With its never-ending string of awards, nominations, and general acclaim, last year’s Sundance darling Beasts of the Southern Wild is still buzzing more loudly than any film that screened during the fest’s 2013 edition. While sales may have been exceptionally healthy—27 titles snapped up so far, many boasting hefty price tags—there wasn’t anything that commanded the same level of attention (warranted or otherwise). Which isn’t to say there weren’t any diamonds in the rough.
The most estimable among all I saw this year was Sean Ellis’s Metro Manila, which expands on the noteworthy English auteur’s small yet diverse body of film work that also includes the ambitious romantic comedy Cashback (06) and the existential chiller The Broken (08). His latest is a harrowing domestic/crime drama set in the Philippines. Despite the fact that he doesn’t know a word of Tagalog, Ellis managed to draw expert performances from Jake Macapagal and Althea Vega as Oscar and Mai Ramirez, poor rice farmers who, with their two young children, travel from the desolate mountains to the bustling city in the hopes of making some money, only to discover that the exploitation they faced at home is nothing compared to what greets them in Manila. From the moment they arrive everything goes into a downward spiral: Oscar takes a hazardous job as an armored truck driver, and is assigned a loose cannon (an explosive John Arcilla) for a partner; Mai is forced to dance at a sleazy strip joint, not an ideal line of work for any woman, much less an expectant mother. Viewers, at least those with a heartbeat, will not rest easy for a single moment while this family’s safety is at stake. Throughout the festival, Metro Manila seemed to fly frustratingly just under the radar. When it won the Audience Award (World Cinema Dramatic), it was finally clear that people were paying attention.
Fruitvale, which was written and directed by 26-year-old Ryan Coogler and took home both the U.S. Dramatic Jury and Audience Award, is perfectly respectable (if too aggressively heartstring-tugging) and even important given its anti-police-brutality message. Coogler’s drama recounts the final day in the life of Oscar Grant, who was shot in cold blood by a cop in an Oakland subway station on the final day of 2008. (The director said that he chose to show some actual eyewitness footage of the shooting over the opening credits because audiences might otherwise have found the events depicted too farfetched.) But of the U.S. Dramatic Competition David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was the most unforgettable, and Lowery was undoubtedly this year’s “It” person: in addition to writing and directing Saints, he also co-edited the maddeningly indecipherable Upstream Color with director Shane Carruth, and co-wrote the NEXT section offering Pit Stop. (The formerly promising Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva might have given Lowery a run for his money in the “It” category had both his films, Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy—shortened from Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012, for obvious reasons—not been so utterly devoid of “magic.”)
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
As the programmer who introduced the screening I attended so aptly pointed out, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints starts where other films of its kind leave off. So while the likes of Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde conclude with young lovers on the wrong side of the law being caught or killed, this film begins with an explosive shootout that ends in the surrender of Bob and Ruth (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara), tragic idealists who have just learned that they’re about to become parents. Bob goes to prison, Ruth focuses on raising their child; and as the years pass, neither gives up on the idea of being reunited. While it may not have a whole lot of plot, or even depth, Lowery’s film—set in Seventies rural Texas—is so richly textured and visually exquisite that it hardly matters. DP Bradford Young was rightly given the Dramatic Excellence in Cinematography Award (he was also cited for his work on another Competition entry, Mother of George; in 2011 he took the same prize for Pariah). And while the performances are strong across the board, it’s Ben Foster who steals the show as the more than just concerned cop who acts as Ruth’s guardian angel (of sorts). (Foster also made quite an impression as William Burroughs opposite Daniel Radcliffe’s Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings.)
Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes
The other competition entry that stayed with me—and felt fresher than any other—was Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes, one of an unprecedented eight in that section’s lineup (fully half!) directed by women. Francesca Gregorini’s sophomore film is vividly realized, and playing the title character, Kaya Scodelario (a striking screen presence destined to be a huge star) consistently transcends her material, even when it gets bogged down in symbolism. Scodelario’s Emanuel is haunted by the passing of her mother who died giving birth to her. A morbid smart-ass, she takes pleasure in inflicting emotional pain on her well-meaning dad (Alfred Molina) and uptight new stepmom (Frances O’Connor). When Linda (Jessica Biel), the spitting image of Emanuel’s mom, moves in next door with her newborn, Emanuel becomes enamored of her, no doubt looking to fill the void left by her mother’s death. But upon discovering Linda’s sad, disturbing secret, she becomes so fiercely protective of her new neighbor that it’s she who assumes the mothering role.
It Felt Like Love
Also reeling from the loss of her mom is Lila, the less feisty but equally melancholy teenage protagonist of Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love, a more modest work on every level. Lila suffers more stoically than Emanuel, perhaps compensating for her widowed father’s debilitating grief. The film follows her over the course of one Brooklyn summer as she hangs out with—or, more accurately, observes—her best friend, who, unlike Lila, never lacks for boyfriends. All the same, she sets her sights on a muscular older boy, who screams bad news, yet it’s an attraction that many a girl can identify with. Newcomer Gina Piersanti is a natural and she makes Lila a character you can fully relate to—she’s a refreshingly unidealized, at times even unsympathetic, teen. And the camerawork, with its slightly off-kilter focal points, subtly expresses the unsteadiness of youth.
The Spectacular Now
The theme of maternal loss was, in fact, curiously recurrent. In Alicia Scherson’s intermittently intriguing Roberto Bolaño adaptation The Future, a teenage brother and sister living in Rome are orphaned after a car accident. In James Ponsoldt’s mystifyingly esteemed The Spectacular Now, it’s revealed at an awkwardly inopportune moment that the lead character’s new girlfriend has lost her mother to pill addiction. Similarly, even in enjoyable fluff like Lake Bell’s In a World…, the mother of the film’s sister protagonists is a drug casualty. We Are What We Are, Jim Mickle’s too leisurely, loose remake of Jorge Michel Grau’s 2011 film, opens with a woman succumbing to a rare disease caused by cannibalism, leaving her three children in the hands of a sadistic father. And Fredrik Bond’s train wreck The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman begins with the title character’s sick mother dying, after appearing to him in a vision and advising him to travel to Bucharest, which results in a series of life-threatening misadventures.
Yet despite this abundance of bereavement, the overall mood throughout the festival felt somehow lighter than in recent years. Even much of the Midnight section disappointingly went for laughs, and, worse still, mostly failed to get them. (Far scarier than any of the Midnight films were the freakishly high Park City temperatures.) The festival’s funniest film, and the source of the most entertaining post-screening discussions, Two Mothers (both of whom survive intact) was intended to be taken as a drama. Adapted by Christopher Hampton from Doris Lessing’s novella The Grandmothers—a title that must have been considered either too much of a spoiler or just plain unsexy—French filmmaker Anne Fontaine’s English-language debut readily tumbles into absurdity as two hunky surfer dudes and lifelong best friends (played by hot young Australian things James Frecheville and Xavier Samuel) lust after and then score with each other’s mother (Robin Wright and Naomi Watts, respectively). What’s more, Fontaine expects us to buy that both affairs aren’t just passing fancies but lasting love connections. But because the actors and the breathtaking Australian seaside scenery are so easy on the eyes, the film is a diverting guilty pleasure and a camp classic in the making.
Regardless of how silly it may be, Two Mothers was one of the many films this year that helped to boost Sundance’s traditionally low estrogen count—a welcome step in the right direction. Now we can start working toward the day when this won’t constitute “news.”