While a mellow sci-fi drama, a documentary on the latest social-media sensation, and a coming-of-age adventure have very little to do with one another on the surface, Kogonada’s After Yang, Shalini Kanyayya’s TikTok, Boom., and James Ponsoldt’s Summering — all three playing at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival’s virtual edition — surprisingly manage to fit hand-in-hand-in-hand quite well. That’s because each entry in this trilogy of films provides a different perspective on technology, childhood, and loss. Whether it be loss of life, loss of privacy, loss of innocence, or some combination of the three, this triptych of films is bound together by these major themes (though each film explores them to varying degrees of merit).
Video-essayist-turned-filmmaker Kogonada’s directorial debut, Columbus, relies on the asymmetric balance of modernist architecture to convey its point about tragedy — more precisely, the way it can leave a person feeling so off-center it’s hard to believe they’re still standing. His sophomore feature, After Yang, is decidedly (and literally) postmodern, updating the uniquely specific present-day setting of Columbus’s Indiana cityscape to a much less discernible point in the future in an undisclosed American city. Despite these changes, Kogonada’s thoughts on grief manage to fit squarely within the same frame of mind as his first film. Instead of looking at feelings from an architectural point of view, After Yang shows Kogonada shifting his gaze toward the technological — in particular, how technology can both aid and hinder the grieving process.
Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) got Yang (Justin H. Min) when they got Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). As a technosapien — an android specially designed to care for and educate adopted children — Yang can be there for Mika when work and adult responsibilities keep Jake and Kyra from being fully present. Dubbed “Second Siblings,” Yang and his fellow technosapiens are just one of countless futuristic conveniences that have left everyone feeling cold and disconnected from one another in Kogonada’s vision of the future. Spouses are out of touch with each other, doing most of their catching up over the phone on car rides to or from work. Parents would rather let technology entertain their children, finding it much easier to just put them in the hands of the technosapiens day in and day out than actually take an active role in their lives. For these reasons, Yang’s sudden shutdown comes as a real catastrophe for Jake, Kyra, and Mika.
The loss of Yang hits differently for each member of the family. In Jake’s eyes, it’s as if the fridge went out or the dishwasher needs to be replaced — Yang was nothing more than an appliance or a tool, an expendable thing no more a part of his life than the toaster or the television. Kyra, on the other hand, feels more weight: Yang took a huge load off her and her husband’s shoulders, and he meant a lot to Mika, too. The child is the one hurting the most by far. Yang was a brother, a friend, a teacher, and an authority — he was everything to Mika, essentially. Their layered, multifaceted grief is only complicated further with a few key revelations during the attempted repairs: Their Second Sibling had a previous owner, a memory reserve, and even a secret relationship with a mysterious woman (Haley Lu Richardson) outside the home.
Fans of Columbus should not be dismayed by this seemingly enormous departure from the minimal plotting and contemplative stillness of Kogonada’s first film. After Yang, although quite dissimilar conceptually, is still grounded in the same low-key, meditative, heartfelt naturalism that put the filmmaker on the indie-cinema radar in the first place. From its realistic depiction of the grief cycle to its views on collective memory to its reflections on the relationship between technology and mortality, Kogonada’s latest is a profoundly human effort in spite of its focus on the inhuman. Plus, with a moving score by ASKA and typically superb cinematography from Benjamin Loeb — whose other recent work includes Pieces of a Woman (2020) and Mandy (2018) — it’s clear that After Yang has all the right parts to be in excellent working condition.
Now five years into its monumental run, it’s difficult to imagine that a person who spends even a short amount of their day online would be unfamiliar with TikTok. A social-media platform that relies on vertical video content and highly specific algorithms to curate content to each individual, TikTok continues to break records for most mobile downloads — and just as frequently makes headlines for some new, terrible reason. With a wider reach across the globe than any American app and more controversy than one can reasonably keep up with, the platform not only has the power to bring unfathomable success to its users in record time but also to yank it away just as quickly. Director Shalini Kanyayya’s documentary TikTok, Boom. attempts to reconcile all these components of the social network’s unprecedented rise, but the end result is a doc spread far too thin on a subject much too unwieldy to fit into a 90-minute box.
From the get-go, viewers are watching what might as well be two documentaries. First there’s the broad overview of parent company ByteDance and its controversial ascension from a lowly apartment-based tech startup to one of Earth’s biggest and most unknowable companies. Then there’s the puffy profile of three young and prosperous TikTokers who found instant fame from their videos and their efforts to maintain it over the years. The concerns raised in the former portion are rarely addressed meaningfully in the latter before the film proceeds on to a completely new topic that receives the same cursory treatment. There’s no doubt that each complaint raised — from racism and xenophobia to issues with privacy and national security — is valid to some degree, but none are simple or clear-cut enough to be properly fleshed out in just a handful of minutes.
