Nice weather this year for Sundance filmgoers, not so much for skiiers: a light dusting to make things pretty, but ice-free roads and sidewalks. Everything at the fest — including all 17 films below — is a premiere except for its “Spotlight” series, which screens a few notables previously shown elsewhere on the festival circuit (I saw one of them in New York last fall). But not everything is “in competition” and thus eligible for an award. You just have to get used to it.
A FUTILE AND STUPID GESTURE**** Doug Kenney, co-founder of National Lampoon and co-writer of ANIMAL HOUSE, is a humor-writing idol of mine, much as Brando or James Dean might be to an actor — Doug’s natural blazing talent was off the scale. So don’t expect any objectivity here: the fact that this movie even exists is worth a great deal to me. Director David Wain & co. obviously intended to create the type of biopic Doug himself might have written: arch, irreverent, self-aware. (Doug himself would have probably turned in something about teenage Venusians invading Chagrin Falls, Ohio, but never mind.) One feature he might have admired is the narrator, “Modern Doug,” played by the seventyish Martin Mull. The character itself is a metafiction since the real Doug didn’t last half that long, but he makes possible a current-day take on what is essentially a period piece, that period being the cultural adolescence of the Me Generation. We pick up our hero at Harvard and watch him co-claw the National Lampoon to prominence, then “graduate” to Hollywood excess. All the people around him, some of whom you’ll recognize from real life, are played by actors and comics and improv people who must have agitated to be in this picture. (There are some human Easter eggs too: for example, one of the magazine publishers pitched by the Lampoon is played by Mark Metcalf, better known to ANIMAL HOUSE fans as “Neidermeyer.”) Modern Doug pauses at one point to note that all these actors may not resemble the people they’re playing, but face it, does Will Forte (as movie Doug) really look like he’s in his twenties? He says this as a long list of factual inaccuracies crawls by on the screen too quickly to read. That’s the tone. Everybody, including Forte, is wearing era-appropriate wigs, so it’s a little like attending some perverse NatLamp-themed Halloween party: the only guy who physically falls into his role is Thomas Lennon as the acerbic Michael O’Donoghue. But even so bewigged, Domhnail Gleeson is superb as Henry Beard, Doug’s writing partner on both Lampoons, Harvard and National: he’s the best thing in the movie, nailing his American accent and providing desperately needed human emotion. If you don’t remember these days with fondness, you might not prevail over an hour and half of unrelenting sound and fury. But you can test a small dose right now, because it’s streaming on Netflix.
NANCY** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: Christina Choe) Now that we’ve survived a bout of misogny and infantilism, let’s move on to the main event: chick flicks!!! (Sorry, I promise to shake off all the remaining Doug Kenney dust. There.) A serious subtext this year was, many more films about and/or by women. One day we shall attain that pinnacle at which even Oscar voters renounce their historic snubbing of…fantasy films. (Go, Guillermo!) But until then, this is a notable and welcome wave. I didn’t like this one as much as I liked that it was here, which is only a baby step. Death mercifully frees a mousy, repressed, miserable 35-year-old temp (Andrea Riseborough, whom we will see later at a slightly more flattering angle) from her shrewish adopted mother. Meanwhile, a grieving couple (played with skill and taste by Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron) hasn’t given up on their 5-year-old daughter, gone missing 30 years ago. A digital construct that shows what the daughter might look like now matches our Nancy perfectly, so she presents herself to the couple. Does she really believe herself the kidnapped lost soul? Might she actually be? Ambiguity abounds, any tension is psychological only, and that vacant look on Nancy’s face is pasted on for the entire running time. After many Sundance screenings over the years, I’m well prepared for grey skies and plot bleakness, but this one failed to move either me or the antiheroine.
THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER*** (U.S. Dramatic Award for Directing: Sara Colangelo) Again with the antiheroine. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a mousy, repressed, miserable teacher and wannabe writer who discovers a poetic prodigy in her lower Manhattan classroom, a kid who periodically goes into a trance and spits out genius. Her interest inexorably ratchets down into obsession, which consumes her more and more powerfully and leads her to morally ambiguous (non-kid-threatening) acts that would basically make you punch out Teach if it were your family. It’s based on an Israeli film which I haven’t seen. The upside is that this is the type of character dissection that comes completely out of left field; Gyllenhaal owns the screen and really sweeps you up into her own madness as you flail for reasons to empathize with her. But by the time you finally throw up your hands and admit she’s just nuckin futs, the picture is basically over. A minor but hanging beef is that the kid’s poetry, which is supposed to be amazing enough to stun both a writing class and a public audience, was for me just meh, exceptional only because it came from a five-year-old. For this non-poet, it doesn’t work as well on its own, and that’s a critical plot point. A startling bit of MOS dialog is the last thing we hear; nice.
TULLY**** What working actress is braver than Charlize Theron? She shaves her head to race in the desert. She de-glams and gains weight (and gets an Oscar for it). I guess knowing you’re gorgeous must give your ego some room to tear the image down. But I’ve never seen her look more normally human on purpose than here as Marlo, a bloated ninth-month expectant mother. She already has young children, including an emotionally and physically exasperating ADD son, and as the picture opens she’s on the verge of clinical exhaustion and hasn’t even delivered yet. The idea of a “night nanny” to give Marlo some overnight sleep — the nanny will wake her whenever it’s time for feeding — sounds unusual at first, but soon after the baby’s born, young Tully (Mackenzie Davis) shows up at the door. I have to stop here, because screenwriter Diablo Cody is way ahead of us both, but let’s just say the engaging story kept us discussing it that night and into the next day, and will probably have the same effect on you. Both leads show us real chemistry; they are utterly believable and thoroughly charming. This one grows on you — you may well want to see it a second time.
PUZZLE**** A mousy, repressed Connecticut housewife and mother (Kelly Macdonald) discovers that she is a savant at jigsaw puzzling, which quickly becomes her secret passion. This character is particularly interesting because her life is only humdrum, not miserable: it’s grounded in reality and keenly recognizable by the audience. She has a kindhearted if old-fashioned husband (David Denman of THE OFFICE) who owns a garage, and some fine sons, one of whom has his own secret passion. It has never occurred to her that there can be more to life. But when she begins practicing for a doubles competition with a Manhattan tech-fortune maven (a pitch-perfect Irrfan Khan), another dimension opens: her black-and-white world is now in full color. It would be impossible to explain to her family, so she sneaks train trips into the city — and, of course, something’s gotta give. Macdonald’s subtle, delicate performance reminded me of Isabelle Huppert: the movie’s on her shoulders and she carries it beautifully.
BLAZE*** (Special Jury Award for Achievement in Acting: Benjamin Dickey) Ethan Hawke’s adoring biopic of Blaze Foley, the “outlaw country” legend who was better known to fellow musicians than to the general public. Hawke weaves through three separate timelines: the young Foley’s love affair with (co-screenwriter) Sybil Rosen; a drunken but searing live set at Austin’s Outhouse bar; and a nostalgic radio interview with two close friends. The idea of this mashup is better than the result, and if every bit of Blaze’s story is new to you, it might feel somewhat like much ado. What saves the film is onscreen authenticity. Hawke went to the trouble of hiring genuine musicians who really play on camera. Folk singer Ben Dickey goes a great job in the harrowing title role, but for my money the real discovery is Charlie Sexton as Blaze’s friend Townes Van Zandt. (That’s him above.) Sexton is a longtime guitarist in Bob Dylan’s touring band, but you’d swear this natural raconteur was a veteran character actor. He has a great future in movies if anything ever happens to his pickin’ fingers.
EIGHTH GRADE**** A surprise from Bo Burnham, the snarky standup who shined as part of the comic Greek chorus in THE BIG SICK. The surprise is that Burnham displays unabashed, unironic heart and emotion as he follows an eighth-grader through a time of maximum awkwardness. She’s more than a schoolgirl but not quite yet a woman, and thanks to social media she’s part of the first generation that constantly self-documents, probably living far too much of its life in public. Newcomer Elsie Fisher is tremendous in the lead: she makes you laugh and breaks your heart. How can a man write this stuff? Very carefully — but Fisher’s “Kayla Day” is clearly a projection of the director’s own adolescent social ineptitude. At the q&a Burnham noted that it was no problem directing newly teenaged actors: to them it was s.o.p., just another selfie lens. I can’t wait for his next film: he’s good.
