I saw eight films at my first Sundance Festival: THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, BROOKLYN, IT FOLLOWS, SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE, THE BRONZE, MISSISSIPPI GRIND, RESULTS, and KNOCK KNOCK.
A sexually precocious teenage girl in 1970s California, soundtracked by Heart and Television - there’s no way I was going to dislike this movie. THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL is a messy, uncompromising look at the warts-and-all sexual awakening of 15-year old Minnie Goetz in 1976 San Francisco. Bel Powley is about to blow up following this film’s release, and with good reason: she’s incredibly believable as Goetz, full of needy lust - sexual, chemical, creative, and otherwise - personified. Kristen Wiig (as Minnie’s freewheeling, jealous mother) and Alexander Skarsgard (as her mother’s boyfriend and Minnie’s consistent lover) deliver strong supporting turns, especially Skarsgard who conveys the overwhelming desperation of a hunky dude moving towards middle-age who’s fallen pathetically in love with a fifteen-year old. While animation sequences don’t always quite work (but really, how much can you be bothered by animation that gives a shout-out to Aline Kominsky-Crumb?), this is a major debut for writer-director Marielle Heller, who allows Diary to transcend the usual trappings of the “young girl sleeps with older guy as a part of her sexual awakening” narrative by never judging or punishing Minnie for a second, even when her behavior veers into the dangerous. This will be an important film for teenage girls for years to come.
BROOKLYN was my biggest surprise of the festival, and on its face, seems like something we’ve seen a thousand times before. Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, an Irish immigrant struggling to survive her first year in Brooklyn after leaving rural Ireland. Director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby (adapting a popular novel I’d never heard of) never let Brooklyn slide into treacle, and instead focus on Eilis’ small victories in America and nagging doubt about leaving her widowed mother and spinster sister back in Ireland. It’s been sometime since I’ve seen a movie I’d call legitimately sweet, something I could show my grandma, but Eilis’ romance with a shy Italian plumber, Tony (Emory Cohen, previously seen in The Place Beyond the Pines as B. Coop’s grown, asshole son) is damn near impossible not to root for. Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent are always a welcome presence, and their small parts here give the film some of its funniest and most touching moments, respectively. Domhnall Gleeson, as one of Eilis’ potential suitors, is perhaps a bit underused here, but that’s my only real gripe with the movie.
IT FOLLOWS may be Cronenberg-y in premise, but the directing feels much closer to Halloween by way of Gia Coppola. Between The Guest and this film, Maika Monroe has established herself as the best new scream queen we’ve had in years. Here she plays Jay, a high schooler who contracts an STD after sleeping with a new boyfriend that causes unrelenting figures - a grandma, a giant, a syphilitic woman - to follow her everywhere she goes, every day. Writer-director Robert David Mitchell figures out how to tease maximum suspense from these followers, who never stop walking towards Jay, intent on raping and murdering her, with simple tricks of filling the frame and precipitating the horror with a deliciously spooky score by Disasterpeace. Mitchell does some really fun stuff in terms of playing with time period - Jay warns a crush of his impending doom on a house phone, but one of her friends reads The Idiot on a tiny handeld device shaped like a seashell. It Follows leaves a lot unexplained, and it mostly works, at least to the extent that I’m still wondering about the film, even if I still have questions about the mechanics of the mythology.
Writer-director Leslye Headland self-described SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE as “When Harry Met Sally for assholes,” so clearly I liked it a lot better than that precursor film. Jake (Jason Sudekis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) meet again in a sex addicts meeting after losing their virginities to each other in college. They strike up an intense friendship after agreeing that sex would ruin their rediscovered bond, and their non-romance throughout the film provides us with one of the most believable, sexually tense onscreen pairings in recent memory. Sudekis is the real surprise here, giving Jake’s horndog ways and total devotion to Lainey an earnestness that’s unexpected. Brie is great as always, and Headland doesn’t shy away from showing the dark side of Lainey’s pathological hook-ups with a married ex-conquest, a mustachioed Adam Scott, in supreme douche mode. The movie could stand to lose ten minutes (which was true of nearly everything I saw at Sundance) and honestly, would’ve worked a little better for me if it chose to end on the bittersweet note the film seemed to have been building to, but it’s as funny and sweet of a rom-com as we’ve had in some time.
