Friday, January 30, 2015

Sundance Wrap Up: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Best of Enemies, plus 5 Takeaways from festival's 2015 Edition.

The 2015 Sundance Film Festival runs through Sunday –with major awards still to be handed out- but Wednesday marked the final day of my Sundance, bringing my festival tally to 26 movies seen throughout 6.5 glorious days. I unfortunately missed a couple of films I was hoping to catch up with: James C. Strouse’s People, Places, Things, playing in the US Dramatic Competition category, Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground; a groundbreaking and fittingly noisemaking documentary (playing as part of Doc Premieres) about the rape epidemic on college campuses, as well as Noah Baumbach’s latest collaboration with his muse Greta Gerwig, Mistress America, which played to great reviews in the festival’s Spotlight section. But one can’t see it all, and it’s always good leaving something to look forward to in the future.

On my final day, I made a point of catching up with a few documentaries; a segment of the festival I admittedly pushed to the sidelines for a few days. Among them is Bobcat Goldthwait’s Call Me Lucky, a powerful portrait of the sharp-tongued comedian Barry Crimmins. Having survived sexual abuse at a young age, Crimmins turned his childhood trauma into essential activism in support of children both suffering and in danger of similar sexual abuse; especially in the wake of unmonitored online chat-rooms that enabled criminal activity around child porn while profiting companies such as AOL during the mid 90s. Welcome To Leith, from directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, proved to be just as frightening as Rodney Ascher’s Nightmare, in recounting a small town’s singular stand against white supremacists and Neo-Nazis (led by Craig Cobb) trying to take over the land and government of the town. Welcome to Leith, eerily spotlighting challenging questions rooted in freedom of speech for all, is uncomfortable and shocking to watch and proved to be one of this year’s essentials. The final US Documentary Competition title I caught up with was Best of Enemies, from directors Morgan Neville (Academy Award winning director of Twenty Feet from Stardom) and Robert Gordon, on the debates of Conservative William F. Buckley and Democrat Gore Vidal that skyrocketed ABC’s ratings in 1968 and launched political punditry on TV. Balancing both sides with a crackerjack sense of pace, the immensely entertaining Best Of Enemies (bought by Magnolia and Participant Media) is not only one of my favorite films of this year, but also a timely film that prescribes mutual understanding for both sides of the debate, in the (almost) eve of a presidential election.

Probably the biggest film to report back on from my Wednesday schedule is Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. A strong contender to win the Audience Award in the Dramatic Competition category in a couple of days, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a teenage weepie in the tradition of The Fault in Our Stars; and a celebration and romancing of cinematic love forming at a young age (everyone has their own analogies here, but it made me think of Garth Jennings' Son of Rambow somehow.) Adapted from Jesse Andrews’ novel by Andrews himself, the story is about Greg Gaines (the “Me” of the title, played by Thomas Mann), a high-school student and a fan of European Cinema along with his best friend Earl (RJ Cyler). Forced by his mother to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a school friend who’s just been diagnosed with cancer, Greg unexpectedly forms a real friendship with her and decides to make a movie for her with Earl’s help (side note here that the duo often re-title Criterion films with humor –for instance, Citizen Kane becomes Senior Citizen Cane- and make short pastiches of them.) As tough it is to hold your ground against a festival darling, I must admit Me and Earl and the Dying Girl didn’t have the same emotional impact on me, as it apparently did on many others. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, to me, seemed a lot more interested in proving his knowledge of cinema with initially charming yet increasingly repetitive cinematic references -from Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (hint: study up your Herzog prior to seeing Gomez-Rejon’s film), to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy and many others- than using these references in favor of the film’s narrative. It was all a bit too self-congratulatory in context, and quickly became trivial instead of inspirational. Yet, the bigger problem for me was the film having very little time for Earl (his name is IN the title after all), and even Rachel (as the “Dying Girl”) in building them as fully-fledged characters. Especially Earl was disposed of rather abruptly in the story, becoming (along with Rachel) not so much more than an instrument on Greg’s path of self-discovery (and eventual college application.) I don’t mean to sound heartless here, and I give the film a lot of credit for trying to tell the story of a true friendship (rather than romantically involving Greg and Rachel), yet this didn't add up to more than a quirky, textbook Sundance movie for me, about a male teenager finding his place in life. It will be talked about for sure, both positively and with anger –especially watch for potential think pieces on the unfortunate depiction of Earl- that some I have spoken to following Wednesday’s screening voiced.

