Sundance Diary, Part 1: Searching for Serendipity

Thursday, 1 p.m. Eastern time: This year, along with thousands of other people, I will be attending the Sundance Film Festival from the comfort of my own home. This is a little bewildering, since if any phrase in the English language is the opposite of “the comfort of your own home,” it is surely “the Sundance Film Festival.”

Journalists covering the festival routinely sprinkle their copy with chronicles of hardship: waiting for shuttle buses in frozen parking lots; trudging through snow to far-flung screening rooms; arriving too late to secure a seat at the premiere of a much-hyped movie; being served a single ounce of whiskey (the local legal limit) at the end of a long day of movie-watching; contending with bad condo Wi-Fi.

There will be none of that this year. And also none of the gossip, buzz, conviviality and community that make the ski-resort town of Park City, Utah, into a hectic pilgrimage destination every January. But the movies are still there — or here, rather, in my Brooklyn living room. So instead of packing my warmest fleece and sturdiest boots and flying west, I’m studying the program and trying to map out a viewing schedule for the next five days. The Wi-Fi signal is reliable. The liquor store on the corner is open.

Sundance is shorter this year, with fewer movies spread across the calendar, but it still feels packed and a little overwhelming to contemplate. It’s been a few years since I was there in person, so I’m a little out of practice, but a familiar festival paralysis is stealing over me. Every time slot offers an array of choices. Tonight I could go with “Coda,” an entry in the U.S. Dramatic Competition starring Emilia Jones as (to quote the program) “the only hearing child of a deaf family.” Or “In the Same Breath,” an out-of-competition documentary about the responses to Covid-19 in China and the United States. Tomorrow at dinnertime there’s one fictional feature about the imminent destruction of Earth by an asteroid, another about a poisonous cloud that forces humanity into quarantine, and a documentary about wildfires.

Unlike in those movies, the stakes in any individual viewing choice aren’t too high: there will usually be another chance to see what I’ve missed. But my list of maybes now runs to almost 70 features, and even without factoring in time spent in line or on a shuttle, there won’t be enough hours to see them all. That fact is what induces festival FOMO — the unshakable anxiety that whatever film I happen to be watching at a given moment must be the wrong one. Opening up new browser windows isn’t a solution. And the navigational aid of word-of-mouth — the tip from a colleague; the overheard conversation on a bus — won’t be available in quite the same way.

What I’m hoping to find, though, is the serendipity of being blindsided by something wonderful and wholly unanticipated. The best way to experience a festival is with no idea of what lies in store, even if the surroundings could hardly be more familiar.

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