By Vanessa Zimmer
Craving an indie-thoughtful break from holiday movie overload and celluloid superhero battles? We’ve got three powerful documentaries and a drama immersed in the hardscrabble life of horse racing proudly representing the Sundance-supported films among December’s releases to theaters.
The documentaries cover wide territory, from a tumultuous presidential election in Zimbabwe to the anxiety-laden pursuit of admission to their dream school by some of the United States’ top senior-class students.
And then there’s Flee, the survival story of a child refugee from Afghanistan — amazingly, told through animation. As IndieWire’s Eric Kohn wrote: “There have been countless movies about the immigration crisis, but none of them have the sheer ingenuity of Flee.” The film won the top prize in the world documentary category at the 2021 Festival, as well as accolades at numerous other film fests.
Filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen chose animation to mask his subject’s identity, for reasons that become clear during the film. “As the man — identified only by a pseudonym, Amin Nawabi — gradually opens up about his experiences, Flee builds to a powerful secret buried in his past that reframes the global migrant crisis in intimate terms,” Kohn wrote.
The documentaries President and Try Harder! also open to wider audiences this month, as does Jockey, the racetrack drama that earned special recognition for Clifton Collins Jr.’s performance in the lead role. All four films screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Definitely not your ordinary documentary, this film makes use of animation to tell an Afghan child refugee’s harrowing story of fleeing country to country. Amin eventually settled in Denmark, became a successful academic, and fell in love. Filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen uses animation to protect his subject’s identity, as Amin opens up about his secret trauma and prepares to marry his longtime boyfriend. Flee won the Grand Jury Prize in the Festival’s world documentary category in 2021. The film arrives in theaters on December 3.
Imagine the stress felt by members of the senior class at Lowell High, San Francisco’s top public high school — where brilliance is practically commonplace — as they compete against their schoolmates and the rest of the world for the limited openings at the United States’ top universities. “With humor and heart, director Debbie Lum takes us to the reality of the American college application process and the intersection of class, race, and educational opportunity as experienced by high school seniors living through it,” wrote our Sundance programmer. The documentary releases theatrically on December 3, then airs May 2 on PBS.
A young, charismatic activist named Nelson Chamisa takes on the corrupt ruling party in Zimbabwe’s 2018 presidential election, in Camilla Nielsson’s follow-up to Democrats, the acclaimed 2014 documentary about the tug-of-war over a new constitution in Zimbabwe. “Nielsson once again brings viewers into the heart of the struggle for power in a nation closely monitored by the entire world,” wrote our Sundance programmer. Jurors at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival deemed President worthy of a Special Jury Award for Vérité Filmmaking in the world documentary category. The film releases December 17.
Clifton Collins Jr. delivers a nuanced, emotional performance as Jackson Silva, an aging jockey hoping to take a promising new horse in the lead across the finish line. Then, a young jockey claiming to be his son disrupts his stride. Director Clint Bentley shot the film on an operating racetrack, as he aimed for a realistic portrayal of the hard, bone-cracking life of the riders and trainers. Collins won a Special Jury Award for Best Actor in the U.S. drama competition at the 2021 Festival. The film receives limited theatrical release (in New York and Los Angeles) on December 29 and expands from there.