By Lynn Venhaus

At the 27th Annual Sundance Film Festival, my two sons, Tim and Charlie, and I, were accepted as ushers for the fest. We had never been. They stayed for the duration, I was only there for a week. Tim called it the greatest time of his life — he saw 23 movies in 11 days, worked those screenings around his volunteer shifts. We look back on that time fondly. We were asked back – that doesn’t always happen, so we were grateful. But Charlie had moved to New York City two weeks after Sundance and began a career in advertising, and Tim returned to school to obtain a bachelor’s degree in cinema production. We’ve kept up with friends we made there, and are grateful we had that experience. I told Tim that I wanted to go back when he had a film accepted there — and that was a fun goal, but that dream died when he did, in 2018. I can go back as a film journalist. Just don’t know if I will. Here are my thoughts from that time — I wrote a blog for the Belleville News-Democrat website on that time, brought my laptop to the volunteer lounge to put my thoughts together every day. This is the first one. I hope I can find the others, but this is a good start that encapsulates the first few days.

DATELINE: SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL, DAY ONE

Opening Night, Jan. 20, 2011

Italian director and fellow Sundance rookie Roberta Torre sat next to me on the shuttle as we looped around snow-covered but well-manicured Park City, Utah, late Thursday night. Her first submission for the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, “Lost Kisses,” would screen Friday.

Her previous work – a musical on the Mafia – had been at Venice and Cannes, but as Sundance is synonymous with risk-taking and exciting emerging filmmakers, this satire focusing on a 13-year-old girl’s vision and a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of 115 features that will be screened during the 10-day festival. (Update: Her film was a Grand Jury Prize nominee).

Every January, this old silver mining town in the shadow of the Rockies becomes a mecca for movie lovers from around the globe and the epicenter of the entertainment business. Lives change overnight – filmmakers fortunate to strike a chord with a Hollywood mogul in the audience can depart with a multi-million deal. Ever hear of “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Reservoir Dogs”? Household names and unknowns with a dream vie to be the toast of the town.

But the ideals on which the festival began hold true today. Robert Redford, president and founder of the Sundance Institute, summed it up this way in our program:

I’ve always believed that our best chance to understand the world around us comes in the form of stories and, in particular, stories that represent a unique perspective and are told with an authentic voice. So my first and continued hope for the Sundance Film Festival is the same: to provide a vital platform for these kinds of stories and a community for these kinds of artists. And because a film is not complete until it finds its audience, the film lovers who join our community each January are key to making this platform vital.”

Then he told us to be careful crossing the streets.

The local newspaper referred to the fest as “controlled chaos” and residents say it’s their shot to ski without any lines at the three nearby resorts.

Charlie, Tim and Lynn Venhaus


But it’s unlike anything I’ve experienced. This year, my two sons and I are working as ushers.

We’re among the 1,670 volunteers who help make this the premier fest in the U.S. celebrating independent cinema. Upon our arrive from Salt Lake City, we were handed hats, scarves, gloves, water bottles, transit maps, grub stubs (free food at designated restaurants), movie ticket vouchers, credentials, and thick film guides.

Since our selection the first week of December, we’ve been training online, and now have the hands-on details.

Everyone has been so incredibly helpful and friendly, from helping us navigate the free bus routes to advice on drinking lots of water. And those who are in charge are supremely organized.  It’s a marvel to observe how it all comes together.

Besides a full-time year-round staff, the festival relies on volunteers for a multitude of tasks. Every fall, 3,000 apply, they fill the slots with returning volunteers first, then pick newbies for remaining slots.

We met interesting folks from around the world at our volunteer kick-off party – an Australian bartender, a student from Brazil, a Spanish filmmaker who’s on our theatre team, an aspiring actress from L.A., a Kentucky housewife, a bus driver from Canada, a Cornell grad who runs an event-planning business, an Oregon artist, and a former St. Louisan who never comes back.

Six of 10 volunteers are from Utah. They sure love their state. What’s not to love about the clean, crisp air and wide-open spaces with breathtakingly gorgeous views of the mountains? Park City is 800 feet higher elevation than Salt Lake City, so the weather pattern in the valley is totally separate.

We’re all here for various reasons but we have at least one thing in common: We love movies. To show their appreciation, the festival staff screened the comedy “Submarine” strictly for us volunteers Thursday night. We were jam-packed into the theater, and you could have heard a pin drop – everyone was enthralled. And most everyone stayed in their seats after applauding to read the credits.

