The Sundance Film Festival wrapped up Wednesday by devoting the entire day to showcasing its award-winning titles. This year’s mostly virtual version, which kicked off Jan. 28, once again shined a spotlight on Bay Area-connected works — from a snapshot on life at Oakland High School before and during COVID-19 to a standout documentary on an East Bay actress.
Here are short-take reviews of three documentaries that had world premieres at the festival.
“Homeroom”: Award-winning Oakland documentary maker Peter Nicks concludes his wise trilogy that observes Oakland’s public institutions in motion with the best one in the lauded series. His immersive fly-on-the-wall experience puts us into the shoes of Oakland High School’s graduating class of 2020 for one of the most unexpected and volatile years. Nicks and crew spend time with these resilient, resourceful and vulnerable students at parties and at school as well as they advocate to get police out of their hallways and then take to the streets in outrage over police shootings and killings. Then came COVID, which upended their final year but — as “Homeroom” exactly illustrates — didn’t dim their dreams and aspirations. Put this one in a time capsule. It’s exceptional, and celebrates these students as much as it does the diverse and proud city they live in.
“Try Harder!”: This year’s slate of films contained so many excellent documentaries on being a teen, the festival could have practically devoted an entire subcategory to them. “Try Harder!” is one of the best. Along with “Homeroom” and the excellent “At the Ready” and “Cusp” comes San Francisco filmmaker Debbie Lum’s A+ effort, an entertaining, revealing overview into the pressure-cooker world of Lowell High School students while they undergo the humbling and intensely nail-biting college application process. Much as “Homeroom” does, “Try Harder!” introduces us to a resilient bunch of seniors, as they attempt to make the grades in San Francisco’s top public high school. Lum obviously gained the teens’ trust, and catches them at their highs and lows, and even when they’re just being goofy. “Try Harder!” also introduces the provocative notion that the application process is more weighted against Asian American students. It’s a topic rarely raised, and “Try Harder!” relates it with conviction.
“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It”: One of the East Bay’s treasures is Puerto Rican actress Moreno, one of the few EGOT artists, a winner of an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. Behind all that exists a strong, candid and exceptional person who endured racism and sexism throughout much of her career. Mariem Pérez Riera’s documentary confronts all of it, from Moreno’s relationships — the controlling Marlon Brando, the heartbreak of a loveless marriage — to her being the go-to actress for anything “native.” Moreno retains her wit and integrity intact throughout in a documentary that respects her yet isn’t afraid to go to dark places. It’s a triumph.
* Watch Local News Matters film journalist Randy Myers speak on the Sundance Film Festival panel, “Film Criticism in the Time of COVID,” by following this link: https://village.festival.sundance.org/panel-view/5ffe802cf86a48b0b200b83a