From Tammy Faye to UFOs, the 2024 Sundance Episodic Series Are All About Family

Yaya (played by Camryn Jones) just wants to walk to school with her boyfriend. Living on the South Side of Chicago in a house overflowing with family members, the only thing that gets the exhausted teen out of bed every morning is knowing Dre (Travis Wolfe Jr.) will be waiting on her stoop. The only issue: her protective brother, Mouse (Victor Musoni), doesn’t approve. He thinks her friends aren’t a good influence — they show up late to school too often, eat too much junk food, and don’t pay enough attention to their surroundings. Mouse, clearly, just wants his little sister to be safe, get good grades, and live a better life, but by intimidating Dre, he’s unwittingly snuffing out her one spark of joy — joy that manifests itself via her favorite hobby: dance.

Yaya loves to dance, and “Me/We” — one of three entries in Sundance’s 2024 Pilot Showcase, and eight total series in the festival’s Episodic section — shows off her skills in fanciful sequences featuring full-out choreography and music. Directed by Nzingha Stewart, the episode’s first scene follows Yaya as she rolls out of bed and gets ready for school, greeting various members of the household as she moves from room to room, all to the tunes of Chicago’s own Chance the Rapper. Later, at her school locker, she has a dance battle with her rival classmate. The next day, she hops and shimmies down the subway steps with Dre. These emblematic fantasies build to a big closing number with the whole family, outside their home, in the middle of the street.

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It’s jubilant and catchy, sweet and meaningful — the kind of extra effort that helps to keep people talking about a 27-minute pilot they saw at a film festival, but also integrated into the plot in a way that keeps it from feeling extraneous or superficial. (Kudos to writers Keyonna Taylor and Rob McElhenney, who previously collaborated on the latter’s acclaimed comedies, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Mythic Quest.”). In between dance numbers, there’s witty banter, family games, and a clever climactic “trial” presided over by Judge Grandma and Uncle B the bailiff. The cast takes the spotlight and runs away with it, whether they’re shaking a leg or getting a laugh. Yes, the interpretative dance numbers make it a good fit for the off-kilter Sundance brand, but the charming ensemble gliding through a harmonious sitcom structure make it a successful TV series.

Give me 10 episodes of “Me/We,” and I’ll watch every one.

Taylor’s pilot relies on Yaya’s convivial, inviting home-life to welcome audiences to a comforting family sitcom, but Mel Eslyn’s pilot, “Penelope,” relies on the absence of family to cultivate a sense of adventure. Also a half-hour long and co-written by Mark Duplass, the second entry in Sundance’s Pilot Showcase follows the titular 16-year-old as she runs away from home. More accurately, she walks away from a family camping trip — or, to use Penelope’s (Megan Stott) own words, “I’m not running away. I feel like I’m running toward something.”

She’s the first to admit that the aforementioned “something” is unknown. Even her departure is so casually executed, it’s clear Penelope didn’t plan out her escape, so much as she gave in to a long-held desire. An extended walk in the woods leads to a general store, where she scrambles to buy camping gear before hopping a freight train heading out of town. Later, when she stops riding the rails long enough to gather additional supplies, she encounters the greatest threat to any susceptible onscreen daughter: a cute boy with a guitar.

But Sam (Austin Abrams) isn’t any more or less than he seems. He’s not creepy or aggressive, and he’s not the “something” she decides to run toward. He’s just a like-minded young’n trying to make a connection with people instead of shilling his a “brand” online. As they both stumble to explain themselves to one another, Eslyn’s sweet script blooms. Penelope takes precautions to care for herself, but the series is rooted in curiosity, not fear. She meets kind strangers and indifferent ones. She has meaningful exchanges and pointless frustrations. She’s just trying to figure it out, and the hook of the simple, succinct, often silent pilot is Penelope herself: What will she learn out there? What’s calling her? And how will she find her way home, wherever “home” may be?

