If the films in this first round-up of day one of Sundance 2022 have anything in common, it’s a central thread of human connection. It may be a subconscious concern, but the last two years have at the very least limited our interaction with others, if not fundamentally altered it altogether. All three films involve their protagonists striving to make that bond with other people, with results that range from the heart-warming to the horrific.

The first, A Love Song (Max Walker-Silverman/ USA/ 2022/ 81 mins), is firmly in the former category.  Coming across as Before Sunset via Nomadland, this tender tale is as gentle as filmmaking gets. It’s easy to surrender to its sparse rhythms that ripple like the placid lake at which widow Faye (Dale Dickey) has pulled up her caravan for a solo getaway. We slowly discover that she is getting ready to meet Lito (Wes Studi), an old friend, and possibly more, from her past. Lito is also widowed and the pair spend an evening together, ostensibly to reminisce, but really to see if their grief is so ingrained that it prevents them finding the courage to hope once more.

It’s great to see veteran character actor Dickey in a leading role, especially one that radiates warmth and decency and a chance of romance. We’re used to her providing formidable support as raddled junkies and scrappy hillbillies in the likes of Winter’s Bone and My Name is Earl. Studi’s Lito is similarly weathered and tough, but affable and kind. If anything, he’s the more guarded of the two, using his late wife’s name as an instinctive defence. But neither are given to big declarations, and it isn’t that type of film. As lonely souls given to few words, a pivotal moment over a duet – played inexpertly but with feeling – is as heightened as it gets, and fits perfectly. It’s not a movie that raises the pulse, but gradually swells the heart. Sweet, wise, and benign, it’s a steady, unhurried and pleasantly unfussy debut from Max Walker-Silverman. 3/5

None of those descriptors apply to Fresh (Mimi Cave/ USA/ 2022/ 114 mins). We’ve already seen The Worst Person in the World twist the romantic comedy in unexpected ways at Sundance and Cave’s savage debut feature does the same, but to much darker ends. Normal People breakout star Daisy Edgar-Jones meet-cutes with charming cosmetic surgeon Sebastian Stan in a grocery store. Disillusioned with trying to meet people through dating apps, she pursues this instant real-life connection. So far, so expected. Fresh follows rom-com tropes to the point of triteness, right down to a sassy black friend (Jojo T. Gibbs). But the night before a spontaneous weekend she drinks a cocktail he’s poured for her, slumps to the ground, and the title card appears at 35 minutes. From there, we’re firmly in horror territory.

After its first act, Fresh is best approached with as little prior knowledge as possible. Cave and writer Lauren Kahn have crafted a stylish, gory, and transgressive psycho-horror that examines the absurdity of modern dating, and the commodification of women’s bodies with ferociously blunt force. It doesn’t all hang together, abandoning a taut game cat-and-mouse between its two impressive leads to descend into expected third-act chaos, but Cave, best known as a director of music videos, has an arsenal of interesting stylistic tricks up her sleeve (having Ari Aster‘s regular DP Pawel Pogorzelski on board undoubtedly helps. The film looks incredible). These are best displayed in fully gonzo dance sequences which homage such disparate films as American Psycho and Ex Machina, and radiate dangerous Ted Bundy charisma from a gleeful Stan. There are other clear reference points throughout, which chip away a little at Fresh‘s otherwise brash and confident identity, and would also give the game away if mentioned here. Still, this is sure to be an audience favourite, and a film that retains substantial buzz after the festival has ended. 3/5

As an actor, Jesse Eisenberg is pretty much exhibit A for the kind of film that Sundance has come, rightly or wrongly, to epitomise. Over nearly two decades films like The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland, and The Art of Self Defence have showcased his jittery, verbose style. He’s back with his directorial debut, When You Finish Saving the World (USA/ 2021/ 88 mins), and it’s exactly the kind of film you would expect him to make. Drenched in social anxiety and oblivious narcissism, this slightly autobiographical comedy of manners wears its Woody Allen via Noah Baumbach heritage on its sleeve, but definitely bears Eisenberg’s particular nebbish millennial stamp. Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard (the director’s surrogate here) are mother and son Evelyn and Ziggy who try way too hard to forge bonds – maternal and romantic – with others, having lost their own somewhere between Evelyn’s all-encompassing role at a women’s shelter and Ziggy’s growth into adolescence.

Your opinion on Eisenberg as a performer is very likely to inform your opinion on his debut film. As such, it’s been divisive so far, not least because both characters are appalling in different ways, and are so certain they’re good people. Eisenberg – aided by two exceptional performances (standard from Moore, but unexpectedly nuanced and mature from Wolfhard) – commits hard to mining every line for maximum awkwardness. To his credit, both succeed in finding the nuggets of sympathy in their characters. Ziggy especially, hints at something approaching growth as his crush on youthful revolutionary Lila (Alisha Boe) and her terrible poetry force a political awakening. Eisenberg, skewering guilty middle-class liberalism, questions whether altruism is ever unselfish, and it’s a little hard to feel come the end we’re back where we started. Maybe that’s the intention. Still, despite the sense that there is one obvious point being made repeatedly, the incisive dialogue, delivered with precision by its leads, make this ultimately worth your time. Produced through A24, When You Finish Saving the World is certain to get a release on these shores before the end of the year. 3/5

All screening as part of Sundance Film Festival 2022