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Sundance 2021 Critic’s Notebook 3 (Abby Sun): El Planeta, Try Harder!, At the Ready

El Planeta

The mother-daughter duo in Amalia Ulman’s debut feature-length film El Planeta don’t live in the shabby glamour or reclusive dependency of Grey Gardens’ Beales, but they’re no less compelling in their affection for each other and occasional squabbles. I do find it strange my mind went to Grey Gardens, given this film represents almost its complete opposite. It’s pretty clearly fictional and scripted, though Ulman plays the main character, Leonor (or Leo for short), her real life mother Ale Ulman takes on the role of María, Leonor’s mother, and Leo has to cope with the same physical injury Ulman and her mother suffered in real life from a bus crash. Though Ulman has said in multiple interviews that María has a different personality than her mother, and that her mother was partially cast for budgetary reasons (recalling Carlos Reygadas’ insistence that he and his own family play themselves in Our Time for production expediency), Ulman’s entire artistic practice is about leveraging the divides between a believable digital performance of self and reality.

This film is based-on-a-true-story, too. The plot of a mother-daughter pair who grift local restaurants out of thousands of Euros (by pretending to be friends with a local politician and generally acting and dressing classy), and who eventually suffer the consequences of being found out, is taken from the story of Justina and Ana Belén—a real life mother-daughter pair of petty thieves from Gijón, Spain, the declining coastal town that is both the setting of this film and where the Ulmans actually lived after immigrating from Argentina. Perhaps I thought of Grey Gardens because El Planeta’s camera strictly places Leo and María directly at the center of almost every single frame, or as one half of a two-shot, visually cloistering the two within their own world. But the satisfying cleverness of this film is that these two women are incredibly connected and aware of their self-image and resulting appearance of dignity. This in turn drives the tension in individual scenes and to the bitter end—the film is a pitch-perfect study of middlebrow meaning.

There’s a veritable sub-genre of indie films about social climbing, wannabe creative-class young women. Most elide the particulars of material comforts (and impoverishment), floating high above the humiliations of the cultural prestige economy; gloriously, and humorously, El Planeta exists on an earthly plane with a real sense of place. Since Vadim Rizov has already covered El Planeta yesterday in his dispatch, situating this film via its formalist qualities, I’m going to end by highlighting one scene that devastated me. While providing cover for María to shoplift at a corner store, Leo entertains pointed flirting from a Chinese cashier named Amadeus, who turns out to be the nephew of the shopkeeper. Amadeus is played by Chen Zhou, who in real life is, like Ulman, a prolific artist who uses the internet as his inspiration and medium—his very good 2017 film, Life Imitation, smartly mashes together the genres of machinima (using the open world Grand Theft Auto 4) and pseudo-documentary recordings of a group of teenage Shanghaiers. In an interview, Ulman explained that Zhou’s appearance in this film was a result of their friendship and a proposed work swap—though Ulman never made it to China in March 2020 because of, well, the pandemic. But in one of the film’s many riffs on real life, Ulman writes into the script a set of coincidences between Leo and Amadeus—they’re both wearing zebra-print, both used to live in London and attended fashion school, and so on—hinting at a meet-cute for, if not a grand romance, some casual, respectable fun for Leo. Hints of patronizing class differences occur early on: Amadeus gives Leo the trinkets she’s looking at for free, then offers to send her high heels from Balenciaga (where he will be an intern) over a romantic dinner date. The morning after, Amadeus lets slip that he’s married and has a son, acting as if this sin of omission shouldn’t bother Leo. His final, condescending statement causes Leo to break her façade of politeness. It’s not the stuff of global tragedy or violent injustice, but its careful evocation gave me visceral flashbacks to social situations where I felt the same—death by a thousand papercuts. This film has stayed with me over several days, and with each passing, it’s become the fest’s clear standout.

The latest documentary from Debbie Lum, Try Harder!, also has a standout scene that renders clear the reverberating effects social cues and petty humiliations can bring. One of the five high school protagonists of the film, Alvan, is at a Chinese restaurant after having just finished his interview for Brown University, his dream school. At the beginning of the film, a kind guidance counselor recommends Brown as a target school, wanting to find a suitably quirky but prestigious-enough school to satisfy the tight-fisted control of his Taiwanese tiger mom. But Alvan is glum. Through conversation with his parents, it’s revealed to us that he thought his interview was promising—the interviewer stayed over the allotted time—but then, as the interviewer was leaving, his mom tried to give him a hong bao, the red envelope that, in Chinese cultures, is given as a common courtesy in many situations and contains money, and is indeed used in bribery situations. Alvan is mortified. He explains that it comes off as bribery in the US and is not kosher, but his parents don’t understand and insist that they didn’t mean any harm. There is a massive communication gap, and because the camerawork of this documentary is one of the few at Sundance this year that privileges letting the natural unfolding rhythms of a tense moment play out, it’s very effective but not exploitative; Lum steps in from off camera for a gentle de-fusion with the family. Ultimately, Alvan does not get into Brown, and is badgered by his mom into attending Berkeley so she can continue to helicopter around him in perpetuity. Watching this scene, like with El Planeta’s morning-after sequence, I felt a huge pang of recognition. The shared indignity of being poor, uncultured or out-of-culture crosses class, racial and ethnic boundaries. It’s what money and privilege smooths over, which Try Harder! understands very well. 

