MCN Blogs
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Sundance Preview: US Dramatic Competition

It’s beginning to look a lot like Sundance … in less than a week I’ll be getting into Park City, settling into the cozy MCN house, and getting ready to immerse myself in four or five films a day for nine days. Even after this many years of working the long, hectic days in Park City, I’m still not jaded enough to pretend I hate Sundance. I love seeing the beauty and charm of Park City. I always hope for snow, because it’s the one time of year I get to enjoy it. I love perusing the catalog to decide which movies to put on my schedule, but I also I love knowing that my schedule is likely to change on a whim, or later in the fest because I’m hearing buzz on something that wasn’t on my radar and I want to check it out. It’s all part of the fun of Sundance.

Last year’s Sundance featured Shunji Iwai’s Vampire, which in spite of its ambition was probably on a lot of “Worst of 2011” lists. I sat through all two-and-a-half hours of it (I think only two of us lasted out the entire press screening), and I actually thought it was smart and interesting, albeit very over-long and desperately in need of an objective, ruthless editor. Vampire aside, though, Sundance last year was packed with films that ended up on my end-of-year Top Ten lists: Martha Marcy May Marlene, Pariah, The Oregonian, The Off Hours, The Future, Like Crazy, Submarine, Margin Call, Terri … come to think of it, Sundance last year was pretty darn awesome. Here’s hoping this year’s slate is also terrific.

I’ll be running previews of some of the sections of the festival over the next couple days — the films from each category that I’m most interested in seeing … at least at the moment. Here are my picks from the US Dramatic Competition section. (Note: All film descriptions from the Sundance Film Guide.)

Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin

What It’s About: Hushpuppy, an intrepid six-year-old girl, lives with her father, Wink, in “the Bathtub,” a southern Delta community at the edge of the world. Wink’s tough love prepares her for the unraveling of the universe; for a time when he’s no longer there to protect her. When Wink contracts a mysterious illness, nature flies out of whack—temperatures rise, and the ice caps melt, unleashing an army of prehistoric creatures called aurochs. With the waters rising, the aurochs coming, and Wink’s health fading, Hushpuppy goes in search of her lost mother.

Hushpuppy is not just the film’s heroine; she’s its soul. Beasts of the Southern Wild exists entirely in its own universe: mythological, anthropological, folkloric, and apocalyptic. Benh Zeitlin’s first feature (a Sundance Institute Feature Film Program project) employs a cast of nonactors—reflecting its grassroots production—to fiercely portray the bond between father and daughter in a world where only the strong survive. Standing defiantly at the end of the world, Hushpuppy affirms the dignity of telling their own story: that they were once there.

Why It’s Interesting: The story of how this epic, fantasticial, end-of-the-world tale got made is almost as fantastical as the storyline itself. Three-plus years in the making, Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Behn Zeitlin, is a project of New Orleans-based grassroots collective Court 13. Back in 2008, Zeitlin made a critically lauded short film, Glory at Sea, which played at SXSW. A couple hours before his film was set to screen, Zeitlin was critically injured in a car wreck, shattering his hip and breaking his pelvis. Less than a year later, Zeitlin’s script for Beasts of the Southern Wild was accepted by the Sundance Institute, where it went through the Screenwriters Lab, the Director’s Lab, the Producer’s Lab, AND won the NHK Filmmaker Award. As if that wasn’t enough, the film was also awarded a $55K post-production grant from the San Francisco Film Society. All of which makes this one of the most anticipated films of the fest. This one will either make me fall head-over-heels … or break my heart. Hopefully the former.

The End of Love, Mark Webber

What It’s About: Mark is a struggling actor stuck between the life he once knew and the one waiting for him. When the mother of his two-year-old son suddenly passes away, Mark is forced to confront his shortcomings. Their fates, now intertwined, hang in the balance as Mark grapples with his ability to grow up. When he meets Lydia, a young mother, he is no longer able to live in the comfort of denial.

Writer/director/actor Mark Webber creates a stark, yet intimate, atmosphere where we can’t help but feel we are bearing witness to the most private moments between a father and son. Set against the backdrop of Los Angeles, The End of Love is an achingly honest portrait with scenes linked not by dramatic line but by emotional vitality. Endowed with a raw but vibrant truth, it tells a story about the universal pain of loss and the courage it takes to change.

Why It’s Interesting: Webber first came to my attention back in 2008, when his first feature, Explicit Ills, premiered at SXSW. Webber’s been in a lot of smart indie films (plus Scott Pilgrim, which of course was epic and awesome and all that), and now he’s back with a second feature, about a young dad struggling to raise his two-year-old son after the boy’s mom dies. The film stars Webber and his very own then-two-year-old son along with Michael Cera, Amanda Seyfried, and Jason Ritter. Webber has three projects in Sundance this year — every film he worked on — which I guess makes him kind of a male Parker Posey or Zooey Deschanel. Not bad for a guy who spent much of his childhood homeless, living out of his mom’s car. I’m looking forward to seeing what Webber’s pulled off here.

