From We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021), dir. Jane Schoenbrun (all images courtesy Sundance Film Festival)

The Sundance Film Festival is around the corner, and while this year it’ll be mostly digital — with a limited number of festivalgoers actually in Park City, Utah — the fact that it’s happening at all is cause for optimism. Especially since the virtual screenings mean that anyone around the US can watch the films, instead of hearing about them from afar. The program has no lack of movies that explore psychological strain, often due to social isolation — an intensely relatable theme, given the year we’ve had.

In some films, this theme of confinement is at the forefront. Iuli Gerbase’s drama The Pink Cloud takes it quite literally. For one man and woman, a one-night stand abruptly becomes a lasting commitment after a toxic cloud descends upon the world, imprisoning everyone indoors. What is left of our freedom if our mobility is curtailed, and not for months but years? Can virtual reality replace our normal sensory experiences? Gerbase’s microcosmic lens is a stress test that unfolds at its own unhurried yet ruthless pace. A similar existential crisis haunts Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, about a willful teenager who escapes boredom by participating in an online horror challenge. Its retro-Blair Witch-y horror centers on whether Casey is just trying to scare herself and others or is in fact psychologically caving in.

From Users (2021), dir. Natalia Almada

Both those movies heavily feature technology, though mostly of the homey and low-key kind (with some appearances by VR equipment). Many other titles at the festival delve further into themes of mediated reality and simulation. Natalia Almada’s documentary Users poses a similar question to The Pink Cloud about simulation versus embodied experience. Told through the lens of a mother worried over how all-pervasive tech will affect her young child’s growth, it explores various facets of modernity — not just in our interactions with the tech itself, but in the infrastructure of labor that creates the tech. Rodney Ascher’s A Glitch in the Matrix examines the idea that our world is nothing but a simulation, and how it has plagued humans pretty much since the birth of civilization. And Carrey Williams’s R#J, which adapts Romeo and Juliet in the modern day through social media, is another opportunity to reflect how our tools inform how we tell stories.

From Prime Time (2021), dir. Jakub Piątek

A potent dose of social claustrophobia also comes from Frida Kempff’s compelling Swedish drama Knocking. Beautifully shot by Hannes Krantz in rich sepia and primary colors, it interlocks many spatial, aural, and temporal distortions — it is psychological horror that in a deeper sense testifies to the profound, frightful isolation of mental illness. Meanwhile, Jakub Piątek’s Prime Time bears signs (and some vices) of a timeless moralist passion play, but it too is keenly keyed to the present moment. In 1999 Poland, as the clock counts down to the new year and the world fears the technological meltdown of Y2K, an armed young man storms a television studio and takes a news presenter and crew hostage. What at first looks like a straightforward genre exercise matures into a tense social drama about intolerance and media, as well as the many clashing Europes, both progressive and retrograde.

From Writing With Fire (2021), dir. Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh

A number of documentary features offer a compelling counter-motion: Out of isolation and forced confinement comes a reestablished or newly found freedom. Hogir Hirori’s Sabaya, filmed during the Syrian Civil War, follows a small team of activists who infiltrate the ISIL-held camp at Al-Hol to rescue kidnapped Yazidi women and girls being held as sex slaves. It’s a tense investigative procedural, but perhaps the most evocative scenes are those which provide glimpses of the world from behind the black folds of an abaya veil. Similarly, Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s spirited Writing with Fire tails a team of journalists working for an all-female news network in India as they report on caste prejudice and women seeking justice against rapists and neglect by government officials. The film is a restorative effort, positing journalistic — and by extension, documentary — practice as tied to defending democratic values and the most vulnerable citizens.

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival runs January 28 through February 3. Stand by for more coverage from Hyperallergic!

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.