The welcoming programmer spoke of the feeling of ‘community’ every year at the fest, and you sense a strong cool vibe too, but it is comparable to a summer camp or old home week – old friends connecting.

What a delightful movie to start the fest with (more on that later), but we will be hearing about this charming, clever coming-of-age tale. Remember the protagonist’s name: Craig Roberts.

The movies that create the biggest buzz here probably won’t arrive in St. Louis until the summer or fall – if past years are any indication.

Last year’s Sundance introduced St. Louisan Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman,” which is now considered a leading contender in the Oscar category for best documentary.

And the dramatic jury prize winner “Winter’s Bone” has received numerous nominations and year-end critics’ awards.

The major (and minor) celebrities supposedly arrive on the weekend, and Main Street becomes this wall-to-wall place to be seen.

And if that’s not enough excitement, trying to spot James Franco or Demi Moore, the Westboro Church based in Topeka, Kansas, plans to protest Kevin Smith’s new horror film “Red State,” starring John Goodman, on Saturday afternoon.

A ruggedly handsome lad working at the lodge where volunteers got their groove on Wednesday night told me: “Get ready for an incredible journey.”

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

By Lynn Venhaus
Sure, it’s predictable, but “CODA” earns its way into your heart with a touching family coming-of-age story that makes it impossible not to be moved by it.

As a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing person in her deaf family. When the family’s fishing business is threatened, Ruby finds herself torn between pursuing her love of music and her fear of abandoning her parents (Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur).

With warmth, humor and a strong cast, “CODA” has turned a conventional family dynamic and an oft-told tale of a teenager pursuing her dream into something special. Not original, it is a remake of a 2014 French film, “The Belier Family,” but setting it in America translates well.

The film has an appealing lived-in atmosphere. The solid sense of place, set in a New England fishing village — Gloucester, Mass., is one of this small film’s charms. Cinematographer Paula Huidobro deftly handles land and sea — and a flooded rock quarry. Production Designer Diane Lederman has added visual texture with a shabby yet cozy clapboard cottage as the family home and a battered fishing trawler for its business.

The working-class Rossi family has earned its living as fishermen. Dad Frank, Mom Jackie and son Leo are all deaf, and the local fishing business is going through economic struggles, which affects their home life. Ruby helps, but she has high school and can’t be there all the time.

Because she loves to sing, the shy and awkward teen signs up for choir, surprising her best friend and family – and herself. Her mother doesn’t understand this need to pursue a hobby – and underestimates Ruby’s passion.

A tough music teacher, Bernardo Villalobos recognizes her natural talent and pushes her to succeed, although she is her own worst enemy because of her lack of confidence, not commitment.

A graduate of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mr. V has arranged auditions at his alma mater for a bright star, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), and decides to do the same for Ruby.

“There are many pretty voices with nothing to say,” Mr. V tells her. “Do you have something to say?” Turns out, she does.

But the family’s dependence on Ruby is so overwhelming that she feels that she can’t pursue her dreams. Well, open the waterworks, because there will be bumps in the road, and baby steps, to finding a way to keep her time slot – not only as an individual, but also as a family.

Director-writer Sian Heder has presented the challenges of deaf adults in a hearing world with compassion and accuracy. Through her sharp observations, we can see what hardships that hearing-impaired people face daily.  She demonstrates it effectively throughout the film, but a later scene at a concert, shot with complete silence, is a stunner.

Heder, with only her second feature film, won the directing award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Like “Minari” last year, “CODA” was honored with both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, and a Special Jury Prize fpr Best Ensemble.. Apple Studios purchased it for a record-breaking $25 million. I hope it will have a broader reach than arthouses.

Oscar winner Matlin, now 55 and the mother of four children, has been an active spokeswoman for the National Captioning Institute. In 1995, she was instrumental in Congress passing a law requiring all television sets that are 13 inches or larger to be manufactured with built-in chips for closed captioning capabilities on their screens.

After winning the Academy Award in 1987 for her debut screen performance in “Children of a Lesser God,” she has represented the deaf community for breakthroughs large and small.

Her visibility here, as an imperfect mother seeking to be more sensitive to her hearing daughter, is immeasurable, and she does a fine job.

