A selection of some of the other films from the first day of the Sundance Film Festival 2021

Homeroom (Peter Nicks/ USA/ 2021/ 90 minutes) is the final instalment of a trilogy of documentaries examining the public institutions of Oakland, California. Following on from The Waiting Room (2012) and The Force (2017), which dealt with the healthcare system and the police respectively, Peter Nicks’ latest follows the class of 2020 at Oakland High School. Nicks takes a Frederick Wiseman-like hands off approach to his subjects, letting the narrative build through the ebb and flow of the people within that institution. We begin in Autumn 2019 as the student council clash with Oakland politicians over the amount paid for a police presence at the school. A depressing enough topic in any normal year.

Of course, many documentaries turn into something entirely different from what the filmmaker envisioned and Homeroom‘s student protagonists are hit with the full force of the pandemic and suddenly the corridors are empty and the tech-savvy students are suddenly forced online as if the ubiquity of their social media presence was in preparation for this all along. This unavoidably blunts the interesting political wrangling as heated public forums are moved to the disembodied heads of a Zoom call. But it does focus the attention on several prominent members of the student body, such as the cherubic but savvy Denilson Garibo, the student director, a leader if ever there was one. The tone of the documentary is far from optimistic, even before COVID hijacks the narrative, but with dedicated and engaged characters like Denilson – and the student body as a whole seem remarkably switched-on at Oakland High – you’re left with a sense that the future may not be as bleak as we may imagine. 3/5

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It (Mariem Pérez Riera/ USA/ 2021/ 90 mins) is a more conventional documentary, about the life and long career of the trailblazing Puerto Rican actress, perhaps best known for her Oscar winning-performance as Anita in West Side Story. Made up of lengthy anecdotes from the iconic performer herself around the time of her 87th birthday in 2018, archive footage, and talking heads from co-stars, associates, and admirers, it’s a straightforward affair made interesting purely by virtue of its fascinating subject.

Moreno is remarkably candid about her life and career, putting it all in a context that explains the gushing admiration from those who followed in her wake like Gloria Estefan, Eva Longoria, and Justina Machado, her co-star on the recent sitcom One Day at a Time. While these interviews edge towards hagiography, Moreno herself is a harsh critic. Frequently chiding herself for taking on demeaning, token ‘exotic’ roles that invariably included darkening her skin and adopting a generic ‘native’ accent, she’s scathing of her self-perceived passivity. These aggressions against her as a Latina women – micro and macro – extended to sexual assault, and she’s never fully reconciled what she sees as her weakness for allowing it all to happen. Of course, if she hadn’t adopted this pragmatic stance, it’s unlikely she would have manoeuvred her way to the position of relative influence she held at her peak. Hollywood is notoriously unforgiving of actresses who rock the boat, even now. A documentary nowhere near as spectacular as its subject, but always fascinating thanks to the insight provided by Moreno’s accommodating, garrulous presence. 3/5

Spectacular isn’t a word one could readily ascribe to Mother Schmuckers (Lenny Guit, Harpo Guit/ Belgium/ 2021/ 70 mins), a staggeringly unfunny and puerile Belgian comedy from the brothers Guit – clearly the anti-Dardennes. Following the madcap exploits of idiot brothers Issachar (Harpo Guit) and Zabulon (Maxi Delmelle), Mother Schmuckers begins with one of them biting into fried human shit and vomiting the title onto the screen. That is perhaps the artistic highlight. The nominal story involves the misfit pair causing untold chaos around Brussels as they search for their mother’s missing dog, but it’s all just a stringy bridge of spittle between dumb set-pieces that aren’t afraid to careen towards bestiality and necrophilia.

The grotty origins of Mother Schmuckers are clear to see: early John Waters, Dumb and Dumber, perhaps even the free-associative madness of Belgian animation A Town Called Panic. There are plenty that draw from the same provocative wells with far great wit and invention however. Jim Hosking‘s The Greasy Strangler has far more of a sense of fun and personality. Wetlands finds satire in its bodily obsessions. Even the fairly dismal Danish comedy Klown goes further in terms of sheer outrageousness. To be fair though, the prankster brothers may find themselves resonating with the same audiences as those films, so you can’t entirely rule out Mother Schmuckers becoming a cult hit on its own terms down the line. Just don’t watch it with your mum. 1/5