Filly Brown, Youssef Delara, Michael D. Olmos
What It’s About:“Majo” Tonorio, a.k.a. Filly Brown, is a raw, young Los Angeles hip-hop artist who spits from the heart. When a sleazy record producer offers her a crack at rap stardom, Majo faces some daunting choices. With an incarcerated mother, a record contract could be the ticket out for her struggling family. But taking the deal means selling out her talent and the true friends who helped her to the cusp of success.

A portrait of an artist forced to discover her authentic voice, Filly Brown percolates with the raw energy of hope sprung from desperation. Directed with tenacious grit by Youssef Delara and Michael Olmos, propelled by an exceptional cast, and fused with a fierce hip-hop score, Filly Brown heralds the arrival of Gina Rodriguez in the title role. A dazzling new star, Rodriguez not only lights up the screen, but she could conquer the airwaves as well.

Why It’s Interesting: To be honest, this film wasn’t particularly on my radar in more than a “well, that will either be awful, or really great” way until I kept hearing people buzz about it. I’ve been asking around among my circle of friends and colleagues, what they’ve either seen early cuts of or heard great chatter about, and Filly Brown kept coming up again and again as something people have “heard good things” about. Maybe it’s because it’s exec produced by Edward James Olmos (who doesn’t love him, right?) and Kevin Smith, maybe because it’s because the lead actress is hot, maybe it’s because the time is right for another hip-hop thing, or maybe it’s just really charming and well-done. I guess, since I keep hearing about it, that it needs to be on my radar. Last time I ignored a music-themed film at Sundance, I missed seeing Once when it premiered.

Middle of Nowhere, Ava DuVernay

What It’s About:What happens when love takes you places you never thought you would go? When her husband, Derek, is sentenced to eight years in a California prison, Ruby drops out of medical school to maintain her marriage and focus on ensuring Derek’s survival in his violent new environment. Driven by love, loyalty, and hope, Ruby learns to sustain the shame, separation, guilt, and grief that a prison wife must bear. Her new life challenges her to the very core of her identity, and her turbulent path propels her in new, often frightening directions of self-discovery.

Ava DuVernay’s elegant and emotionally inspiring debut portrays the universal dilemma of how a woman maintains herself as she commits to loving and supporting someone through hardship. Featuring luminous performances by a cast of rising stars led by Emayatzy Corinealdi and Omari Hardwick, Middle of Nowhere infuses gravity and grace into the prison tale and marks the arrival of an important new directorial talent.

Why It’s Interesting: Interestingly enough, the Sundance catalog refers to Middle of Nowhere as Ava DuVernay’s “debut.” But actually, her first feature was last year’s I Will Follow, a drama about a grieving widow. I Will Follow brought DuVernay to my attention, not just for the film itself (although it was good enough to make me want to see more from her), but because her mission seems to be laser-focused on pushing for more African-American stories in cinema — smart, well-thought films in which the characters are interesting for who they are and the choices they make, not because they’re Black. Her work tends to focus more on telling stories from a universal human perspective. Between this and her efforts as founder of the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, DuVernay’s positioned herself to lead what could be an interesting period with Black independent film. I’m very much looking forward to checking out her latest effort.

Nobody Walks, Ry Russo-Young

What It’s About:Martine, a 23-year-old artist from New York, arrives in Los Angeles to stay in the pool house of a family living in the hip and hilly community of Silver Lake. Peter, the father, has agreed to help Martine complete sound design on her art film as a favor to his wife. Martine innocently enters the seemingly idyllic life of this open-minded family with two kids and a relaxed Southern California vibe. Like a bolt of lightning, her arrival sparks a surge of energy that awakens suppressed impulses in everyone and forces them to confront their own fears and desires.

Exquisitely orchestrated by Ry Russo-Young (You Won’t Miss Me screened at the 2009 Festival) and cowritten by Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture), this potent charting of inner urges and sufferings links characters in an intricate dance of lust, denial, and deception. Despite their issues, each comes across as fundamentally human, urging viewers to appraise the characters’ morality by evaluating their own motives. Sexually charged and rigorously composed, Nobody Walks boasts an impressive cast who deliver incisive performances in this absorbing tale.

