feel good all over. Yes, first time director Dave McCary goes too easy on James’s abductors, but the movie is about assimilation and acceptance, not crime and punishment. Despite the lessons of his favorite show, James is filled with curiosity and has a seemingly endless capacity for joy. (Think: Pee Wee Herman without the spastic mannerisms.)

As James embraces the possibilities of his new surroundings, he is embraced by a digital age that’s hungry for novelty. The inevitable uploads of old Brigsby Bear episodes to social media sites take on instant-cult status, and James suddenly has plenty of followers from his sister Aubrey’s (Ryan Simpkins) high school. Happily -- and maybe a little surprisingly -- he faces no bullying or cruelty, but only kindness: he's welcomed as slightly bizarre individual, an adorable throwback to an earlier and exceptionally polite time. When a girl tries to teach James the sexual ropes by putting her hand down his pants, James is courteous: “That feels very nice what you’re doing. Thank you!”

As cute as James seems, McCary never condescends to him. Yes, he is naïve and inexperienced, but he isn’t stupid. James’ journey to film a final Brigsby Bear adventure and defeat the Sun Snatcher is uplifting and sweet. If the movie is probably too intense for younger kids, it's perfect for adolescents and young adults. It offers an alternative to the brooding teenagers in Before I Fall, a chance to indulge your inner dork.

The movie walks a line between popular sentimentality and indie preciousness, thanks mostly to dark humor and Mooney's brilliant performance. His James is a legitimate artist, inspired by television to create visions of wonder and possibility. Brigsby Bear will reaffirm your belief in the positive powers of imagination.

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