As the sexy mom, she has a playfulness with deaf actor Troy Kotsur, whose portrayal of a gruff but soft-around-the-edges dad is believable. They provide a light-hearted touch, as does deaf actor Daniel Durant as big brother Leo, who tussles with his baby sister like brothers naturally do.

Emilia Jones’ pitch-perfect performance is the necessary glue, and fully engaged, she does not overplay the teenage angst and range of feelings.

The family’s love for each other can be felt, and the actors project that bond.

Supporting players also appear comfortable in their roles, particularly Eugenio Derbez, known for comedies in his native Mexico, showing his drama skills as the no-nonsense choir director.

He’s relatable, as is Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, so terrific in 2016’s sublime “Sing Street,” as Ruby’s duet partner Miles. So is Amy Forsyth, notable as Ruby’s best friend Gertie.

Also noteworthy is composer Maurius de Vries for his expert music supervision. He worked on both “La La Land” and Baz Luhrman’s “Moulin Rouge!” and makes some interesting choices here. Miles and Ruby sing the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell classic “You’re All I Need to Get By” and Ruby’s audition piece is Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Be sure to stay for the credits to hear Jones’ sweetly sing “Beyond the Shore.”

Emilia Jones and Eugenio Derbez

The movie uses English subtitles when characters use American Sign Language.

A crowd-pleaser in the mold of “Billy Elliot,” “CODA” resonates because it takes a familiar story and amplifies it through a different perspective. It is a major step forward in inclusivity.

“CODA” is a 2021 drama directed by Sian Heder and stars Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, Eugenio Derbez, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Amy Forsyth. Rated PG-13 for strong sexual content and language, and drug use, its runtime is 1 hour, 51 minutes. It is in theaters and streaming on Apple Plus TV starting Aug. 13. Lynn’s Grade: A-

By Lynn Venhaus
Just 100 miles south of Woodstock, another music fair and similar Aquarian exposition took place in an urban enclave during the summer of 1969. We would not know about the Harlem Cultural Festival had Questlove not shared this historical record with us.

During that fateful summer, the Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed in Mount Morris Park over the course of six weeks. It featured some of the biggest gospel, rhythm & blues, and pop stars of that era. The footage was never seen and largely forgotten – until now.

“Summer of Soul,” with the subtitle, “…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised,” takes us to church while teaching us about Black history, culture and fashion.

As the director, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson powerfully captures a time, an epic and electric event that meant so much to the peaceful crowd that came to share the universal language of music – changing the way we viewed the voices of our generation.

For some, it was a spiritual reckoning. For others, an example of the healing power of music, particularly at a time of great unrest.

Watching this with an audience, you will get your groove on – it’s hard not to feel the energy of Stevie Wonder, Sly & The Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The Fifth Dimension and the passion of Nina Simone, Hugh Masekela, Mavis Staples, and David Ruffin.

Between June 29 and Aug. 24, 1969, about 300,000 people attended the festival – young, old, families, couples, friends and neighbors.

This film won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize in the Documentary competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It is Questlove’s debut as a director, and he displays a keen sense of storytelling and appreciation for the history — you can’t have a movie set 52 years ago without giving some context. You may know Questlove as the bandleader of The Roots, Jimmy Fallon’s house band on “The Tonight Show” or from his work with “A Tribe Called Quest.”

The Vietnam War was raging, civil rights were being fought for, America was changing in its landscape and values. It was a time of great flux, but Questlove focuses on the strong sense of pride and unity among African Americans, now referring to themselves as Black.

The Fifth Dimension

 He captures those feelings in the personal reflections of people who were there – in the audience and the musicians on stage who are still living.

St. Louisans Marilyn McCoo, 77, and Billy Davis Jr., 83, talk about their struggles trying to fit in as The 5th Dimension. Their backstory about the band’s no. 1 hit in ’69 – “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” is one of the most interesting.

Questlove has gathered an eclectic group to serve as the ‘talking heads.’ There are modern entertainers – Chris Rock, Lin-Manuel Miranda and his activist father, Luis Miranda, plus actor-producer Musa Jackson and former New York Times reporter Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who beautifully frame the event by looking back – and what it means moving forward.

Above all, the film is a glorious celebration of music, as ebullient as the beaming faces in the crowd and those moved to dance, exuding such palpable joy.

“Summer of Soul” stands tall among a crowded field of recent outstanding music documentaries. You won’t soon forget what you learn and how you feel during the nearly two-hour run time.