Megan Stott appears in Penelope by Mel Eslyn, an official selection of the Episodic program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival
Megan Stott in “Penelope”Courtesy of Sundance Institute / Nathan M. Miller

While these initial Sundance pilots only offer an episode each to chew on, the Spanish-language drama “La Mesias” has already produced a full season. Co-written and co-directed by Javier Ambrossi and Javier Calvo (“Veneno” on HBO Max), the trippy mystery also hinges on two siblings. Enric (Roger Casamajor) and Irene (Macarena García) grew up in a broken home, raised by a mother (Ana Rujas) who neglects them and sent away by a father who abused them. Their childhood stories trickle out in flashbacks, starting with the moment their parents split, but the primary arc takes place decades later when Enric and Irene are grown but not healed.

Enric works as a camera assistant on a film shoot, but it’s hardly a passion. He gets distracted during the shoot and avoids his fellow crew members when off the clock. One night, when sitting in the hotel bar, the news on the TV above the bar airs a segment on a viral video. A group of young women sing and dance, backed by hypnotic montages and layered with squiggly colorful lines. Entranced, horrified, or both, Enric wets himself.

Things don’t get much better from there, as drunken nights lead to difficult conversations and a search for his long-lost sister. Irene, meanwhile, has it together, if only on the surface. She works as the head seamstress at a garment company, keeping a close eye on her overworked subordinates and making good money. Her home is sleek, her partner seems solid enough, and plenty of friends come by for her birthday party. But she sticks pins in her hand at work and hides a scar over her right eye with her dangling bangs — there was some sort of split with her brother, as well as the rest of her family, and she’s not willing to let him back in again.

Hovering over entrenched family trauma are little green men — well, rather big green men, actually. Enric’s movie is shooting near Montserrat Mountain, a mystical location home to multiple UFO sightings and what some consider a portal between worlds. Whenever he’s feeling vulnerable and in physical contact with strangers — be it a random hook-up or a drunken brawl — Enric senses long, pale fingers reaching over his back. He panics, as any sane man would, but the flashbacks show the issue dates back to his childhood. Did something happen to him back then? Something supernatural, perhaps?

“La Mesias” carries a completely different vibe than “Me/We,” but they’re both family stories, at heart, and if you can dial into its frequency (and sustain a challenging combination of lengthy episodes and heavy themes), there’s much to admire. Much more than can be found in “Better Angels: The Gospel According to Tammy Faye,” a four-part VICE documentary that’s so eager to valorize its title subject, it neglects to address her most prominent sin: invoking the Lord to take money.

Even if you’re OK with honoring a pioneer in one of the world’s worst criminal enterprises, the documentary itself lacks an insightful point of view. Spanning her entire life yet dwelling on the most salacious details, “Better Angels” takes the shape of a conventional doc, using talking heads and archival footage to shape its vision of Tammy Faye Messner, a televangelist, singer, and TV host who died from cancer in 2007. Jay Bakker, her first-born son with the disgraced minister Jim Bakker, plays a prominent role in framing the narrative, speaking to family history and providing director Dana Adam Shapiro with considerable access. (He’s also given a consultant credit on the series.) “She’s not just make-up and camp,” he says. “It’s why I’m sitting here, it’s why I’m doing this documentary.”

That’s all well and good… for a while. Plenty of Messner’s life has been overshadowed by her husband’s horrific actions, and if the family wasn’t satisfied with Jessica Chastain’s scripted film, well, they weren’t alone. (Chastain does appear in the doc, albeit for two very brief, entirely forgettable scenes.) Messner’s public support of the LGBTQ community during the height of the AIDS epidemic cannot be overpraised, and we get to hear from the late Rev. Stephen Peters, who was HIV-positive when she interviewed him on live TV. Peters helps explain how her compassion helped dispel myths about the disease while humanizing people who were otherwise treated like lepers.

A still from ConBody VS Everybody by Debra Granik, an official selection of the Episodic Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival
“Conbody vs. Everybody” Courtesy of Sundance Institute

But no matter how great an impact that had, it’s still only one aspect of her life. “Better Angels” is so eager to distinguish Messner from her ex-husband — a man who was not only convicted of multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy, but accused of rape, as well — that it doesn’t ask enough questions about her work with the church, preferring to absolve her of any blame for what became of televangelism. Nor does it bother to examine Messner beyond her reactions to the headlines, settling to entertain in the same gawky way as the tabloid coverage it criticizes.

