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Sundance Diary #3

By John Wildman on January 24, 2013

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FRIDAY, January 18, 2013

Let’s start this one off with two films I saw on a screener and a Vimeo link:

I USED TO BE DARKER

In Matthew Porterfield’s character study, an Irish girl at an early crossroads in life brings her crisis to the doorstep of an aunt and uncle in Baltimore who are already dealing with the end of their marriage. Taryn, the girl, has just discovered she is pregnant by a boy who doesn’t care about her and who lives an ocean away. Her aunt, a musician, is still stringing together local shows about a decade after they might hold any real promise, while her uncle has given up playing music in favor of his job. Compounding the miseries of their disintegrating relationship, they must deal with the emotional upheaval it causes for their own daughter, who is back home from her first year in college.

The family and youth drama of I Used To Be Darker barely register because of Porterfield’s often clumsy slice-of-life approach, which mostly flatlines. Deragh Campbell as Taryn has problems connecting emotionally, though there is a lovely performance by Kim Taylor as the aunt, and the music is heartfelt and well executed. But as a complete package, the movie asks the viewer to invest more than the movie seems to do for itself. Toward its final third, I found myself having an imaginary conversation with Porterfield asking who he was making the movie for and who he thought would be inspired to make the trip to a theater and pay money to actually see it. While it is thoughtfully done and bears a distinctive directorial stamp, I just didn’t find it compelling.

Expected Sundance Reaction:

Lukewarm. I can see some people projecting their own drama onto the film and connecting with it, and the older crowd might enjoy the music (those that remember and love the music of Richard and Linda Thompson).

Expected Real World Reaction:

Strictly VOD to start off with, and then possibly a Lifetime or Oxygen or WE kind of network. The film will likely be much more successful with people who might be interested in the adults’ storyline instead of the girl’s, but it will need a forum for those people to be able and sit down and take in what resonates.

IT FELT LIKE LOVE

It Felt Like Love Eliza Hittman

Eliza Hittman’s film focuses on another difficult coming-of-age story in the life of Lila, a 14-year-old girl in Brooklyn. Living with an emotionally distant father and right on the cusp of her sexual awakening, she is left to navigate her feelings and pangs of sexual desire completely on her own.

Lila spends the majority of her summer hanging out with her prettier and more sexually experienced friend, Chiara, and Chiara’s boyfriend, Patrick. Seeing the two perpetually in make-out mode, and increasingly desperate for her own emotional connection, Lila seeks out Sammy, a tough young man who hangs with a rough gang. She soon begins to insinuate herself into his life and weave together a fantasy relationship with him. However, her youth and inexperience betray her as she ventures into frightening and unfamiliar sexual situations. At one point, when Sammy asks her if she wants something from him, she can’t answer him directly because she doesn’t know exactly what she wants or what it means. So she puts herself in increasingly dangerous situations without the experience or emotional tools to properly deal with them.

It Felt Like Love is bolstered by a wonderful lead performance by Gina Piersanti, and while it is very much a “small” and intimate “personal” film, there is much to hang onto and identify with both for both a younger audience that would be Lila’s peers as well as any girl that grew up, ever. Of course, there are no stars, or Disney/Nickelodeon gloss to add an easy marketing sheen to the film, and there is some full-frontal male nudity, so while the film is more honest than anything ever programmed on either of those channels or MTV, it is definitely a film for adults.

Expected Sundance Reaction:

A film that should fall into everyone’s “Like” category. Its ambitions are arguably modest but it succeeds on those fronts, and those that take a chance on it should come out of the theater satisfied.

Expected Real World Reaction:

Some big-city art-house could be in its future, then VOD and eventual appearances on cable channels that program indie fare, like IFC or Sundance.

* * *

After skipping the first two films I had intended to see, This Is Martin Bronner and Soldate Jeannette, so I could write the reviews and report from Day #2, I finally got out of the house and away from the laptop and made my way to the Holiday theaters for my first press screening of the day.

While on the bus, I ran into a publicist friend who was already eager to leave the chaos of his Sundance celebrity-wrangling for the reassuring structure of the L.A. and New York press junkets. As he was talking, I thought to myself that he might be the only person ever to express the pro-press-junket opinion out loud. Or even have that thought running through his head.