As entertaining, genial, and respectfully presented Try Harder! is, I can’t help but feel this nonfiction feature would benefit from greater contextualization. But this, too, is difficult for me to write about. The state of Asian American documentary film is pretty dire still, despite the decades-long existence of the Center for Asian American Media and community non-profits like Visual Communications. In fact, there’s even an official Sundance Main Street online panel addressing this issue. Hosted by the Asian American Documentary Network (of which I’m a member), it’s titled “The Invisibility of Asian American Documentaries.” So when a film like Try Harder!, an Asian American produced film about primarily Asian American protagonists from an explicitly Asian American lens, appears on the scene, it’s over-burdened with the weight of positive and complete representation. It’s a hard task—Try Harder! addresses these issues by spreading its story between five Lowell High School students over the course of a year. Lowell is the number one ranked public high school in the US, located in San Francisco, with mostly lower-to lower-middle class Asian American students. Edited by Amy Ferraris (whose credits also include other beloved Asian American documentaries like The Grace Lee Project and Lum’s Seeking Asian Female) and Andrew Gersh (Crip Camp), Try Harder! is a genial crowd-pleaser, touching upon all the usual high school narrative benchmarks like dances and graduation, but really focusing on the particular rhythms of the college application process. One of the main participants is biracial and another is a white Jewish junior, a year younger than the rest of the crew. There’s also a mix of parenting styles between the three Asian students, from absentee to caring to the stereotypical Tiger mom hounding Alvan. As a second-generation Chinese American who went to a well-regarded (but not selective admissions) public high school, and who participated in the entire early admissions scrum for an Ivy League school, I couldn’t help but feel that the understandings these students, especially Sophia, with whom I identified the most, should have been far deeper than the surface-level presentation.

Instead, what we’re left with is the belief espoused by many first-generation Asian American parents in justifying the racist exam-school policies in NYC, pairing up with right-wing attorneys and entitled white people in arguing against affirmative action policies in college admissions and for other racial wedge politics. There isn’t room for a both-and take, in real life or in this film. It can be true that admissions officers enact casual racism by rating Asian American applicants lower on charisma, and also true that affirmative action policies are necessary on our way to reparations and a more equitable society, and also true that colleges and universities are happy to play up these two particular narratives because they don’t want eyes on the true injustice in the system: legacy admissions. (Try Harder! was filmed a few years ago, before Operation Varsity Blues.) Returning to the scene between Alvan and his parents: that specific situation never happened to me. During several private restaurant dinners with my parents’ former college and high school classmates, however, family friends asked my parents for advice on how to grease the wheels to get their own children into prestigious schools. It doesn’t work that way, my parents explained, like Alvan to his parents. It will hurt your child’s chances—in the US, it takes millions of promised donations through official university giving offices to secure a place in the next class for your children . 

A very different sort of high school senior class is presented in Maisie Crow’s At the Ready. In between unnecessarily redundant news clips that remind us of Trump’s xenophobic anti-migrant rhetoric right before the students discuss the particulars in class anyway, this observational doc examines the mental states of three Mexican American students and recent grads from a “law enforcement club” in a public school in El Paso, TX. The premise is documentary gold. Not only has the Border Patrol established junior divisions like ROTC that are enfolded under the aegis of community colleges and universities, they are creating a competitive circuit of high school competitions where students play in mock simulations of drug busts, no-warrant arrests, and so forth at different tiers of competition. At this school, the students aren’t just taught in classes by former police/Border Patrol agents (the film makes the connection between those two careers very clear), they’re also trained in these situations in after-school clubs and used as free labor, working security at high school football games. The beating heart to this film is Mason (first introduced as Kassy). His transformation and personal acceptance from the beginning to the end is highlighted in the film’s attention to his mien in difficult situations and in personable confessional-style interviews. Ultimately, the film is constrained by its competition-structure and countdown, a late third-act political reawakening driven by Beto O’Rourke isn’t quite the inspirational thread it hopes to be, and At the Ready doesn’t quite know what to do with the character of a homophobic, machismo male teacher who also confesses, tearfully, to having PTSD but no remorse for essentially conning the students into a physically and mentally taxing profession. But in moments when the film lets its audience sit with discomfort—of Latinx students who regularly cross the border to visit Mexican relatives espouse the same xenophobic phrases as Trump, of these same students devoting their lives to Border Patrol, of a sense of hopelessness towards upwards mobility—the film is unflinching.

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