Why It’s Interesting: The indie world has had it’s eye on Russo-Young for years now. She’s a talented young director, having already made her mark with Orphans (2007), which won a Jury Prize at SXSW, and You Won’t Miss Me (2009), which premiered at Sundance and won a Gotham award. Nobody Walks, another product of the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriting and Producer’s Labs, was co-written by Lena Dunham, who, in addition to the terrific Tiny Furniture, wrote, directed and stars in upcoming HBO series Girls. That all adds up to a whole lot of reasons why this hotly anticipated title is a must-see at Sundance.

Safety Not Guaranteed, Colin Trevorrow

What It’s About:Three magazine employees are sent to investigate a personal advertisement placed in the newspaper: guy seeking partner for time travel. They venture to the coast and set up a haphazard surveillance. Darius is recruited as the shill; her dry wit and cynical nature are perfectly suited to trap this enigmatic oddball, Kenneth, and get a good story. But it is she who first sees past the paranoid loner façade to the compelling person inside. The drawback? This still doesn’t rule out the possibility that he just might be crazy.

Colin Trevorrow has woven an ingenious tale: a modern version of the classic madcap romantic comedy. Clever dialogue and outlandish antics, peppered with misfit characters—each one charming yet flawed—are wrapped in a love story tingling with the tantalizing possibility of time travel. In a world where moments are fleeting and soul mates are scarce, it seems that even the simple act of falling in love is never safe.

Why It’s Interesting: It was shot in my hometown, Seattle, so that would be reason enough for me to consider checking it out. But it stars Kristen Bell and Aubrey Plaza, and Mark Duplass and Jeff Garlin are in there, too. Lynn Shelton, whose film Your Sister’s Sister is also playing the fest, is in the mix as “Football Mom.” The Duplass Brothers show up as exec producers. Indie rock star Ben Kasulke shot it. Megan Griffith’s go-to designer, Ben Blankenship (The Off Hours, and Griffith’s upcoming Eden) is on production design. With all these players involved, and a storyline involving an internet meme about a personal ad seeking a time traveling companion? Yeah, be sure to check this one out … and bring your own weapons. I expect this one to be a hot ticket, so planning to get in line early.

The Surrogate, Ben Lewin

What It’s About: The quest for love appears insurmountable when a man confined to an iron lung determines, at age 38, to lose his virginity. Based on the autobiographical writings of Berkeley, California–based journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, The Surrogate chronicles his attempt to transcend the limbo between childhood and adulthood, in which he is literally trapped. With the blessing of an unusual priest and support from enlightened caregivers, the poignantly optimistic and always droll O’Brien swallows his fear and hires a sex surrogate. What transpires over a handful of sessions transforms them both. Rivetingly, sensitively, and humorously portrayed by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, the couple’s clinical exercise becomes a tender, awkward, and gracious journey from isolation to connection—corporal and spiritual.

This poet’s extraordinary story resonates with the elegance and precision of a poem. No line in The Surrogate is extraneous, no frame accidental. Filmmaker Ben Lewin’s masterful brushstrokes endow every character with fullness and authenticity, fashioning rich metaphors and emotional nuance and fusing them into an exquisite, unforgettable awakening.

Why It’s Interesting: Based on the true story of poet Mark O’Brien, whose life was previously chronicled in 1997 in Jessica Yu’s Oscar-winning short documentary, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, this film, sure to be one to watch out for at Sundance this year, stars John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene) as O’Brien, with a supporting cast including Helen Hunt as the sex surrogate and William H. Macy as O’Brien’s sympathetic priest. If they didn’t have my attention at “Mark O’Brien,” they sure had it at “John Hawkes playing Mark O’Brien.” An intriguing entry to be sure, and one I don’t want to miss.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

Quote Unquotesee all »

“I really want to see The Irishman. I’ve heard it’s big brother Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. But I really can’t find the time. The promotion schedule is so tight, there’s no opportunity to see a three and a half-hour movie. But I really want to see it. In 2017, right before Okja’s New York premiere, I had the chance to go to Scorsese’s office, which is in the DGA building. There’s a lovely screening room there, too, with film prints that he’s collected. I talked to him for about an hour. There’s no movie he hasn’t seen, even Korean films. We talked about what he’s seen and his past work. It was a glorious day. I’ve loved his work since I was in college. Who doesn’t? Anyone involved with movies must feel the same way.”
~ Bong Joon-ho

“But okay, I promise you now that if I ever retire again, I’m going to ensure that I can’t walk it back. I’ll post a series of the most disgusting, offensive, outrageous statements you can ever imagine. That way it will be impossible for me to ever be employed again. No one is going to take my calls. No one is going to want to be seen with me. Oh, it will be scorched earth. I will have torched everything. I’m going to flame out in the most legendary fashion.”
~ Steven Soderbergh