In a thriving year at Sundance—seemingly increased attendance, big acquisition bucks spent—“easy” was the word that kept jumping into my head. Not easy as in lazy or cheap, which can sometimes be said of the typical slate of Sundance indies, but in a pleasant, fleeting sense. Movies that were enjoyable in the moment and moved briskly along—yet that also threatened to fade from memory just as quickly.
People, Places, Things
Perhaps the easiest of this type was James C. Strouse’s People, Places, Things, a palatable trifle starring Jemaine Clement as Will, a graphic novelist and teacher at the School of Visual Arts who has to face reentering New York’s brutal dating pool after his wife leaves him for a schlump (played by Michael Chernus, also an improbable lady-killer in another Sundance standout, Noah Baumbach’s winning screwball comedy Mistress America). One of Will’s students (a very good but underutilized Jessica Williams) sets him up on a date with her attractive Columbia professor mom (Regina Hall), and after a somewhat contentious first meeting, romance does begin to bloom—but Will’s number-one priority remains his twin daughters. Writer-director Strouse, himself an SVA faculty member, has crafted an affecting, bittersweet—accent on the sweet—and highly personal film, and finds a perfect leading man in the charming Clement, at his bumbling best here.
Equally breezy, if more calculated, Patrick Brice’s playful comedy of discomfort The Overnight features a nice, normal couple (Taylor Schilling and Adam Scott) who’ve just moved to Los Angeles. Looking to make new friends, they meet what seems like an ideal candidate in the eccentric but neighborly father (Jason Schwartzman) of a boy who’s made fast friends with their son at the playground. But dinner with him and his wife (Judith Godrèche) at the family’s sprawling house turns into an all-night revelatory affair. Bordering on cheap thrills, The Overnight is brightened by admirably uninhibited performances all around and the prominent display of some (allegedly prosthetic) penises.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
More naturally liberated, U.S. Competition highlight The Diary of a Teenage Girl recounts the blossoming—and then exploding—sexuality of 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley) with a candor rarely seen on screen, as she engages in a full-blown affair with the dreamy but dim boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) of her mother (Kristen Wiig), while also branching out to explore other erotic possibilities. One of the greatest strengths of actress Marielle Heller’s first outing as a writer-director is its nonjudgmental approach toward its characters. But even so, while taking place in a looser era—the tail end of free love in late-Seventies San Francisco—it may well make viewers squirm (men especially) because 21-year-old Powley plays 15 but often looks 12.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
The Diary of a Teenage Girl was a top contender for the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic), but it was Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, another fresh, intelligent teen film—but from the male perspective—that ended up taking home the honor, as well as the Audience Award. Greg (Thomas Mann), a lanky, socially awkward, but kindhearted high-school senior whose hobby is making parodies of classic films with his buddy Earl (R.J. Cyler), is persuaded by his mother to call on Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate he barely knows who’s just been diagnosed with leukemia, and to his surprise it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Far from a disease-of-the-week movie, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl never force-feeds emotion to its audience—but that’s not to say I wasn’t surrounded by serious sobbing by the end.
The lighter side was, for a change, the place to be, as Park City at Midnight couldn’t compete with last year’s sensational lineup. The perfectly serviceable It Follows aside (a little out of place here, having debuted at Cannes eight months ago, traveled the festival circuit, and been slated to open in theaters in March), only two stood out as keepers.
Despite an entirely familiar man-versus-nature setup, The Hallow managed to offer an excitingly distinctive variation. Sent to rural Ireland to explore a tree rot infestation deep in the forest, a scientist brings along his wife, newborn baby, and dog—which immediately heightens the tension. While we hardly care when the obnoxious teens that often inhabit horror films are dispatched, we don’t want to see anything bad happen to this family, in part thanks to Joseph Mawle and Bojana Novakovic’s likeable performances. But disregarding the brusque warnings of the townspeople and an alarming early discovery, the family stays put. And as can be expected, things go very, very wrong—especially when the titular woodland creatures come out to play. Employing impressive old-school effects, Irish director Corin Hardy has crafted an intense, folklore-steeped monster film that never loosens its grip.