With the festival almost behind us, there are many topics and trends that stood out. Here is my recap of the most prominent topics that took over the streets of Park City during the previous week.

1. Acquisitions galore!
Trades and online film outlets alike were rolling in ecstasy just a few days ago when incorrect news of a $12 Million sale (of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, to Fox Searchlight) spread like wildfire. The number was corrected, with almost two thirds of it shaved off, however the 2015 edition of the festival still played host to quite a number of grand sales; Anne Thompson said in an article that “The Sundance Market is starting to look like the old days” over at her blog at Thompson and Hollywood. Among the notable sales are John Crowley’s Brooklyn, which went to Fox Searchlight for $9 million, Dope, grabbed by Open Road and Sony for $7 Million, and The Bronze, scooped up by Relativity for $3 Million. A24, Magnolia, Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics all bought festival hits (with the first three closing on multiple deals). Check out Hollywood Reporter’s comprehensive guide to this year’s Sundance sales

2. Coming of Age: Still a favorite Sundance genre.
Yes, there is that title again. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. But it needs to be mentioned here, as it proved Sundance just loves watching children and teenagers come of age. Under this banner, notable festival favorites are Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman's Ten Thousand Saints and even Chloé Zhao’s quietly-played competition entry Songs My Brothers Taught Me as well as Matt Sobel's simmering Take Me to the River.

Marielle Heller (Source: Getty Images)
3. An exciting crop of female storytellers is emerging, with movies about women on the horizon.
In a recent interview with Variety, Sony Pictures Classics’ Tom Bernard and Michael Barker spoke of female voices of Sundance, having just grabbed the distribution rights to Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which frankly explores female sexually –a topic that is rather poorly served in mainstream cinema. Bernard said “It’s the year of the woman,” and he is clearly on to something. From the opening night movie The Bronze, to titles like Brooklyn, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Witch, Unexpected, Advantageous and hot-button topic documentary The Hunting Ground, stories led by and/or made by women generated a considerable amount of the buzz on the ground, generating much hope for gender diversity in film for the years ahead.

Duplass Brothers.
Photo: Chelsea Lauren
(Getty Images for Sundance)
4. The blurring lines between Film & TV: also a Sundance topic.
It was voiced during the Day 1 press conference that the Sundance institute champions storytellers not only in writing feature-length projects, but also in creating episodic content. With a wealth of talent trying their hand on both film and TV, and innovative TV shows taking up the lion's share of the popular culture, it was only a matter of time that the Sundance Institute further blurred the line between two mediums. To perhaps no one’s surprise, Mark Duplass –a perennial Sundance kid, having executive producer credits on three of this year’s titles (The Bronze, Tangerine, The Overnight) and having brought the animated series Animals to the festival along with his brother Jay Duplass- has made a deal with Sundance in producing an independent TV series. “This is a brand new thing, it’s never been done before,” said Duplass (reported by USA Today), noting that he has always been interested in making television independently, using the same model as independent film.

5. There is this thing called “sex.” It’s going to be big.
I remember my first Sundance Film Festival in 2013, when Robert Redford referred to “sex” as a thematic element to pay attention to. And he was certainly on point with titles such as Hannah Fidel's A Teacher and Anne Fontaine's Adore (formerly titled Two Mothers) among others that year. After a relatively sterile 2014, we are in the presence of an even more sexually-charged Sundance this year, starting with the outrageous sex scene of the opening night film The Bronze that sent shock waves through the Eccles Theater to an instantly hilarious effect on Thursday night. From frank encounters and full frontals (with prosthetics) of The Overnight, freewheeling affairs of Sleeping with Other People and Knock, Knock, and the groundbreaking take on female sexuality of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Sundance 2015 certainly dialed up the heat in the snowy mountains of Utah and set a high bar against the increasingly sterile Hollywood mainstream, threatening to make the upcoming 50 Shades of Grey look tame in comparison.

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