Opinion was sharply divided on THE BRONZE, but I found the “Bad Gymnast” riff to be quite funny throughout. Melissa Rauch (who co-wrote and produced with her husband) plays Hope Ann Greggory, a former Olympic bronze medalist who is still glorified in her small Ohio town after a Kerri Strug-esque win at the Olympics. Now though, Hope spends most of her days snorting Claritin (a plot point that’s conveniently neglected after the first act), masturbating to her victory footage, and stomping around Amherst, Ohio in her Olympic sweats like she owns the place, because she sort of still does. Her long-suffering father (Gary Cole) pushes Hope to coach a young gymnastics upstart in town after Hope’s former coach commits suicide, and promises Hope $500,00 to coach the young hopeful to the Olympics. The plotting of the film certainly isn’t revolutionary in terms of its reluctant old dog/perky new dog narrative, but Rauch inhabits Hope Ann with believable venom. Thomas Middleditch (as the twitchy owner of Hope’s former gymnastics studio) and Sebastian Stan (as a delightfully smarmy national gymnastics coach) create a second-act love triangle for Hope that gives us the long-promised payoff of “gymnast sex” teased throughout the film. I’m also pro any Ohio movie (somebody in the production HAD to have grown-up there) even if the film goes on too long and ends too tidily with a montage that Drop Dead Gorgeous did far better.
MISSISSIPPI GRIND was my most frustrating watch of the whole festival. For the first hour, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s look at lovable losers and degenerate gamblers Ryan Reynolds (a smooth operator whose grey around the temples suggests he’s not quite as spry as he seems) and Ben Mendelsohn (greasy and great in cheap shirts, as always) is a fun ride as we watch the two amble down the Mississippi on the way to a card game in New Orleans with a $25,000 buy-in. But as the film moves towards its close (and conveniently remembers, y’know, these guys play high-stakes poker) Boden and Fleck lose the thread of grimy desperation for their leads, and go for a Hollywood ending that totally undermines the thematic intentions of the film’s first half. Robin Weigert, Alfre Woodard (as an Iowa bookie! I wanna see that movie!), and Sienna Miller are essentially reduced to one-scene roles, which is a damn shame. There were several other, better movies that existed within Grind’s runtime, and I’m so disappointed that Boden and Fleck chose to go for the happy ending instead of staying true to their characters’ more likely trajectories.
I don’t even know what to say about RESULTS, which failed to engage me from minute one. I guess on paper, to someone, somewhere, a personal fitness comedy involving a love triangle between Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, and…Kevin Corrigan sounds like a good idea, but director Andrew Bujalski never makes any of them feel like real people with real struggles. Guy Pearce wants to expand his small gym, and newly rich Corrigan gives him the means to do so, if they can stop fighting over Smulders. I’m sorry, but the suspension of disbelief over a Smulders-Corrigan romance is just too ridiculous, or at least it is as Bujalski portrays it. Results isn’t ever all that funny or romantic, needs a narrative engine, and has no discernable thematic takeaway. All three leads do the best they can with the material (but really, why are we trying to make Cobie Smulders a thing?) but this one is DOA. And there’s a totally wasted “Six Months in a Leaky Boat” song queue I’m still mad about!
Shame on me for thinking Eli Roth could produce something compelling, but I guess I was still dealing with a case of John Wick heart-eyes when I decided to see KNOCK KNOCK at a midnight screening. An inexplicable remake of 1977’s Death Game, Knock Knock finds Roth eschewing most of his usual gratuitous gore, but the film is still plenty icky, especially in terms of its incest fixation. Keanu Reeves stars as Evan, a devoted husband and father (snooooore) who answers the door one rainy night to find two beautiful girls (one of whom is Roth’s twenty-three year old wife) in need of a phone and a taxi (double snoooore). You can guess where things go from there, and honestly, until the tables turn on Evan, the film is enjoyable if slight. But once the women expose their true intentions to Evan, Roth never misses an opportunity to capitalize on the squick factor of two young women fucking an older man in his own home, in his own daughter’s bed. I’m sure Roth has convinced himself the film is somehow feminist in its depiction of all men as helpless to resist nubile jailbait, but he sure as hell doesn’t know how to convey that idea with any kind of deeper takeaway on a familiar theme that’s honestly done a lot better in Hard Candy.
Three of the films I saw were directed by women (one as co-director).
Four of the films I saw were written by women (two as co-writers).
Five of the films I saw featured female protagonists.
Creative brains are a valuable, limited resource. They shouldn’t be wasted on re-inventing the wheel when there are so many fascinated new problems waiting out there.
To behave like an artist, you have to believe that the thinking time of other artists is precious – so much so that it’s almost a moral duty for you to share information, solve problems and then give the solutions away just so other artists can solve new problems instead of having to perpetually re-address old ones.
How to become an artist from “Artists are Hackers” a TEDx talk by Evan Roth.
Artist Evan Roth’s work occupies the irregular zone at the intersection of free culture with popular culture, where viral media meets art, and graffiti connects with technology. From Feb. 5-March 2, Roth’s “Intellectual Property Donor,” is on exhibit in the Center for the Art’s Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery. Ginger Gregg Duggan and Judith Hoos Fox of c², curatorsquared, co-curated the show.