Film and TV

Sundance Kicks Off with Al Gore's Oddly Optimistic An Inconvenient Sequel

Al Gore in An Inconvenient Sequel
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Al Gore in An Inconvenient Sequel
I’m still trying to decide if Sundance’s decision to kick off its 2017 festival with An Inconvenient Sequel, Al Gore’s follow-up to his influential (and terrifying) climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth, is an act of political confrontation or a sign of helplessness. (Or both?) What kind of message does premiering an Al Gore movie the night before Donald Trump’s inauguration send? Does Gore inspire resistance? Does he remind us of past heartbreak? Or does he merely symbolize helplessness, and a possibly extinct brand of politics?

Within the context of this film festival, one’s answer to that probably depends on how one sees the legacy of An Inconvenient Truth. Anecdotally, I know a number of people who can trace their enduring concern over climate change to it. And certainly, it was a box-office hit and Oscar winner, even helping to open the floodgates to the deluge of activist docs that inundated indie festivals and screens throughout the 2000s. But did it inspire any substantive political change? Could it have?

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, to that end, serves as an update both on the issue of climate change and on the earlier film’s legacy. Gore himself hasn't let up on his quest. If the first doc was built around the famous power point presentation that he'd been giving in the wake of his presidential defeat, this one seems to be built around a new one he's been giving, as he travels the world addressing thousands of climate leadership trainees — activists who have gone on to lead major organizations and train tens of thousands of others. The former vice president actually seems more optimistic this time around. An Inconvenient Truth was marked by the mournful cadence of his voice as he warned that we might be too late to change the course of the planet. This time, he's sprightly, energetic; even his occasional moments of anger feel calculated, constructive. He seems to believe that the grassroots nature of the climate change movement will allow it to grow. "The sustainability revolution has the scope and scale of the industrial revolution, and the speed of the digital revolution," he's fond of saying in his post-screening Q&As.

That said, the film itself is a mess. We follow Gore as he gives his speeches and speeds around the world talking to officials, preparing for the COP 21 climate conference held in Paris in late 2015. There's a lot to go over, of course: summarizing points from the original film, talking about progress and setbacks, meting with world leaders. Sometimes, it slows down and comes to life. One of the film's most engaging moments comes during a visit to Georgetown, Texas, a city that has gone 90% renewable and will soon be the biggest city in the country to go 100%. The mayor is a conservative Republican, and he informs Gore that "this is the reddest city in the reddest county in Texas." But renewable energy saves the man's constituents money, and, as he puts it, "it's just common sense that the less stuff you put in the air, the better." Could it be that there are other officials out there with such common sense? Al Gore appears to be more hopeful on this point than many of the rest of us.

An Inconvenient Sequel is at its best when its access allows real insight: At a meeting in India, one minister chews out Gore for the fact that developed countries are attempting to curb the developing world's energy growth while sitting pretty atop 150 years of progress enabled by fossil fuels. That sets up a series of negotiations late in the film, during COP 21, as Gore tries to get a U.S. solar company to share its technology to India in exchange for the country's buy-in on a major new agreement. At rare moments like these, An Inconvenient Sequel gains shape and suspense. The rest of the time, it feels like a rushed journey through a vital, many-pronged debate.

But maybe that's a sign of how dire the situation is: The danger of climate change isn't that it will just cause one problem, but that it will cause a series of them. Melting ice sheets, flooding cities, stronger storms, powerful droughts, displaced refugees — all of these have their own devastating consequences and chain reactions. So maybe at this sad point in time, it's too much to expect a film to summarize all of these points clearly and compellingly.

Jessica Williams in The Incredible Jessica James
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Meanwhile, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore might have been a pretty good title for the Al Gore doc — hell, it could be a pretty good title for this whole festival, and maybe just about everything else right now. In his directorial debut, actor Macon Blair (Blue Ruin, Green Room) captures something of the spirit of the times, at least for a little while. The always-great Melanie Lynskey stars as Ruth, a nurse in tune with the rage and frustration and injustice all around her: whether it’s the dying, elderly patient in her care whose last words are “Take your gigantic monkey dick out of my good pussy,” the regular depositing of dog shit on her front yard or various entitled jackholes at the supermarket.

In the film’s early scenes, Blair effectively places us into a world where spite, carelessness and a vague but persistent sense of anger run rampant. And maybe even more importantly, he allows us to recognize it as our own. As she commiserates with a friend, Ruth’s language degenerates into a string of fragmented expletives; she could be me on any given Thursday evening, frankly.

After her house is broken into and robbed, Ruth begins to channel her rage into an ill-defined pursuit of justice. The cops are mostly useless, and her friends are absorbed in their own worlds. So she takes matters into her own hands, enlisting the aid of dorky local metalhead and wannabe ninja warrior Tony (Elijah Wood). “What do you want?” one character asks of Ruth, trying to figure out what she hopes to accomplish by catching the perpetrators. “For people to not be assholes!” is her blurted, anguished response. Even if she can’t quite articulate it, this desperate woman wants nothing less than to mend the world.

And as long as I Don’t Feel at Home… works this blend of spiritual quest and small-scale genre comedy, it works nicely. Lynskey’s shivering rage and Wood’s Zen incompetence play off beautifully against each other, and Blair deftly juggles the suspense, humor and social overtones of his script. Until, that is, the film’s final 30 or 40 minutes, when he settles for genre schlock and the revelatory film we thought we were watching devolves into a less interesting, more familiar one. The Coen Brothers are a clear influence, not to mention Quentin Tarantino, but the film can’t quite match the joyous anarchy of their best work. Instead, it becomes a catalog of inventive, vaguely ludicrous ways to kill off or maim people. The shock value of these later scenes occasionally entertains, but I longed to return to the much smarter, funnier, resonant film I had been watching for its first two acts.

Somehow it makes sense that in our new up–is–down world I got to Sundance and saw the festival’s closing night film before I saw the opening night selection. The Incredible Jessica James appears to have been designed as a vehicle for the great Jessica Williams — who co-starred in director James Strouse’s previous film, People Places Things. She plays the title character, an aspiring playwright trying to recover from a bad breakup while also reassessing her life goals: A wall of rejection letters from theater companies and drama workshops tells her no, while her dreams say yes.

Along the way, she meets a recently divorced dad (Chris O’Dowd) and has some heart-to-hearts with her best friend, played by Noël Wells. She also keeps having visions of her ex-boyfriend (Lakeith Stanfield), which usually end with him apologizing profusely for breaking her heart before being killed off in hilarious ways. (Who among us has not wished for a gigantic piano to suddenly land on the head of a repentant ex?)

Jessica James is a character who finds ways to express what’s on her mind in ways that are simultaneously matter-of-fact and outrageous: She’s unfiltered, hyper-critical, hyper-judgmental, easily distracted, contradictory and somehow still utterly charming. And Williams brings her own odd rhythm to the part — pausing awkwardly one minute, delivering a word salad the next. It’s an inspired decision to match her against O’Dowd, who himself is a master of clumsy, start-stop banter.

The Incredible Jessica James strikes me as little more than an extended sketch – somewhat formless and repetitive. But its saving grace is that, unlike a lot of sketch movies, it doesn’t rely on shtick or wink-wink contrivance. Maybe it’s because Jessica Williams did variations on this part as a correspondent on The Daily Show, but there’s an authenticity to her that keeps everything light, honest, easygoing. The film exists mainly to showcase her talents, and judged strictly on those terms, it works.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled apocalypse, already in progress.