A TEACHER

A Teacher Hannah Fidell

In Hannah Fidell’s movie, a young high school teacher in a suburban Texas town has an affair with one of her students. On the surface, Diana’s easygoing, if slightly shy, rapport with her students and fellow teachers belies that anything unusual is going on. But her behavior towards the teenager she gets involved with—meeting for quickies in her car, impulsively texting a topless photo of herself—suggests an emphatic fear of adult responsibility. A brief meeting with her brother ends immediately once he brings up issues related to caring for their mother, for example. Meanwhile, the student quickly becomes more and more controlling as he senses who has the upper hand in the relationship.

In a remarkably swift progression, Diana becomes increasingly erratic in her actions. Her sense of caution and secrecy about the relationship lose out to the force of her attraction to the boy and her growing fantasy of the future life together she imagines for the two of them. If that description of the film sounds simple and lacking a three-act structure, it’s because that happens to be the case. No one’s digging deep or psychoanalyzing here.

While A Teacher is skillfully made and unsensationalistic in its approach to a very titillating subject and scenario, it is also severely limited by a conclusion that is telegraphed from the beginning. The movie presents a train wreck for your pleasure, grounding its fascination in how dramatically the wheels come off the tracks, instead of exploring why it is happening or what the impact will be on the protagonist or the people around her. In addition, at the height of Diana losing it, she engages in more than a bit of Reefer Madness-type craziness, with pot replaced by a high school student’s penis as the drug driving her round the bend. While cases in the news in the last few years do set a precedent for her behavior, that part of the portrayal only serves to undermine the rest of the film.

Expected Sundance Reaction:

Should receive a favorable reaction from Sundancers due to the tasteful approach to a hot-button topic. The limitations of the film likely will be dismissed in favor of what is there.

Expected Real World Reaction:

Easy-to-market subject matter with a big curiosity factor combined with the professional execution could see it having decent potential on the art-house circuit and VOD.

* * *

As I walk back to the house on Park Ave, I suddenly have to ask myself the following: “Is that a live camel walking past me in the other direction?” Answer: Yes, it is. And apparently that camel has a movie that he’s promoting.

I take a break to check into the Slamdance headquarters, get my credentials, and see what screeners I can pick up since my schedule isn’t really allowing for playtime with Sundance’s bratty competition. I had taken a year off from checking out their stuff, but I really like Annie Jeeves, who recently started her own PR company called Cinematic Red, so I want to support the cause again.

Heading back to my last screening of the evening, I see that Banksy’s filmmaker graffiti on the wall of the building next to the post office has been framed and put behind glass. I get the intention, but still have the feeling that I’m looking at a classic “best intentions” situation. I wonder if the next step will be to put shadow boxes over wild postings. Maybe we’ll find out the next time Banksy is a guest on Martha Stewart’s show.

AFTER TILLER

After Tiller Martha Shane and Lana Wilson

Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s documentary looks at the only four doctors remaining in the country who continue to perform late-term abortions since the assassination of Dr. George Tiller. All colleagues of Dr. Tiller’s, they are steadfast, if not war-weary, in their commitment to help women in need of the procedure. Deliberately crafted and paced, the film follows the daily routines of the doctors, placing us in heart-wrenching counseling sessions with patients and prospective patients as well as including brief backgrounds on each and the path that led them to where they are today.

The film carefully avoids the fiery rhetoric and weighted presentations of the politics involved. Instead, Shane and Wilson focus on the struggle—and the acceptance of the struggle—that both doctor and patient face, in dealing not just with the procedure but with the lead-up and the aftermath. Often the camera is trained on the haunted face of a doctor listening like a “sin eater” to the patient’s story: it’s as if they’re absorbing the woman’s pain and heartache, when, for example, she learns the child has been diagnosed with a medical condition that would in all likelihood lead to a very short life filled with pain. What each of these doctors share is the thought that “it’s not just about being alive, it’s about life and what that means.” After Tiller illustrates that thought with clarity and finesse.

Expected Sundance Reaction:

The politics are aligned with the bulk of the Sundance audience, and though it isn’t the type of film to inspire the sharpening of pitchforks and lighting of torches, it will still hit people with the gut punch necessary to get them to recommend it to their friends.

Expected Real World Reaction:

While stopping short of the multiplexes, it has the potential of doing a little more than the art houses that welcome documentaries. Following that, the film has the potential, if not the likelihood, of a nice television appearance as well.

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