'Miss Americana' Review: Taylor Swift Grows Up In This Sweet, Funny, Emotional Crowd-Pleaser [Sundance 2020]

Taylor Swift sits in a window box, pouring over the diaries she kept when she was a kid. They're childish, but they're also full of big ambitions and dreams. She muses on the super seriousness of some of her words, and amusingly tells us that at one point she went through a phase where she wrote everything with a quill. "I had an inkwell," she says before rolling her eyes at herself.

This is how Miss Americana begins, and we don't know it yet, but it's setting the stage for the story as a whole. This isn't so much a documentary about Taylor Swift as it is a documentary about Taylor Swift growing up – letting go of childish things and realizing she's much more than some "good girl." It's about a talented young woman spending the bulk of her life in the limelight before realizing she doesn't have to worry about making everyone happy all the time.

A documentary like this comes with a question: just how honest is it, really? Director Lana Wilson and her team of editors have cut together a snazzy, flashy, emotional crowd-pleaser that packs a punch and promises to show us the real Taylor Swift. But Swift obviously had input into the doc – she allowed the camera crew to follow her everywhere. One must assume that she had some sort say in the final cut. And yet...Miss Americana feels brutally honest. There's no sense here that Swift is mugging for the camera, or holding back. Because she seems so achingly human here. She's funny, she's charming, she's a bit of a dork. It's easy to become endeared to the pop star as the cameras roll.

Miss Americana kicks-off with Swift receiving news that her album "Reputation" has received nearly no Grammy nominations (it did score a nom for Best Pop Vocal Album, but we don't see Swift learning that news). She looks crestfallen, although she immediately says "That's fine, this is fine." But her voice shakes a bit. And from here we're thrust back through Swift's rise to fame, starting out at the age of 14 and becoming a sensation over the years. It's a rosy look at a young girl become more successful than her wildest dreams.

But then it grinds to a halt at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, where, after Swift scores a Best Female Video award, Kanye West rushes the stage to declare that Beyonce should've been the real winner. The moment leaves Swift spinning, because it somehow never occurred to her that someone out there wouldn't like her. From her teen years into her late 20s, Swift's entire modus operandi was to be liked. Everything she did, every action she took, was in the name of making others happy, and hoping that happiness would be returned to her. After playing a huge show, Swift leans back in the car ride home and dreamily says of the crowd: "They were so happy." She's thinking about the screaming fans – but not herself.

It's easy to shrug off the problems of rich and powerful people, but the intimate nature of Miss Americana lets us see how surreal Swift's world can be – where hundreds of shrieking fans literally camp out in front of her house, where talking heads go on Fox News and call her a slut, where she somehow keeps getting pulled into a beef with Kanye West. These are problems none of us will ever have to face, but it's impossible not to sympathize with Swift here.

And the megastar also clues us into issues she's dealt with that are very much the types of problems of everyday people. She confesses that for a period of time she suffered from an eating disorder – she'd catch a paparazzi pic of herself, decide she looked too fat, and literally starve herself. She also talks about her sexual assault at the hands of morning DJ David Mueller. There were witnesses to – and even a photograph of – the assault, and yet Mueller still dared to accuse Swift of lying and then sue her. Swift countersued (for a dollar) – and won.

The sexual assault and the events following it are something of a catalyst here. Even though Swift had already spent years as a power superstar, it's the act of being believed in court that convinces her she has real power. Power to not just entertain, but to enact change. As a result, she makes what could've been a career-damning decision: to get political.

With her background in country music, Swift had been trained to never get political, with the swift damnation of the Dixie Chicks for criticizing George W. Bush held up as a prime example. But as the singer watches the odious Marsha Blackburn run for office in Swift's home state of Tennessee, she decides enough is enough. Disgusted with Blackburn's seemingly anti-women stance, Swift decides to publicly endorse her Democrat opponent. It's a move that leads Swift's management team to have a conniption fit. They flat-out do not want her to do this. But tearfully, the artist takes a stand. She has a voice – and it's time she used it. Despite Swift's best efforts, Blackburn ultimately wins – a move that stuns Swift, but then empowers her to keep pushing. To have hope in a future where fascist-leaning Donald Trump supporters are no longer in power. (Trump gets a casual mention here and there, with one of the funniest moments arriving when Swift is informed her political stance could lead Trump to attack her, and Swift promptly replying: "Fuck it. I don't care.")

Miss Americana isn't a political screed, though. The politics take up the back half of the film, and result in powerful scenes. But in between it all we're treated to glimpses into Swift's everyday life: she drinks wine (with ice) with a friend; she hangs out with her cats; she spends hours and hours in the studio coming up with the music and lyrics for her recently released album "Lover." This stuff is light and fluffy, and some may find it to be little more than filler. But the singer's spirit shines through: it's fun to watch her just be herself, to get worked up over her own lyrics, to chow down on a burrito, to be human. But most of all, it's empowering to watch Swift finally come into her own. To realize she doesn't have to give a fuck about making everyone in the world like her anymore as long as she's found a way to like herself./Film Rating: 8 out of 10