At the 2015 Sundance film festival, the grand jury prizes in both the Dramatic and the Documentary Competitions were won by movies about adolescents whose lives were defined—veritably saved—by their passion for, what else, the movies. Within the next six months or so, Crystal Moselle’s doc The Wolfpack and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (which also won the Audience Award) will be playing in theaters near you, but at Sundance, their symbolic meaning—that movies matter, and that their extended home-video shelf life allows them to remain touchstones for succeeding generations of young cinephiles—could not have been clearer.
Despite the crowds of stargazing tourists, the swag hangouts, the age of the festival’s founder and elusive preeminence, and the experimental New Frontier section, which this year was almost entirely dedicated to virtual-reality installations, Sundance remains the premier hunting ground for American feature films. Part of the excitement is seeing the possibly next big thing in an actual theater, surrounded by viewers hoping to be not simply thrilled but surprised.
If last year’s festival was exceptional for the premiere of two idiosyncratic masterworks, Boyhood and Whiplash, Sundance ’15 boasted at least a half-dozen movies nearly as strong. Indeed, the level of work was so high that it’s almost impossible to judge if any single movie will emerge from the pack, once the mountain giddiness dissipates. Notably, many of the best films were comedies that fused scintillating scripts with inspired direction. Did I laugh most in Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America, Sean Baker’s Tangerine, Andrew Bujalski’s Results, or Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl? It’s hard to say.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Heller’s tough, irreverent, furiously felt debut feature is faithfully adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 novel of the same name, written in the age of grrl power but set in the mid-Seventies, when underage girls explored their sexual desires more or less on their own. The narrative takes the form of a diary recorded on audiocassette by Minnie, a 15-year-old aspiring graphic novelist (Aline Kominsky is her idol) who is having an affair with her mother’s 32-year-old boyfriend. Minnie is the aggressor in this affair, and her hunger for sex and love, her wildly swinging emotions, and the fact that she comes through the experience wiser but undaunted are truly liberating. Not only does 21-year-old Bel Powley give a fearless performance as the hormonally charged Minnie, she’s a look-alike for the Minnie that Gloeckner drew in the novel’s illustrations. Ardent fans of the book will not be disappointed.
Actresses ruled at Sundance. In Baumbach’s Mistress America, Greta Gerwig, as gloriously klutzy as Julia Roberts, makes her entrance scrambling down the red-carpeted stairs in Times Square, arms flying, ankles collapsing. Gerwig co-wrote the script with Baumbach and they’ve concocted an utterly contemporary screwball: the odd couple at the center is comprised of a 30-year-old (Gerwig) with wild ambition, a hunger for attention, and no follow-though, and the mousy college freshman (Lola Kirke) who idolizes her and then mines her truth to create her own work (perhaps the model for the very film we’re watching). Mistress America climaxes with a tour de force of verbal and physical comedy, so dazzlingly choreographed for camera that it tops the jail scene in Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby. In Tangerine, two trans-prostitute BFFs (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor) race around West Hollywood on Christmas Eve, searching for the pimp and main squeeze of one that the other says betrayed her with a “white fish” while she was in jail. In the best avant-garde tradition of making delirious beauty from the detritus of mainstream culture—think George Kuchar, Jack Smith, and Warhol, but with an up-tempo narrative—Baker shot the entire movie on a souped-up iPhone5S, which pretty much limited him to either static close-ups or ultrafast streetwise camera movement, in both cases producing a riot of color and electronic energy. If you ever wondered why a guy with a wife and kids would prefer having sex with chicks with dicks—in a car wash no less—Tangerine has a teachable moment for you. The great performance in Results, Bujalski’s wryly titled comedy of errors set in the world of physical fitness culture, belongs to Kevin Corrigan, playing a sweet, pudgy, middle- aged man who’s clearly sensible by nature but has been temporarily upended by divorce and a huge inheritance from his late mother. (Random thought: why would anyone cast Jonah Hill when they could have Corrigan?) He becomes sexually obsessed with his personal trainer (Cobie Smulders) who’s in an off-and-on relationship with her boss, a bodybuilder and wannabe health guru (Guy Pearce). This is Bujalski’s biggest-budgeted and potentially most commercial movie, but happily his ethnographic insight is intact. And who else would have found erotic potential in a balance ball?
A darker comedy, indeed one that Kubrick might have envied, Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter is a spare, formally ingenious biopic about Stanley Milgram, the Yale social psychology professor who in 1961 concocted an experiment that demonstrated that obedience to authority overruled morality and empathy in a large majority of his subjects. Milgram’s experiment was inspired by Adolf Eichmann’s statements that he was “only obeying orders,” but over the years it has often been invoked to account for seemingly inexplicable horrific or foolish actions by individuals and groups. Almereyda’s screenplay and direction—this is far and away his strongest, most coherent, and moving film—and Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder’s performances as the titular experimenter and his wife capture the profound sense of irony that infused the Milgrams’ entire life. A slightly less bleak but just as poignant irony prevails in James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, its screenplay by Donald Margulies adapted from the book that journalist David Lipsky wrote about the five days he spent interviewing David Foster Wallace for Rolling Stone a decade before the writer’s suicide. Essentially a two-hander for Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky and Jason Segel as Wallace (amazing casting, amazing performance), it is as fine and rich a film about writing as a vocation as I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure what devoted fans of Wallace will make of The End of the Tour, but it seemed to me to brilliantly delineate his generosity with language in life and on the page.