“Summer of Soul” is a 2021 documentary directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. It is rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, smoking and brief drug material and runs 1 hour, 57 minutes. It is in theaters and streaming on Hulu beginning July 2. Lynn’s Grade: A

By Lynn Venhaus
One of the best surprises of the current year in film, “Palm Springs” is an inventive, genial romantic comedy with an edge. (Warning frank sexual dialogue and content).

Nyles (Andy Samberg) is with his girlfriend at a wedding in Palm Springs when he meets Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the reluctant maid of honor forced to be at her sister’s wedding. She’s the family black sheep and a skeptic when it comes to true romance but is drawn to Nyles’ wacky sense of humor and darkly comic nihilism.

Like “Groundhog Day,” Nyles is sucked into a surreal time-space continuum, repeating this same date. He warned her not to follow him into a cave…

Written and directed by first-timers – a remarkable combination of director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara, it builds on the time-travel concept in a manner like “Groundhog Day” but does not follow the same trajectory.

The wedding setting is inspired and fertile ground for comedy – what with family dynamics, quirky relatives, young adults with a lot of baggage already and always people with secrets, combined with the time-honored rituals of American nuptials and receptions. I mean, it is comedy gold, and you have someone who is a zen master at it, Andy Samberg.

Christin Milioti and Andy Samberg in “Palm Springs”

I always enjoyed the goofy Samberg as an off-kilter presence on “Saturday Night Live” from 2005 to 2012, his digital shorts and his clever work with Lonely Island. Although the 2016 comedy “Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping” is highly underrated, I never considered his acting on the same level as breakouts Bill Hader and Kate McKinnon, but he is terrific here. He is just the right blend of world-weary and devil-may-care. He also proves to be a suitable romantic lead – who knew? – and his offbeat pairing with Cristin Milioti, also not your typical romantic interest — even though she was the “Mother” in “How I Met Your Mother” (Spoiler alert for a TV show that ended in 2014), energizes the movie.

Samberg’s wacky charm is his strength, so you go with the premise, even when all time-travel segments have plot holes – but don’t dwell on that. Just enjoy. 

Milioti, a Tony nominee as the immigrant who falls for the broke Irish musician in “Once” the Broadway musical, is such a good actress, capable of expressing the gamut of emotions her character goes through. You root for this couple, who have such a blast together dealing with the gimmick.

Look for the movie, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, to be considered for this season’s awards — it’s that sharp and witty.

It also benefits from such pros as Peter Gallagher as father of the bride, J.K. Simmons as a wedding guest, Tyler Hoechlin as the compromised groom and a brief appearance by June Squibb as Nana, always delightful.

Fresh and fun, “Palm Springs” is a tidy 90-minute ride full of humor, unexpected turns and sweetness.

“Palm Springs” is a romantic comedy not rated that is 90 minutes long. It is directed by Max Barbakow, written by Andy Siara, and stars Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons, Tyler Hoechlin and June Squibb. It is streaming on Hulu, beginning July 10.

By Lynn Venhaus

Teen politics take on a more sinister edge in “Selah and the Spades,” especially when the stakes are high at a prestigious prep school.

Five factions rule an elite Pennsylvania boarding school, Haldwell. Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), 17, is the head cheerleader and golden girl who runs the dominant group, The Spades, supplying drugs and alcohol to the students. In an effort to maintain control when tensions escalate between the cliques, Selah takes on a protégé, photographer Paloma Davis (Celeste O’Connor), who is a sophomore and turns out to be a quick study.

So can Selah hold on to her power, even when she has a falling out with her best friend Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome)? Senior year proves to be intense, frustrating and not definitive at all. And these kids, in a different league, seems to operate as mob families.

First-time writer-director Tayarisha Poe uses a stylized, polished approach to present a heightened reality, and it is rather frightening how ugly everyone is on the inside while being consumed by outward appearances. And if this is the way the modern high school social cliques scene is, be afraid, be very afraid.

No matter what the status is, rich or poor, why do most high school kids feel they have to be somebody else and not themselves?

Poe has some good points here, but it’s mostly posturing. Most of the action is depicted after-school and underground, rarely any classroom time. The administration just seems to shake its heads at the antics and not have a grasp at all. Most of the kids are snooty mean girls and boys, so who do we root for? The poor, shy kid on scholarship who doesn’t realize her power, but when she does, it’s intoxicating?

