With Presence, a Hit Sundance Ghost Story, Steven Soderbergh is the Toast of His Old Haunt

When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1989, sex, lies, and videotape announced its director, Steven Soderbergh, as a prominent new voice. But Soderbergh’s dialogue-heavy drama—which the 26-year-old filmmaker wrote in eight days and shot with $1.2 million in financing—presented a soon-to-be-booming American independent-movie scene with a roadmap for small-budget success and distribution. Several months after it became the toast of Park City, sex, lies won the Palme D’or at Cannes and blossomed into a $24 million box-office hit (for a fledgling independent studio called Miramax) that helped put Robert Redford’s nascent festival on the map. The following year, Soderbergh earned an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.

Thirty-five years later, Soderbergh has crashed Sundance’s 40th anniversary with Presence, a sleek and slender ghost story that continues the prolific director’s attempts to push the boundaries of form, technique, and perspective. After making its world premiere over the weekend, the movie has quickly accrued its own spooky mythos—according to a report in Variety, the first screening prompted a couple of frightened walkouts and had cast members seeing it for the first time on the edge of their seats. Though there will likely be differences in opinion when the movie gets released—Neon snapped up the worldwide rights on Wednesday morning— Presence is more unnerving than flat-out scary, saving its jolts for a jarring ending that makes you rethink everything you’ve just watched. It’s one of the best offerings of the festival.

On its surface, the plot’s haunted-house conceit sounds pretty basic. For 85 taut minutes, Presence follows a family of four as they move into a large, three-bedroom home and grapple with deep-seated issues. There’s a lingering tension between spouses Rebecca (Lucy Liu) and Chris (Chris Sullivan ) as well as their teenage siblings Tyler (Eddy Maday) and Chloe (Callina Liang), who struggle to overcome their incompatible personalities. In between arguments and silent dinners, eerie things keep happening—books get moved, doors close at will, and large shelves crash to the floor—that might seem like uninspired tropes. Except for the primary twist: Soderbergh has chosen to film everything from the point of view of the house’s spectral entity, which hovers between bedrooms, floats up and down the stairs, and observes (and partially contributes to) the domestic drama.

At least for the first half of the movie, the roaming viewpoint—shot with lightweight digital cameras and wide, 14-mm lenses—operates like an invisible eavesdropper, following and listening into conversations and arguments taking place. There is no initial menace or intent to harm, and only Chloe can sense something lurking. Unlike the rest of her family—and specifically her overachieving athletic brother—Chloe is an introverted homebody still grappling with the recent overdoses of her two school friends, and her psychological state is perhaps making her more sensitive to whatever visits her room. It’s possible this spirit is benevolent (similar to the cloaked paranormal protagonist in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story), but the camera, whether it’s hiding in the closet or shaking above the bed, keeps its intentions close to the vest.

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