Sundance Festival: Who We Are, Who We Were

Every year at the Sundance Film Festival, themes emerge. It's often the films you choose to see that seem to weave together.

For me this year, it was all stories about well-known people’s lives.  I have to say that together, the tapestry was compelling.

I'll share with you the films I enjoyed and then why I think they matter collectively. Michael J Fox, Brooke Shields, and Bethann Hardison were the three lives I explored.

First, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie.”

I didn’t expect much going into this movie. I know Michael J Fox --  I was at his farm once, though he wouldn’t remember me. I knew he has Parkinson's. And frankly, I thought it was going to be hard to watch.

But director Davis Guggenheim is no stranger to making hard stories engaging. His film “An Inconvenient Truth” brought the issue of global warming to a worldwide audience with Al Gore and a PowerPoint deck.



Within moments of watching, knew I was going to leave the film with a different understanding of Fox than I had coming in.

For Fox, even before Parkinson's, being a struggling actor is Hollywood was a relentless slog. Since he was a kid, Fox was always in motion -- never still.

Once he learned he had a rare diagnosis --  Parkinson's is an old-person's disease -- he decided to hide it, first with prescription drugs, then with alcohol. Finally, he came clean.

The film is a mix of Fox’s narration from his autobiography, a series of interviews with the director,  remarkably crafty use of clips from his prodigious filmography, and reenactments. Guggenheim uses his craft to give Fox a canvas, but it doesn’t get in the way of the poignant telling of the story.

By the end, Fox becomes a dimensional human being. The film isn’t preachy, and at times, it is hard to watch. A particularly difficult walk Fox takes with a physical therapist can’t help but make viewers hold their breath.

But in the end, it’s a story about the challenges of being a human and dealing with adversity. Fox can’t hold still -- Parkinson's won’t let him. So he moves forward -- and he seems to suggest we all should embrace that philosophy as well.

Ironically, the next biopic I screened was about another child star from the same time: “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields.”

This film I found horrific. Shields’ career was marked by a series of films that certainly sexualized children. She appeared nude with adult Keith Carradine in the 1978 film “Pretty Baby” when she was 11 years old. At 15 she  was in “Blue Lagoon” and “Endless Love,” both of which included sex and nudity. Then there were the revolting Calvin Klein jeans ads that proclaimed, with little subtlety, "Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.”

Shields seems to mostly brush off questions about the appropriateness of the work, and her mother was clearly both an instigator and profiteer.

Looking at her roles by today’s standard, it’s hard not to feel that the directors, the studios, and the audiences all engaged in a dangerous socialization of child pornography. And Shields, in the telling of her story these many years later, still seems willing to brush off those who turned her childhood into a life of exploitation.

Finally, there was the film about Black fashion pioneer Bethann Hardison, “Invisible Beauty.”

I didn’t know about her until I saw this film.  A model turned agent and activist, Hardison walked the runway with Black supermodel Iman. From runway shows in the 1970s to roundtables about the lack of racial diversity in the early 2000s, she’s been a fighter.

She co-directs this film, and her endless struggle to write her autobiography is laid out on the screen as a battle between her public persona and her personal battles.

Again, the face of a star isn’t the whole story.  When she was asked by Variety what she hoped audiences would get from the film, she responded: “The only thing I always hoped was that people could walk away knowing that they learned something. That’s all you can ask – that people get up and say, ‘Wow. That was interesting.’” She doesn’t gloss over her personal life’s challenges, including the strained relationship with her son Kadeem Hardison, star of “A Different World.”

The film ends as she reaches an age where the drive of her public persona seems to have taken its toll on her, but her accomplishments are visible today on magazine pages and ad campaigns.

Michael J Fox, Brooke Shields, and Bethann Hardison: Three remarkable lives. Three strong documentaries. Each with a refreshing mix of human stories and memorable life lessons. Sundance did well to program all three of these fine docs.

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