Here are my reviews for a trio of documentaries that premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival: Cusp, Misha and the Wolves, and Captains of Za’atari.
Cusp is a piece of Texas American in its purest, rawest form. The film looks at a trio of high school teenage friends, Brittany, Autumn, and Aaloni, during a fever dream summer. Throughout this summer, we watch as these free-spirited girls go through the struggles of girlhood while living in a male-dominated world.
As of writing this review, I am a few days removed from seeing Cusp, yet it is a movie that I cannot stop thinking about and a movie that only gets better the more I think about it. Directors Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt have given us a raw, unfiltered look at a part of America we do not usually think about and do not usually see. There is not much to do in this small military town, especially when you are a teenage girl. Brittany, Autumn, and Aaloni spend their evenings partying, drinking, smoking, and navigating through the struggles of life, like love and poor parenting. They show these girls for who they are, and the girls don’t sugarcoat anything. This is a raw, intimate portrait of what it is like growing up as a teen in today’s world.
What struck me most while watching Cusp is the trauma these girls have gone through at such a young age and the terrible things they go through living in a male-dominated world. It is truly shocking to see and hear these girls talk about their horrific experiences and how they suppress their anger, fear, and trauma. Things like Brittany being molested by one of her father’s friends, or Autumn dealing with constantly being attacked by one of her mother’s friends growing up, or Aaloni living with an absent father who is emotionally abusive whenever he is home. This is just the surface of what these girls have gone through and what they continue to go through as they get older and it is infuriating to see them deal with all of this and cope with it in unhealthy escapes and suppress it enough to try and have as normal of a teenage life as they can. It is shocking and heartbreaking.
Cusp is a documentary I want more of. I was so transfixed by the stories of these girls in this world, I didn’t want to stop. Maybe we’ll get a sequel and catch up with Brittany, Autumn, and Aaloni in a few years. But for now, Cusp is an outstanding, hot-blooded slice of American life.
MISHA AND THE WOLVES
Writing a review for a movie like Misha and the Wolves is probably the toughest kind of review I have to write. This is a movie that even spoiling one piece of it would ruin the overall experience of watching the film. This is an insane true story that you must see to believe.
The only thing I will give you about this movie is the basic set up. Misha and the Wolves tells the story of a woman whose holocaust memoir took the world by storm, but after a fallout with her publisher, the narrative begins to change into something much darker.
That is all you are getting and even that might be too much. Director Sam Hobkinson keeps you on your toes the entire movie. What starts off as an inspiring survival story turns into something so wild and crazy your head will spin. It spans years, goes to numerous countries, and involves neighbors, teachers, reporters, a genealogist, and dozens of more characters. Now I’ve definitely said too much.
It runs a little long and doesn’t offer up anything deeper beyond the story, but Misha and the Wolves is a thrilling, twisting documentary that will have your jaw on the floor.
CAPTAINS OF ZA’ATARI
Captains of Za’atari is a great sports documentary reminiscent of 1994’s masterful Hoop Dreams. The film looks at Mahmoud and Fawzi, two teenage friends living in a refugee camp in Jordan. Though their lives are incredibly difficult, both Mahmoud and Fawzi have proven to be very good soccer players and have hopes of playing professionally someday. When a world-renowned sports academy visits the camp, both have a chance to make this dream come true.
What makes this a great sports documentary is that director Ali El-Arabi gives us an inspiring story while mixing in great sports action. Living in a refugee camp is tough and even tougher when you want to make it into professional sports, but Mahmoud and Fawzi are willing to do anything do make it, include skip school so that they can practice or play in a match. You can see the passion in their eyes and determination to make it, like the anger Fawzi shows when he is unable to go to the camp initially because of his age and how he pushes himself to play in the big match with a hurt knee, all this with his father ailing with a sickness and Mahmoud’s father pushing school over soccer. As a former athlete myself, I understood the passion for the sport they had, but El-Arabi makes sure that whether you were an athlete or not, you know the emotions running through them.
Gorgeously and expertly shot, the soccer sequences are great to watch and make it feel like you are actually playing in the games or sitting front row in the stands. El-Arabi’s camera moves along with the players on the field and we see how slick Mahmoud and Fawzi move around the it, gliding past others players with skill and ease.
Captains of Za’atari balances story and sport brilliantly to give us a beautiful portrait of two boys following their dreams. The only thing I wish for the film was that it was longer and more in-depth about the boys lives and them chasing the dream of becoming professional soccer players. I was so captivated and moved by this story that I wanted to see the boys before they went to this camp and after this camp and watch their lives unfold, like the aforementioned Hoop Dreams which covered the four year high school career of two Chicago basketball players.
Still, Captains of Za’atari packs a big punch for being a brisk 73-minutes long, making it an effective sports documentary.
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