With her son as the documentary’s leading voice, “Better Angels” also comes across as a family affair, as does one last Sundance Episodic entry: “Conbody vs. Everybody,” a six-part documentary series from Oscar nominee Debra Granik. The two episodes screened at the festival are ostensibly focused on Coss Marte, the founder of CONBODY, a gym rooted in workout routines that Marte came up with while in prison. Now, he hires formerly incarcerated fitness enthusiasts while raising awareness about the business, as well as his employees. Marte is almost always working. He’s got a hustler’s spirit, but not at the cost of a personal touch. So many scenes see him having lunch with colleagues, helping them set-up at the gym, or even traveling with them for family events. There’s an unspoken bond between these oft-ostracized individuals, and they’re all extremely aware of the discrimination they face, as well as the unique opportunities CONBODY provides.

The fourth episode (and the first screened at Sundance) opens on news footage of Barack Obama becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit the inside of a federal prison. “I think we have a tendency sometimes to take for granted or think it’s normal that so many young people end up in our criminal justice system,” he said. “It’s not normal. That’s what strikes me [about this visit.] There but for the grace of God.”

That intro, though, is mainly a framing device. For a series with a brand name in the title, “Conbody vs. Everybody” is impeccably balanced and keenly focused. It isn’t preachy or stats heavy. Instead of relying on academic or professional experts, it leads by example, letting Marte and his staff speak for themselves, whether it’s listening to them talk about the challenges they face as former inmates or watching as they consistently support each other. Granik’s direction is compassionate and clear, and she gets the most from her subjects. One trainer makes the striking remark that when juvenile detention centers started to feel like home, that was when he knew he needed therapy. Another staffer experiences a sudden, unfathomable loss, and Marte goes to the funeral with him, holding his shoulders as he weeps in the hotel cafe.

Meanwhile, Marte is trying to raise his son. “It weighs on me,” he says in an interview with Granik, discussing the “risk and violence” facing kids these days. “What do I tell Cathaniel to protect him? I don’t want to scare my son, but I want him to understand.” Soon after, Marte asks his son about school shooting drills. “Are you scared of that?” “Nah,” Cathaniel says, but you can tell Marte’s own fears aren’t exactly quelled.

“Conbody vs. Everybody” (which would make for an excellent double-feature with Richard Linklater’s 2024 Sundance entry, “God Save Texas: Hometown Prison” — more on that doc soon) is also judicious in choosing when we see him processing everything on his own and when we see Marte sharing his personal experiences to educate others. He talks about “people [in government] who think they know what we need,” emphasizing why it’s important for his brother, Christopher, to speak on behalf of the formerly — and currently — incarcerated. At an art gallery, he demonstrates a go-to prison “recipe” that consists of ramen noodles and Doritos. He volunteers as a judge for an organization giving out grants to entrepreneurs who were recently released from prison.

Despite his admirable efforts (truly, I cannot imagine doing everything he does), Marte doesn’t come across as an anomaly; he’s just the leader of a team of like-minded individuals, working toward their shared goals, in order to create better lives for everyone around them. They’re a found family, as strong and supportive as Yaya’s tight-knit relatives in Chicago, as passionate and complicated as Enric and Irene’s decades-in-the-making kinship, and as scrutinized and resilient as Tammy Faye and her kids. All of these connect back to our shared origins, all of them with something distinct to say about what families can mean to all of us.

“Me/We,” “Penelope,” and “Las Mesias” premiered as part of the Episodic Pilot Showcase at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. “Better Angels: The Gospel According to Tammy Faye” and “Conbody vs. Everybody” were part of the broader Episodic section. Each series is seeking U.S. distribution.

Correction: An earlier version of this story implied that Jim Bakker was convicted of raping an employee. He was not convicted, only accused, and the woman was not his employee.

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