Here at the Sundance Institute we talk a lot about film. Whether it’s helping coworkers figure out what to watch this weekend or feeling positively ancient when we hear that a movie from our youth is celebrating a big anniversary, we’ve got thoughts, feelings, and recommendations for indie film lovers ready to go. Welcome to our regular series where Sundance Institute employees bring our most passionate hot takes about independent cinema to you. This is Personnel Thoughts.
There are a few things in life that everyone can get behind: the surprise of finding free parking, the satisfying feeling of an afternoon couch nap, and the joy of having a truly wonderful pet. Pets can be our best friends, support system, and the number one photographed being in our lives. Selfies be damned!
Here we wax poetic about six perfect pets as seen in past Sundance Film Festival releases — from ham-eating llama to scene-stealing mini horse. Dive into the celebration of all the furry friends in our lives, minus all the shedding and necessary walks.
Things I like: dandies in unfamiliar environments, smaller versions of large things, unexpected gifts, and rarities (scarcity = desirability). The ideal Sundance pet, by my metrics, is obviously Butterscotch, the distractingly perfect miniature gift-from-Robert-Pattinson-horse that Mia Wasikowska looks in the mouth in Damsel. Apologies to my esteemed colleagues for cherry-picking the only real answer here.
The Zellner brothers’ Damsel, a dark and funny and gorgeous addition to the Western genre canon, premiered at the Eccles Theater during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The film has much to recommend it: a wickedly specific and darkly comedic script, an engaging and unexpected plot that’s fond of reversals, striking visuals (shot near Sundance’s Park City home) and a lovely soundtrack. But for me, that’s all framing around the film’s true star, Butterscotch, played by a miniature horse named Daisy (making her feature film debut).
Butterscotch is, yes, something of a McGuffin, a symbol of what we remember and misremember and tell ourselves about the people we love, but she devours every scene she’s in. At one point, she carries a caged chicken on her back (helpful). Her mane upstages the hair of every other cast member, even if it does remain suspiciously and uniquely pristine. And, setting aside that old chestnut about never meeting your idols: Daisy showed up at the Eccles premiere to walk the press line and appeared onstage at the Q&A afterwards — a little quiet, maybe, but an undeniably glamorous presence. Among certain Festival planning teams, “miniature horse on the press line” has become the stand-in example for “an exceptional or unusual film-team activity.”
I have never much cared for horses, but I would do anything for Butterscotch. I contain multitudes. — Spencer Alcorn (Director, Communications)
Red, Red Dog: True Blue
Long a believer that dogs are infinitely better than people, I was instantly drawn to Red, a kelpie mix who became a real-life Australian legend. He saved lives, did some matchmaking, and generally created good vibes in the red iron-ore country of Dampier, in the Pilbara region of western Australia.
Red was the subject of two movies by director Kriv Stenders, 2011’s Red Dog and the 2017 Sundance Film Festival’s Red Dog: True Blue.
A prequel to the earlier film, True Blue imagines the canine’s backstory as the puppy Blue. He immediately proved that he would be loyal, scrappy, and prone to roam — teaching himself to hitchhike by simply sitting in the middle of the road and jumping in when the car door opened. He built his stamina, which would eventually earn him the nickname of the Pilbara Wanderer, by running behind his first human companion, young Mick, as the boy sped across the remote red desert on his dirt bike.
As one character in the older film says of Red: “It’s not what he did. It’s who he was.”
As a bonus, Red Dog: True Blue stars Sundance alum Jason Isaacs (Mass, The Death of Stalin) as the grown-up Mick. And who wouldn’t watch a movie savvy enough to put the Traveling Wilburys on its jaunty soundtrack?
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Red has the same expressive upright ears and intent eyes as one of my little rescue dogs, a terrier mix named Cooper. — Vanessa Zimmer (Associate Editorial Manager)
Tupac, Hunt for the Wilderpeople
My favorite pet in the Sundance realm would have to be Tupac, Ricky Baker’s first ever birthday present in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Taika Waititi’s road (alright, bush)/coming of age/unconventional family tale.
On his thirteenth birthday, things are looking up for Ricky. He’s got a new home with foster parents, Bella and Hector, a birthday cake, and possibly the best birthday song ever written. Then, to top it all off, Bella and Hec give Ricky his very own dog.