Mind control was a major subject in the Sundance ’15 lineup, both in fiction and documentary. On the fiction side, in addition to Experimenter, there was Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous, which attempted much more successfully to create a terrifying world distant in time from our own than did the over-hyped The Witch, a strained attempt at art horror by first-time writer-director Robert Eggers. I was mystified by people who said they clutched their neighbors and screamed aloud in The Witch, which is set in 17th-century Massachusetts and has a few disgusting images, but is far less scary than an amateur stage production of The Crucible. Advantageous is set in a future whose outlines are all too predictable from where we sit, envisioning a world where a woman’s shelf life expires at age 30. In order to secure the kind of education for her daughter that will make her eligible for a job just like her own (five years of glory and then booted out the door) a single mother agrees to become the subject of an experiment in which she is given eternal youth at the cost of most of her psyche and memory—the secularist version of the soul. Advantageous is intelligent without being didactic, psychologically persuasive about the symbiosis of mother and daughter, but perhaps just a bit too low-key in execution for the dystopia it imagines.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
The hottest ticket in town was Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, a remarkably well-organized movie based on Lawrence Wright’s massive similarly titled investigative book. Wright follows the word “Scientology” from the original subtitle with “Hollywood,” and, indeed, for the film’s premiere, every Hollywood type in Park City mobbed the lobby of Sundance’s barn-like theater, the MARC, pushing aside desperate interns who were trying to keep order without knowing the front end of the line from the rear. Later these same interns, most of them young women who, including their Kenneth Cole puffer-vests, weighed less than a hundred pounds each, were stationed in the aisles between the stage and the audience as a line of defense (there was probably some kind of better but less visible security on site) against the group of determined Scientologists who had been glimpsed in the Salt Lake City airport and who might have been planning to rush the stage during the post-screening discussion.
No attack materialized, and questions from the audience were taken by Gibney and Wright, and also by several of the film’s principal subjects, who tried to make sense of their journey from brainwashed acolytes who for decades turned over income and capital to a cult that psychically and often physically abused them, to relatively normal free-thinking individuals, horrified that they had been used to finance a massive worldwide real estate grab and tax evasion scheme. Gibney foregrounds the money and how the IRS caved in the face of Scientology’s 100-plus lawyers. He also understands how pictures can do the work of thousands of words. You only have to look at 10 seconds of footage of hack sci-fi writer and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard to believe that he is a paranoid creep with ludicrous delusions of grandeur, or of his successor, the more obviously fascistic David Miscavige, shown in a video of a Scientology rally staged like Leni Riefenstahl-does-Vegas, to remember that people went out of their minds for that Nazi sociopath with the moustache too.
Larry Kramer in Love & Anger
HBO, which will cable-cast Going Clear in March, had its logo on a half-dozen other Sundance movies, including Jean Carlomusto’s Larry Kramer in Love & Anger (scheduled for a June cable premiere) which, beyond being an intimate portrait of the writer and indispensable AIDS activist, is the best history yet of how the AIDS crisis was fought in New York. Like David Weissman’s San Francisco–based 2011 film We Were Here, Carlomusto’s doc doesn’t gloss over the infighting and as a result, the heroic struggle first of GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) and then of ACT UP and of hundreds of individuals emerges with extraordinary clarity, force, and emotion.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
At Sundance, it has become a truism that documentaries as a group outweigh fiction films. I’m not sure one can say that about this year’s selections, but in addition to Gibney’s and Carlomusto’s docs, I admired Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? (the greatest performer on screen at Sundance was Nina Simone); Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe’s (T)ERROR, mindboggling for the fact that the filmmakers, with almost no effort, got an inside look at an FBI infiltration operation, and also for its revelation of the stepped-up number (now in the thousands annually) of attempted entrapments of suspected terrorists; and Kim Longinotto’s Dreamcatcher, a rigorously reported yet empathetic investigation of teenage prostitution.
And then there was Moselle’s The Wolfpack, which could have been a fairy tale except that it was true. About five years ago, Moselle met six young men in Tompkins Square Park, all dressed in black like the gang in Reservoir Dogs. They were brothers who lived in a housing project on Houston Street and the FDR Drive, and until the day Moselle encountered them, they had almost never left the apartment they shared with their learning-challenged sister, their Midwestern mother who homeschooled them, and their Peruvian father, who feared so much for his sons’ safety that he kept them prisoners in the apartment. He was, however, movie mad, and it was from his collection of 5,000 VHS tapes and DVDs that his sons learned about the world. They watched and they imitated, acting out scenes from their favorites, embellishing them and going on to make movies of their own, some of them incorporated into Moselle’s documentary.
Like an unusually large number of films at Sundance this year, The Wolfpack was acquired for distribution. It opens in the late spring. Anyone who thinks independent film is dead needs to consider how many movies, good and bad, offbeat and mainstream, found distributors that needed “product” to establish themselves or remain competitive. The downside is that, because revenue from VOD is kept a mystery, many filmmakers will barely make a penny on their work. For audiences, however, there is only an upside. One way or another, Sundance, almost in its entirety, is coming to you.