That would be newcomer Paloma, and Celeste O’Connor is indeed a breakout here. As the lead girl, Lovie Simone impresses but Selah is too cold and calculating to elicit any feel-sorry emotions from the audience, let alone identify. She is obsessed with maintaining control and spends much of her energy trying to keep her power.

The power struggles aren’t all that interesting (and the head “Bobby” will get on your last nerve). The amount of drugs casually consumed is rather alarming too. But before I start sounding like a crabby old woman who didn’t hang out with the cool kids at the malt shop, this movie is hard to warm up to, let along relate. Its connection to reality is limited – OK, maybe the depiction of high school is legitimate but doesn’t ring true, or I could be incredibly naïve.

However, you do want something good to happen, especially with Jharrel Jerome as the best friend. Jerome, Emmy winner for his performance in “When They See Us,” a Netflix mini-series on the Central Park Five case, is an outstanding performer, destined for good work. He played Kevin as a teenager in “Moonlight” and is a terrific presence here.

For as much as this movie is about growing up, Selah never really grows and the ending is a muddled mess (and way too dark). This movie premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, so it has sat awhile. Yet, the director was tagged as someone to watch. She does show promise, as does the cast, but it never does rise to that special level people would be expecting and it could have achieved.

And that is very much like high school.

“Selah and the Spades” is a drama written and directed by Tayarisha Poe, starring Lovie Simone, Jharrel Jerome and Celeste O’Connor. It’s rated R for teen drug content and language. Run-time is 1 hr. 37 min. Lynn’s Grade: C+

By Lynn Venhaus
A quietly devastating film without a false move, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” will permeate your psyche and stay there. Its documentary-like realism gives this unassuming film power as it sneaks up on viewers like a velvet hammer.

A familiar tale of young blue-collar girls stuck in a rut in a dead-end town is not ordinary at all. Because of an unintended pregnancy, these rural Pennsylvania teens (Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder) travel to New York City to seek medical help. Writer-director Eliza Hittman has located the sweet spot between fine young talent and a non-conventional storytelling method.

Winner of a special U.S. Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival for neorealism, the film also won the Grand Jury Prix (Silver Berlin Bear) at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Truly Moving Picture Award at the Heartland Film Festival this year.

Repressed and sad, Autumn, 17, channels her emotions into her love of music but rarely acts up or out in public. With a dismal family life and jerky high school boys certainly no prize catches in this hopeless rust belt hamlet, she has the look of defeat before she even embarks on a life. Newcomer Sidney Flanigan’s face telegraphs everything she doesn’t say – and it’s a mesmerizing standout debut.

What isn’t said is more gut-wrenching than the sparse dialogue that lets us know just enough information. Clearly Autumn’s hiding a secret. After her pregnancy is confirmed, we never know who the father is but there are two obvious suspects, and whoa, she’s left with little choice and no support. She would need parental permission in Pennsylvania for a procedure. Her mother is remarried to a real creep and has two young children to care for, so it’s complicated.

I am not going to get into a moral debate about abortion, nor make any judgments, but Autumn’s hopeless circumstances lead her to travel to the unfamiliar and intimidating NYC on the train with her loyal cousin Skylar. As a fellow store clerk, Talia Ryder demonstrates why she is such a resourceful, smart and bold girl. They may be small-town rubes but what bravery is displayed as they seek the necessary help. We should all be so lucky to have someone like Skylar to count on in a very cold cruel world.

In the movie’s keynote scene, a frightened Autumn must answer a medical questionnaire with either “never, rarely, sometimes or always.” Showing a masterful control beyond her years, Flanagan’s responses may answer your questions and influence your assumptions.

It’s also disturbing, and you feel the desperation. Neither girl can afford to be vulnerable, and as they navigate a stacked-deck existence, it’s unsettling to see how casual sexual harassment and predatory behavior is in their world. These girls have learned early on how to navigate around these typical toxic males. But for how long?

The film takes place over a short time frame but makes a lasting impact. You just want to scream “Run like the wind” to them and hope they land on their feet somewhere, anywhere but there. And female friendship is a potent tool in anyone’s life.

Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder are impressive in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a drama, 141 minutes, rated PG-13 for disturbing/mature thematic content, language, some sexual references and teen drinking. Lynn’s Grade: B+
Note: This film is available on demand and on streaming services

Webster-Kirkwood Times published a version of this review as well.