Not to discredit the marginally interesting but nevertheless unmemorable human-interest stories dispersed throughout, but TikTok, Boom. spends way too much time on what is without question the least significant aspect of the documentary. It feels irresponsible to treat a segment on the alarming amounts of data from underage users harvested by TikTok with as much weight as a lengthy interview with a viral beatboxer who has made a great deal of money doing sponsored posts on his feed. The same goes for a brief mention on the legitimate threat predatory users pose to children on TikTok — this is abruptly swept aside in favor of a vapid discussion of campaign-sanctioned political ads posted in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election.
Any user who has spent time on TikTok knows that for every marginalized voice who manages to establish a successful platform for themselves, there are dozens more being targeted, torn down, and tarnished for simply being “different than.” This is a real strategy ingrained into the very fabric of TikTok: The algorithm is designed to systematically target and reduce the reach of anyone who looks, acts, speaks, or feels outside of the company’s traditionalist blueprint. The film is a serviceable debriefing on the basics of the app, but TikTok, Boom. ultimately squanders an opportunity to put a stop to the harmful social network before it reaches Facebook-level corruption and greed.
A trio of young girls cower in a tub while dramatic lighting and a tense score heighten the suspense of an approaching shadow, only for the curtain to be pulled back and reveal a giggling fourth friend merely playing pretend. From this very first scene, it’s obvious that Summering, James Ponsoldt’s newest film and his first since his extremely divisive Dave Eggers adaptation The Circle (2017), is going to be playing around with tonal shifts. This has never been a problem with him before, which is why it’s so surprising to see Ponsoldt stumble so badly here. His early works, such as The Spectacular Now (2013) and The End of the Tour (2015), managed to successfully juggle a whole range of moods to create effective, memorable films. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Summering, one of the biggest misfires in recent memory.
The film follows four young girls on the brink of middle school over the course of their final summer-break weekend: Dina (Madalen Mills), Lola (Sanai Victoria), Daisy (Lia Barnett), and Mari (Eden Grace Redfield). The quartet speaks nervously about the new and uncertain adventure that awaits them on Monday as they walk deeper and deeper into the woods to a place they’ve collectively dubbed “Terabithia” — an ominous sign for anyone familiar with Katherine Paterson’s novel Bridge to Terabithia (1977) or Gábor Csupó’s 2007 film adaptation of the same name. After a bizarre fantasy sequence that shows the girls taking flight toward what must be their secret hideout, they touch down at their destination and circle around a small tree they’ve covered with girly trinkets and knick-knacks. While issuing their farewells to the summer, Daisy wanders off and discovers a shocking sight: a dead man.
Instead of calling the police or one of their mothers as Mari suggests, the ensemble decides to try and solve the mystery of who the man was and how he ended up on the outskirts of their secret sanctum. The mood of the film is somewhat inconsistent up until this point, and it only grows more out of control from here. Each choice Dina, Lola, Daisy, and Mari make is even more absurd than the last, with every step in their amateur investigation growing increasingly unbelievable — especially given that this generation of kids would be much more likely to just take a photo or video of the man’s body, pass it around, and maybe even post it on social media until an adult found out and stepped in. No group of soon-to-be-middle-schoolers could possibly handle keeping a secret this big, especially a group as meek as this one. This isn’t just conjecture, either — remember the Logan Paul debacle from several years back?
On the surface, Summering had a great bit of potential: A feminine spin on Stand by Me (1986) that explores what it means to be a girl coming of age in the late ’10s and early ’20s could have been a hit if executed well. Alas, Ponsoldt is incapable of pulling it off. Serving as director and co-writer alongside first-timer Benjamin Percy, Ponsoldt (and, to a lesser extent, Percy) could not be more ill equipped for this job. A female director at the helm would not have made much of a difference here when the issues are so intrinsic to the male-penned screenplay. No young girl thinks, acts, or speaks like the kids of Summering, no matter how intelligent or exceptional they supposedly are. The same goes for the girls’ mothers (Ashley Madekwe, Sarah Cooper, Lake Bell, and Megan Mullally), who alternately over- or under-react to their daughters’ inexplicable behavior. In the end, the film’s fatal flaws are highlighted, underlined, and bolded by the Taylor Swift song that closes the film: “seven,” from the singer-songwriter’s album folklore, packs more nuanced nostalgia, childlike wonder, and melancholic yearning for the innocence of young girlhood in three-and-a-half minutes than Summering does in its entire length.