Full Disclosure: I’m not “covering” Sundance as I normally cover most festivals. Too many roles in something like opposition, blur and merge and converge and the strands pull apart. But how can I not share a few critical thoughts about what I’m screening. Welcome to the end of Day 2 as it bleeds into Day 3.
On the Count of Three, from director and co-star Jerrod Carmichael, is a buddy comedy that doesn’t live and die by the laughs or the punchlines. It is a drama clouded over by death and a joint longing for the end.
It feels like Kevin (Christopher Abbott) might be the featured protagonist, with his two-toned mop of hair and a beard masking his somewhat recognizable face (from Girls and Catch-22 rather than indie efforts like It Comes At Night or Tyrel). He’s secured in a mental facility, meeting with a counselor, trying his best to convince them that he’s sane enough for release. It is one of those seen-it-before exchanges that you know only shows how Kevin is totally not ready for release. When he realizes his ploy isn’t working, he falls back on the truth. He’s seen countless counselors before and knows that he’s a danger to himself. He doesn’t want to live and wonders why anyone should care. He has no desire to harm anyone else. He just knows life doesn’t offer him anything. The only good thing out there for him is his friend Val (Carmichael).
Now Val is the one that draws me in. He’s a Black man, in his early-30s, without much holding him down too, in the sense of grounding and security on an existential level. Of course, Black men like Val don’t usually have time to worry about the existential side of things. Living and hustling, staying one step ahead; that’s all that matters. Val hates his job and the prospects of using it to advance offer no comfort. His girlfriend (Tiffany Hadish) dumped him. His father (JB Smoove) stole money from him and skipped out. All he’s got is Kevin and the idea that they can help each other.
Kevin has always wanted to die and Val sees death as the best resolution to his situation, so he busts Kevin out of the mental ward, hands him a backpack with a couple of guns and proposes that they do this one last thing for each other. That image above – of Kevin and Val pointing guns at one another – is not a tease. They are poised, fairly early on and ready to do the deed, but Kevin wants to wait until later. Take the rest of the day, settle some scores, check in on some bucket-list type situations, before taking their final shots.
The pair exchange dark jokes and live the lives of characters who know they are fast-approaching the horizon line. I’m more intrigued by Val, in part because I’m also watching the ABC series A Million Little Things, which features a character named Rome Howard (Romany Malco) who in the very first episode comes close to killing himself. He doesn’t only because another character (and good friend) beats him to the punch and he along with an extended friend group struggle to deal with the aftermath of that decision.
Val and Rome, two Black men arrive at the unusual spot where they both want to kill themselves. Is this a moment for Black folks, where besides being seen, we can now have our inner wounds revealed as well? It is quite something to watch Rome slowly open himself up to his wife, father, and younger brother, after sharing this dark secret with his white male friends and a strange new woman who enters the friend group (by hooking up with one of his buddies a day after his aborted suicide attempt). Val, in similar fashion, immediately seeks out Kevin rather than telling anyone else.
On the Count of Three, as a premise, leans toward a slightly dark sitcom, but Carmichael, who has made a name for himself in that realm, knows how to maintain a discrete distance. Life can be funny (not ha-ha, but more curiously head-scratching) and the question seems to be why not embrace the absurdity and the bleakness. The result here is something that feels like an honest celebration and a reconciliation (of sorts) of what it means to be human. And Black in an indie world.
Writer-director Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee marries animation and documentary in a narrative that couldn’t be more authentic and heartbreaking in live-action. Imagine moving images inspired by literary nonfiction. Is this the way that a filmmaker/storyteller brings that extra narrative element into play, allowing that special something like life to live and breathe?
There is archival live-action footage interspersed throughout the telling of Amin’s story, as he gives voice to truths from his experiences that have been buried so long, they may best exist, even for him as hazy animated memories. It is allows the film to take on the shape of a beautiful monster, a narrative stitched together with fear and death and an unlikely innocence with the promise of forgiveness looming.
Rasmussen, as an animated character gently interrogates Amin about what it was like as a homosexual in Afghanistan, where there wasn’t even a word to describe being gay? Amin knew from the time he was five or six of his attraction to men. Jean-Claude Van Damme was an early crush. But who had time for such things when Amin’s father was taken away, disappeared by the government, and his older brother is pressed to join the military, but runs away. Always on the run, like so many Afghan boys.
That is when the title kicks in. Fleeing to escape. Fleeing to become. A much older brother meets Amin and the family (mother, brother Siad, and a couple of sisters) in Russia with plans to bring them to Sweden, where he lives. They are forced to stay off the streets as their Visas expire, waiting a year before traffickers take the sisters, promising freedom and opportunity in Sweden. Shipping containers, blocked in storage holds, reminiscent of those scenes from Season 2 of The Wire. Somehow the sisters survived, but cannot speak of the experience.
It is easier, as someone who has never been an immigrant, to watch this non-live action rendering of the journey. But I have no doubt, it would be difficult, possibly more so, for someone who had lived this experience to watch those drawn figures and hear the account. Who do you choose to help, to save, if the boat begins to sink? There is an innocence to watching it play out like this. A Norwegian cruise ship passes them, but all he feels is shame. So close to what was longed for, but frozen by the look on the faces of the passengers looking down on them. Before the Estonian authorities are called and come back to claim them.
How, why would you want to share these experiences with anyone, after somehow escaping? Burying your past, but living for those who gave you the opportunity. Eventually he winds up on a flight to Copenhagen.
I watch Flee thinking about what my life was like at this time (in 1995). I was older (maybe the same age as Siad, still taking care of their mother in Russia), in my mid-20s, but still close enough to remember. He told the smuggler’s story during his interview. Everyone died or was killed back in Afghanistan. He writes it all down, as if that makes it true. And he’s allowed to remain.
When do you stop running? Why are marginalized lives – even across generations – so similar and why can’t we come together to do something about our situations?