Reel Dad: Sundance's screening of 'Passing' highlights the art of subtlety

"Passing" screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Film Festival / Contributed photo

Every filmmaker makes choices when making a film.

How the look of the movie can support its message, how a camera can visually advance the narrative and explore the characters, and how the actors can bring their portrayals to life rather than simply perform. How a director makes these decisions determines a film’s impact; experiencing a film defined by brave, creative and smart choices can be a joy.

As an actress, Rebecca Hall impresses with precision in her portrayals, a specific attention to detail, and her powerful use of gesture and expression. It’s no surprise that, in her first film as director, she brings the same command of the subtle to a tale filled with nuance. Hall’s interpretation of Nella Larson’s novel rarely relies on words to tell its story. Instead, the director chooses a distinct visual approach that forces us to pay attention. She chooses to shoot “Passing” in black-and-white to highlight its specific time period and, rather than place these images on a wide screen, returns to the almost-square 4x3 ratio that all but disappeared from movies in the 1950s. These bold choices instantly communicate a story that is frozen in time yet relevant to any period. Hall gives us a story filled with layers of personal agenda and reaction in a narrative as complex as it is compelling, told in this most distinctive way

Because of Hall’s choices, it’s easy for us to believe we are in New York City in the late 1920s, when wealthy Blacks live in luxury in beautiful homes in Harlem. Because races remain divided across America, some lighter-skinned Blacks choose to “pass” as white. One day, by accident, a wealthy Black woman named Clare runs into a girlhood friend named Irene. As they begin to catch up on years past, Irene announces that she now lives as a white woman, married to a white businessman, and the mother of a light-skinned child. The socially-conscious Clare tries to maintain her distance from this old friend until Irene sees this chance encounter as an opportunity to return to a familiar world. How these women connect and compete for roles they have chosen gives Hall the substance to create a fascinating look into how people process differences and disappointments.

The director beautifully creates a fairytale world for this very real tale to inhabit. Her visual choices give the film a sense of artificiality that gives the story that much more substance. By relying on the visual settings and expressions to connect with the audience, Hall builds the suspense about what may ultimately transpire between these ladies. And by inspiring strong performances from her cast, especially the luminous Ruth Negga as Clare, the director makes us feel we travel back in time to a place we may or may not recognize.

As a festival, Sundance celebrates the creative urgency filmmakers bring to their work. Hall deserves our praise for the brave choices she makes with this movie.

“Passing” is not yet rated and runs 1 hour and 38 minutes. For more information about this year’s Sundance Film Festival, go to sundance.org/festivals .

Summary: Passing

Content: High. Two women try to be heard as they navigate the challenges of racial authenticity in the 1920s.

Entertainment: High. Director Rebecca Hall makes a series of brave creative choices that give the film its urgency and humanity.

Message: High. No matter the film is set almost 100 years, its message rings true today as we continue to search for racial fairness.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to examine what it takes to progress as people makes a visit to the movies essential.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older children, ask them how such a story might unfold today, and what may or may not have changed.