HEARTS BEAT LOUD*** (Festival Closing Night) This is a fairly standard story about a taut single father-daughter relationship, but with a big switcheroo. Stereotypically, with her prodigious musical talent she would want to cut the apron strings and blast off into show business. Here her dad is a onetime pro musician who now runs a failing Brooklyn record store, and she just wants to get into pre-med at UCLA. But that voice! As a way of staying connected, he keeps goading her into setting the books down for a regular “jam sesh,” and one day they noodle together the title song, which turns into a minor Spotify hit. The best thing about this picture is the musical numbers: Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons are really playing live, and their joy is infectious. An impromptu “concert” in the cramped record store is about as good as it gets on film. Aside from the music this is only a trifle, but it really leaves you in a good place.
BURDEN**** (U.S. Dramatic Audience Award) A tough, gritty dramatization of a true story of racism and redemption that happened in South Carolina in the Nineties. Garrett Hedlund is calmly sensational as Mike Burden, a stepped-on white-trash orphan who discovers a wider world: Hedlund has developed this shrugging, schlumpy gait that makes him look like a whipped dog. When Dixie shit disturber and Mike’s mentor Tom Wilkinson (very scary) opens a “Redneck Museum” celebrating Klan history in a downtown storefront, he’s basically daring the cowed black community to do something suicidal. But nuance is entering Mike’s life in the form of girlfriend and single mom Andrea Riseborough (from NANCY; she was in four movies showing at the fest) and, crucially, a black pastor (Forest Whitaker) who has more Christian values in his little finger than does an entire tv “ministry.” It’s tough to watch at times but it feels right; you get to see prejudice and, uh, clannishness on both sides of the racial divide.
DARK MONEY*** (Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award: Katy Chevingy & Marilyn Ness) “Dark money” describes unlimited, anonymous contributions to political parties and even individual campaigns, as long as there’s a pro forma arm’s length. The last shackles were taken off by the Supreme Court’s infamous “Citizens United” decision of 2010 in which unidentified donations were declared a form of free speech. Dark money influences elections everywhere — notably in furious negative postcards that flood mailboxes in the last few days before voting, opposing even conservatives if they don’t toe the corporate line — but it makes nobody madder than Montanans. They outlawed corporate contributions in 1912 after copper barons tried to take over the state using pure cash, and for a century they’ve had some of the strictest laws in the country. Now they are fighting back agains the likes of the Koch brothers as best they can. This documentary wisely concentrates on that one state to give this complex problem a human dimension, even against a constantly shifting opposition of blandly named shell companies which leave as few fingerprints as the law allows (i.e., nearly none). Too many election results are bought and paid for. Recognizing the problem is the first step in resistance.
THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS**** (Special Jury Award for Storytelling) In 1980, three 19-year-old men discovered that they were identical triplets, separated at birth and adopted by three different families. They’d never met each other before but, remarkably, shared numerous personality traits. They became best friends, moved in together, did all the talk shows, ruled glittering Eighties New York nightlife, and opened a successful restaurant. The first half of this documentary takes you inside their joyful reunion, elaborated by talking heads including two of the boys themselves. But then author Lawrence Wright, researching a New Yorker piece on identical twins, makes a discovery that changes everything, and the movie takes an unexpected turn. Don’t read anything else about this before you see it, because the secret I’m dancing around is jaw-dropping. It unfolds like a piece of fiction, but it’s all true. Wonderful.
BEIRUT** This is a fairly standard spy thriller. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, but there’s nothing special about it either. Jon Hamm is a U.S. diplomat in Lebanon in the Seventies. Something really bad happens, and he returns to the States and a whiskey bottle. Ten years pass, and the CIA desperately needs him to go back to Beirut, by now basically a combat zone, but he’s kind of a wreck, and is there anybody he can trust? It looks like a Bourne movie, all gray and kinetic. Everything about it is perfectly professional; Hamm can play anything straight or arch, and he does look like a standard-issue movie spy. But it never reached out to grab me, and the only thing that stuck in my mind was a character turn that we could see coming a mile away.
