Sundance 2018: ‘306 Hollywood’ + ‘Damsel’
Sibling directors Elan and Jonathan Bogarin deliver vastly different stories about the power of the past.
At their heart, 306 Hollywood and Damsel are wildly different ghost stories constructed by two pairs of sibling directors. More specifically, they're about the traces from our past that either inspire or torment us. For 306 Hollywood, those traces are treasured memories that refuse to release their hold on our hearts. For Damsel, the memories are dangerous and unreliable; remnants of the mistakes that we're doomed to repeat.
306 Hollywood is a delightful documentary from the brother and sister directing team of Elan and Jonathan Bogarin. The Bogarins also star in the film, which they describe as a "magical realist documentary". Each of these descriptors is appropriate, as the siblings begin a whimsical archaeological dig of their Grandmother Annette's house at 306 Hollywood in Newark, New Jersey. An assortment of archival home movies, audiotapes, and re-enactments bring the dormant house back to life while the siblings come to grips with their grandmother's passing.
It's unlikely you'll meet a more lovable and relatable character in cinema this year than Annette. For each of the last ten years of her 93-year life, Annette was interviewed for one hour by her film-obsessed grandchildren. These wide ranging interviews always consist of Annette sitting center frame and candidly answering a wide range of questions directly to camera. Sometimes she offers her personal philosophies on life, like her thoughts on outliving her husband and all of her friends. Other times she just ruminates about her career as a fashion designer back in the '50s.
When Annette dies after living at 306 Hollywood for 71 years, she leaves behind a house full of memories.
"How do you know what to keep and what to throw away?" the directors wonder.
In search of some way to quantify the emotional value of Annette's belongings, the directors approach several experts in fields ranging from funeral directors to museum curators. Inspired by the advice they receive, the siblings begin an exhaustive 11 month quest to catalog everything in the slumbering house.
While audiences will appreciate the quant simplicity of 306 Hollywood, people of a certain age will find it more than merely charming. Anyone who has ever buried a parent or grandparent understands the soul-crushing process of re-visiting a loved one's trash and treasure. 306 Hollywood tackles this thankless task with reverence, humor, and an almost scholastic zeal.
Witness the shrine of seven Band-Aid tins; six filled with coins and only one actually containing bandages. Join a fashion conservator as she examines Annette's designer dresses, documenting each stain and tear like it's a medical autopsy. Slowly, a picture forms, not only of Annette's possessions, but also the emotional value they held for her.
One scene, perhaps the best of Sundance 2018, finds Annette cajoled into wearing one of her old dresses. Well, she tries to wear it, anyway. Despite her exhaustive efforts, she can't fit her 80-year-old frame into the 50-year-old dress. Riotous laughter erupts as Annette, stripped down to her 'unmentionables', battles the unforgiving fabric. This scene, so emblematic of the power of 306 Hollywood, is an achingly human moment that captures the joy of living and the melancholy of loss.
306 Hollywood Rating: 8
Less successful in its approach is the absurdist Western, Damsel. The Zellner Brothers, David and Nathan, deliver plenty of quirk but little punch in this frontier tale filled with reprobates, rascals, and one adorable mini-horse named Butterscotch.
"Things are going to be shitty in new and fascinating ways," a disillusioned preacher (Robert Forster) advises a young man who's headed out West.
The young man is Henry (David Zellner), and he's craving a fresh start after the death of his wife in child birth. That the child isn't accompanying Henry on his journey across the country raises a few red flags about his character. Those red flags are practically glowing after Henry, now an alcoholic Parson, accepts a fistful of money to accompany a fancy fop named Samuel (Robert Pattinson) into the mountains to make his fiancée Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) an honest woman. Penelope has been kidnapped by two nefarious brothers and Samuel is obliged to liberate her, guns blazing if necessary.
Structurally, Damsel is a bit puzzling. What starts as one man's love-starved quest quickly morphs into an unexpected feminist commentary on self-reliance. Neither Samuel nor Penelope is quite what they seem at first, while Parson Henry starts pathetic and only grows more pitiable as things unravel. In essence, it's a story that shifts its focus from one main character to another mid-stream, like a twisted relay race, only much, much slower.
To say that Damsel is a slow burn assumes there was a spark present in the first place. None of these characters are capable of anchoring a stable emotional core. Parson Henry is a sniveling mess, Samuel is thoroughly unlikeable, and Penelope feels more like an ideological statement than a fully realized person. There's really no reason to care about any of them, which puts a huge burden on the script to be unique and attention grabbing.
Unfortunately, the script, also penned by the Zellner Brothers (Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, 2014), is only fitfully interesting. There are some entertaining sequences, as when Samuel finally tracks down his Penelope, or a well-meaning Indian named Zachariah Running Bear catastrophically botches a heroic rescue, but Damsel is mostly just miserable people tracking through the woods.
The Zellners certainly have some pointed thematic statements to make; namely that no fresh start can change who you are or placate the ghosts from your past. Still, Damsel lacks the audacity and humor needed to compensate for its structural shortcomings. It's gorgeous to look at, with its handsome Hollywood stars and sprawling Western vistas, but it feels more vacant than the Plains.
Damsel Rating: 8