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(The 2024 Sundance Film Festival runs January 18-28. Check out Melanie Addington’s movie review of Presence. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

In Steven Soderbergh’s newest, Presence, which world premiered at Sundance this week, the stripped-down supernatural thriller immerses us into the story with the camera point of view acting as the spirit in the home. The film stars Lucy Liu (Elementary), and Chris Sullivan (This is Us) as the parents with children Callina Liang and Eddy Maday. We are introduced to our main character, The Presence, before the family as the opening shot stares out the window of an empty house and then ethereally floats through the house until we see the family moving in. Written by David Koepp, the story is a familiar haunted house, teen girl story but stands out with the cinematography by Soderbergh and bone-chilling score by Zack Ryan. 

We learn through the random moments where the Presence listens in to family conversations from intimate fights between the married couple on a slightly suspicious work choice made by the wife to the clear daddy’s girl and mama’s boy power dynamic with their family. Much like other films at this year’s Sundance, the film wrestles with grief, aging, and a world on the edge of a nervous breakdown. While we never reach peak scariness with the film, it is the quieter taut suspense that keeps us glued to the screen.

The performances are strong throughout with a special note of Callina Liang, the lead of the film as she stays in the room that the Presence tends to treat as a home base. As a devastating teenage story plays out, we are forced to watch barely able to do anything about it which leads to the frustration of bearing witness in a silent manner to horrible atrocities done to many teenagers. As many films lecture us about big issues, this one forces us to watch unwillingly and not look away from the reality many of our teens live in without communicating it to anyone. 

Unlike many poltergeist films, this one starts slowly and calmly, with only minor changes to the point where only the teenage daughter notices. Besides being a teenage girl, she recently lost two friends to apparent fentanyl overdoses and her grief is consuming her. Where it becomes more interesting is when a medium (Julia Fox) comes to the house after the entire family experiences a more intense poltergeist moment. She explains to the family how 100-year-old homes are bound to have something in them before becoming drawn to a mirror that  she uses as a potential portal to see what ghost may be with them. With a concrete explanation of how the “shine” can happen to anyone especially if they’ve dealt with trauma or sometimes just born with it that seeing through the veil to the other side often weakens people and that the daughter has the gift. 

The film keeps the tension with the unnerving use of the camera as people almost catch the eye, feeling the presence, putting us as the viewer into the role of voyeur with the stress of getting caught. Often as we watch a movie we observe neutrally what is happening up on the screen, but are rarely brought into the action so concretely. But few jump scares ever happen as we are so present in the action that slowly rolls out until a sudden climax that wraps together the whole story in almost too neat a bundle. The film reminds us how trivialities get us nowhere and that life is so short and so quick to disappear at a moment’s notice without ever banging our heads against the wall to learn it. 

Soderbergh’s been making challenging work starting with sex, lies, and videotape (1989 Sundance Film Festival, Audience Award: Dramatic) and The Girlfriend Experience (2009 Sundance Film Festival). He remains constant in the independent space even when doing studio work at this point in his career. Presence may not have groundbreaking qualities that shock the story, but the masterful attempt to continue to play with the idea of what cinema is remains of much value in this film. 

– Melanie Addington (@MelAddington)

2024 Sundance Film Festival; Steven Soderbergh; Presence


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Melanie Addington is the Executive Director of Tallgrass Film Association as of 2021. She has worked in the film festival world since 2006, first as a volunteer, and then eventually becoming the Oxford Film Festival Executive Director in August 2015. She used to be a reporter for the Oxford Eagle (a community newspaper) and then Pizza Magazine Quarterly (a global trade magazine). She still loves pizza. And she still writes for Hammer to Nail and Film Festival Today about her other great love: movies. She is from Southern California originally but lived in the South for 20 years. She now resides in Wichita, KS, and has one son.

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