And perhaps the most colorful film ever made with a postapocalyptic setting, Turbo Kid is a loud, energetic homage to Eighties kitsch (though set in 1997) with so much going on that it makes sense that it took three directors (François Simard and Anouk and Yoann-Karl Whissell, aka RKSS or Road Kill Super Stars) to wrangle it all. An unnamed teen orphan (Munro Chambers) trying to subsist in peaceful solitude stumbles across the freakishly upbeat Apple (Laurence Leboeuf), who brings some brightness—and potential romance—into his life. Along with the town’s generically hunky action-hero type (Aaron Jeffery), the new friends will eventually go head-to-head with the town’s monstrous self-appointed leader Zeus (Michael Ironside) and his minions—with the boy sporting the outfit of Turbo Man, his favorite comic-book character, who can vaporize someone with the push of a button. This (select-)crowd-pleaser—with gore and heart to match—will surely someday achieve cult status.
The rest of the section were disappointments: Rodney Ascher’s much anticipated follow-up to Room 237, The Nightmare, a doc on sleep paralysis that failed to keep me awake; Reversal, a lame female revenge thriller; Cop Car, which appears to have been made for people who find children playing with loaded guns hilarious; and Bruce McDonald’s Hellions, a visually intriguing film of great potential that stumbles by attempting to be a surrealist treatise on teenage pregnancy. And worst of all was Knock Knock, the latest display of ineptitude from horror hack Eli Roth. I was fully determined to never watch another of his films… but he had to go and cast Keanu Reeves in the lead. But even with Reeves driving the action, the tale that unfolds—openly lifted from 1977’s equally grating Death Game—is a total drag. Two slutty, obnoxious young women (Lorenza Izzo and Ana da Armas) show up at the door of the happily-married-with-children architect (Reeves), who’s home alone during a downpour. The girls reciprocate his generous hospitality by enticing him into a steamy threesome—before they set about destroying every aspect of his life. The forever- underrated Reeves proves yet again that he is a fine—and game—actor, but the film itself is sloppily crafted. Knock Knock is a bore, but worse still, it’s possible that those involved might believe, with the oh-so-shocking role reversals and all, that they were making a piece of feminist cinema.
It’s also worth noting a handful of additional notable performances that transcended their material: Ben Mendelsohn as an eternally doomed gambler—is there any other kind?—in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s wearisome Seventies cinema–inspired Mississippi Grind (co-star Ryan Reynolds looked that much more lost next to Mendelsohn’s subtle genius); Nicole Kidman, playing a damaged mother further unraveling after her two children disappear in Kim Farrant’s powerful but uneven narrative feature debut, Strangerland, delivered her rawest, most striking performance in ages (she truly should stick to Australian films); and a grizzly Vincent Cassel, his powerful presence looming large in the defiantly enigmatic Partisan, as a child-assassin trainer, whose godlike ambitions may finally overtake him. (Director Ariel Kleiman’s handsome film, set in a desolate compound in an unidentified town, did take home the World Cinematography Award.)
And, finally, there was The Witch. A true original, the only horror film that played outside of the Midnight section casts a slow, mesmerizing spell. Set in 1630, this self-described “New-England Folktale”—a prelude of sorts to the Salem Witch Trials—depicts a devoutly religious family who gradually descend into violent (mostly self-)destruction after the youngest of five children, a newborn, is snatched by an old witch. A curse appears to have fallen on the homesteaders, and before long it’s suspected that the eldest daughter, Thomasin, the film’s anchor, might just have some evil in her too. This impressive first feature by the New England–born Robert Eggers is meticulously detailed and researched—the dialect of the period has been re-created, with some dialogue taken directly from original journals and other writings from the 17th century—and Anya Taylor-Joy gives a striking performance as Thomasin. The same cannot be said, alas, for Harvey Scrimshaw, who plays her brother Caleb. His acting was the one thing that pulled me out of the film; the goat that plays the children’s pet is far more talented. Otherwise, The Witch is a chilling, satisfying experience. This is the one people will be still be talking about at the 2016 edition as the search for the next big thing begins anew.