Once Ricky decides on a name, Tupac is a loyal companion to Ricky. His puppy-like energy (I was floored to discover the dog was nearly seven at the time of filming) helps buoy the fugitives along in their months in the bush, evading the authorities.
Ultimately, Tupac isn’t even the most important dog in the film, plot-wise. That’s all Zag, Hec’s beloved companion. We don’t need to talk about what happens to poor Zag (at least, not without tissues). Once Tupac was the only dog in this band of misfits, I became fiercely protective of him for the rest of the film. Waititi didn’t disappoint, making sure to cut away to shots of Tupac in the bed of the truck during the film’s Thelma & Louise–inspired climax.
Like the landscapes featured in the film, Tupac is a majestical part of Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
But perhaps the most important reason I love Tupac so much is that his boundless puppy-like energy reminds me of George, my dog-in-a-cat-body. — Rachel Brethauer (Content Marketing Manager, Sundance Collab)
Athena, The Elephant Queen
It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to have an elephant as a pet. But Athena, the 50-year-old matriarch in The Elephant Queen, is not your typical elephant. In the film, narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor, she leads her herd across the Kenyan savanna on a 100-mile trek to a permanent water source after an especially trying drought.
We see so many amazing sides of Athena in this film, which is why (although she realistically couldn’t be a pet), if I could safely keep any animal as mine for life, I’d pick her. She shows her playful side as we watch her play at a verdant water hole among the frogs, birds, insects, and fish, but we also see her intense strength when Mimi, a newborn elephant, begins to struggle. As a leader, Athena has to balance the needs of the weakest against the whole herd.
I like to think that I’d be able to trust Athena to take me on all of my journeys, both near and far. Some of my fondest memories are from road trips I took with friends. Just imagine riding an Elephant to Vegas.
But in all seriousness, the true feat would be getting her to trust me. Afterall, over the course of several weeks, Athena allowed the small production crew closer and closer, until they were about 40 meters from her. Directors Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble noted in a 2019 interview that Athena walked away to let her calf stand between her and the crew. That’s a rare occurrence for an elephant mother. — Stephanie Ornelas (Brand and Editorial Writer)
Birba, The Truffle Hunters
If you’ve seen The Truffle Hunters you know this documentary is full of very smart, very sweet, very well-behaved dogs who have been highly trained to hunt for truffles in the forests of Northern Italy. Obviously I would be honored to pet any one of them, but if I could choose one for myself it would certainly be Birba.
Now, one might think that I simply want a dog to forage for subterranean treasures for me, but that’s not the case! In fact, we would have to retire. First of all, truffle hunting is often a nighttime activity and, as someone who saw 1999 Sundance classic The Blair Witch Project and was never the same again, frankly, I’m not going into the woods at night for anything. Not even a fancy fungus. Not even with a trusty canine companion. While I don’t doubt that Birba is a very loyal pup and would surely protect me from anything excessively spooky, it’s actually Birba who is more likely to be susceptible to danger. Unfortunately, rival truffle hunters with nefarious intentions toward these dogs are known to be lurking about the forest!
No, truffle hunting won’t be for us — Birba and I will have to spend our days roaming about Piedmont, having picnics in the warm Italian sun. Many of the film’s vignettes feature Birba enjoying things like dinners at the table and a birthday celebration in her honor, so I know I’ll have to work hard to meet her high expectations of human companionship, but I’ll gladly adjust to her whims in exchange for the occasional snuggle. — Analiese Oetting (Coordinator, Archives)
Tina, Napoleon Dynamite
As a person who only grew up with a pet goldfish that I won at an elementary school carnival, I’m drawn to pets who are easygoing and don’t need a lot of hands-on care. No animal embodies that go-with-the-flow vibe like Tina the llama from 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite. Even after Tina’s owner Carlinda Dynamite (Sandy Martin) — Napoleon (Jon Heder) and Kip’s (Aaron Ruell) grandmother — leaves the picture after taking a major spill off her ATV, Tina kept her cool and just kept on living her perfect llama life.
On top of being comfortable around a very peculiar family, including football star/shady salesman Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), Tina enjoys the finer things in life like a good old-fashioned ham dinner al fresco. This means that Tina and I could go out on the town and eat family style vs ordering our own entrees. See? Low maintenance. — Bailey Pennick (Associate Editorial Director)