THE SENTENCE**** (U.S. Documentary Audience Award) Anybody who thinks mandatory minimum sentencing is a good idea — especially Jeff Sessions — should see this one. Filmmaker Rudy Valdez’s sister Cindy gets a mandatory 15 years for conspiracy, meaning she committed no crime personally but did not report the misdeeds of her ex-boyfriend (rueful lawyers call this “the girlfriend problem”). As Cindy is separated from her husband and young daughters over a span of years, Valdez films the family so she can watch them grow up. Then they begin a desperate campaign to seek clemency from the outgoing President Obama. It’s easy to sound tough on crime if you tell yourself that justice is being done, but this is not justice. While Cindy was indeed guilty of conspiracy charges, no judge would have ordered so draconian a sentence, and this heart-rending film shows why. It’s an achingly effective piece of proof that judges need to be free to be fair.
BUTTERFLIES*** (World Dramatic Grand Jury Prize) A dramedy about three Turkish siblings, not particularly close, who are called by their father (not very close either) back to the small village where they grew up, a podunk place they’ve been trying their whole lives to forget. Part road movie, part bonding drama, part farce (exploding chickens, a ludicrous astronaut suit, don’t ask), this is a showcase for the three stars, each of whom gets plenty of room to draw a plausibly complex character, all irascible but sweet too. Delightful.
KAILASH*** (U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize) A portrait of a very brave man: Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, who has made it his life’s work to rescue children trafficked as slave labor for clandestine factories around the world. Hidden cameras show us the squalor, and Kailash and his team pose as buyers to reveal the monstrous, cynical trade in the most vulnerable of human beings. It’s equal parts horrifying and hopeful, anchored by the search for a young boy missing in Delhi for eight months. Kailash’s rescue raids are daring and dangerous; the bad guys here are extremely bad. But his courage is contagious, and he’s not content just to shine a light on this horrifying practice: he’s determined to do something about it.
SEARCH**** (NEXT Audience Award, Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award: Sev Ohanian) A terribly clever thriller that takes place entirely on a computer screen: messages, FaceTime chats, tv news links, and other ephemera that will be instantly recognizable to both Windows and IOS users. John Cho plays a single dad whose high-school daughter goes missing, and the plot of the film is his increasingly frenzied search for her, using all the capabilities of the Internet. It’s amazing how major characters enter the computer-bound story organically, like Debra Messing as a detective who takes the disappearance personally. More than once I had the odd sensation that the big movie screen was actually before me on my desktop: I was concentrating so hard that my sense of scale was way off. The movie is marred toward the end by a dreaded “info dump,” in which mystery elements are explained away without having given us a fair chance to hypothesize. But here form trumps content. This gag has been tried before, notably in the horror film UNFRIENDED, but frankly there it felt like a gimmick. Here the effect is seductively plausible, essential to the story, and lots of fun.
I THINK WE’RE ALONE NOW**** (Special Jury Award for Excellence in Filmmaking: Reed Morano) Something apocalyptic happened, we’re not sure what. In a quiet little village somewhere in the Northeast, buildings are still standing but they’re atrophied. A lone grim survivor scavenges for gear and sustenance, compulsively cleans the houses, and lugs decomposed bodies into a field where he uses a backhoe to dig their graves. He lives in the public library, where he hangs onto a semblance of order by preserving and cataloging the books he finds on his rounds. He seems to be the last man on earth. Then one day he isn’t. The mesmerizing Peter Dinklage carries Act I all by himself with his trademark burning intensity, but suddenly Elle Fanning is there to disturb his reclusive, neurotic routine. This film settles into a quiet, somber rhythm and then upends itself. It’s supremely confident, taking its time to unfold, yet it stays one step ahead of the viewer, who will have no idea what is to come. I remember being impressed by Dinklage in THE STATION AGENT at my first Sundance in 2003; now GAME OF THRONES has made him a genuine movie star, but he’s retained his indie cred. You just can’t take your eyes off him.
WISH I’D SEEN: GENESIS 2.0, THE GUILTY, MONSTER, MONSTERS AND MEN, OUR NEW PRESIDENT, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
ALREADY SAW: THE RIDER****
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