By Kim Voynar

Sundance 2013 Preview: US Dramatic Competition Picks

The Sundance Film Festival kicks off this evening, and although the program of Sundance, like any large fest, can be a bit of a crap shoot, I’m always hopeful for more good films than lousy ones. Writing a curtain raiser for Sundance is always a bit of a crapshoot as well; it’s a program packed with new films, many of them from new filmmakers, and the best you can hope to do is hunt out the ones that look most interesting, or at least most promising, and hope for the best.

This seems like a totally random way to evaluate the Sundance Program, but it actually works out pretty well for me. I was looking over last year’s preview of the US Dramatic competition, and many of them have gone on have a life outside the fest circuit: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Middle of Nowhere, Safety Not Guaranteed, and The Surrogate — all solid films that had a good life outside the fest circuit. With the perspective of a year behind us, last year’s Sundance US Dramatic competition was pretty damn good, y’all. Here’s hoping this year’s slate holds just as much promise.

Here are my picks of the films in the US Dramatic competitions. Some of these are there because of the director’s history, some just because they sounded interesting based on the program notes. All of them, I hope, will be worth our time catching them here in beautiful Park City.

Title: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

What It’s About: Bob Muldoon and Ruth Guthrie, an impassioned young outlaw couple on an extended crime spree, are finally apprehended by lawmen after a shootout in the Texas hills. Although Ruth wounds a local officer, Bob takes the blame. But four years later, Bob escapes from prison and sets out to find Ruth and their daughter, born during his incarceration.

The barren landscapes of David Lowery’s poetic feature evoke the mythology of westerns and saturate the dramatic space with fatalism and an aching sense of loss. Aided by powerfully restrained performances by Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, and Ben Foster, Lowery incorporates an unnerving tension into the film, teetering it at the edge of violence.

The beautiful, irreconcilable dilemma of the story is that Ruth—compelled by the responsibilities of motherhood and her evolving relationship with the deputy she shot—remains haunted by her intense feelings for Bob. Each of them longs for some form of peace. Ironically, it’s Bob, the unrepentant criminal trapped in the romantic image of a bygone past, who is driven by an almost righteous sense of clarity. Following in the footsteps of Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde, Lowery’s humanism transcends the genre.

Why It’s Interesting: Love Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster, so that triad leading the film intrigues me. is also at Sundance this year with another of my picks, Kill Your Darlings (see below). Director David Lowery previously had St. Nick at SXSW, and edited one of my favorite shorts of last year, Kat Candler’s Hellion. Definitely one I want to check out here.

Title: Austenland

What It’s About: Jane’s life-size paper doll of Mr. Darcy and her “I Love Darcy” tote may be tattered, but even in her thirties, she hasn’t grown out of her obsession with all things Jane Austen. Careworn by love, she saves enough to fulfill her dream of stepping into Austen’s world and heads to Austenland for an “immersive” vacation to eschew all things modern. And it couldn’t be more perfect. There’s an imposing manor with verdant grounds for afternoon promenades, rosy-faced servants, trusty steeds for hunting expeditions, gilded drawing rooms for evenings spent in polite conversation, and, yes, gallant young suitors. Unfortunately, due to limited funds, she’s relegated to lesser quarters and drearier costumes than fellow bachelorette guests, but her cares melt away as she catches the eye of a young footman, and she’s swept into a romantic adventure she could never have imagined.

Will fantasy and reality merge for Jane? A wickedly funny, irreverent comedy, featuring a malapropism-peppered performance by Jennifer Coolidge and an impeccable cast of archetypal characters, Austenland hits all the right notes of the Regency era and our curious infatuation with it.

Why It’s Interesting: Director Jerusha Hess, here with her directorial debut, cowrote Napolean Dynamite (not one of my personal favorites, but worth mentioning because a lot of folks really like it). She also co-wrote Nacho Libre and Gentleman Bronchos with her husband, Jared Hess. I’m a fan of Jennifer Coolidge, and a total dork for all things Austen myself, so I’ll be checking this one out here in Park City.

Title: Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes

What It’s About: Emanuel, an acerbic but sensitive teen, lives with her father and stepmother. She’s on the verge of another birthday—a day she has never cared for since her mother died giving birth to her—when the mysterious Linda, a young and hip mother, moves in next door. Intrigued by Linda’s striking resemblance to her late mother, Emanuel begins to babysit for Linda’s newborn daughter. As Emanuel and Linda spend more time together, they develop a bond that becomes deeply entwined in a surprising secret Linda harbors.

Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes is a hyperstylized and often darkly humorous film that vacillates between surrealism and realism while it incorporates suspenseful drama. Writer/director Francesca Gregorini’s tightly constructed script fuses pain with poetry and explores the complexity of being complicit in the lives of our loved ones. In a breakout performance, Kaya Scodelario is the heart of the film as Emanuel, who must take a courageous journey to enter her dream and help extract Linda from hers.

Why It’s Interesting: Hyperstylized, surreal, darkly humorous, poetic and complex, all with a tightly constructed script and a breakout performance? Okay, Sundance program, I’ll bite.

Title: Kill Your Darlings

What It’s About: While he is attending Columbia University in 1944, the young Allen Ginsberg’s life is turned upside down when he sets eyes on Lucien Carr, an impossibly cool and boyishly handsome classmate. Carr opens Ginsberg up to a bohemian world and introduces him to William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Repelled by rules and conformity in both life and literature, the four agree to tear down tradition and make something new, ultimately formulating the tenets of and giving birth to what became the Beat movement. On the outside, looking in, is David Kammerer, a man in his thirties desperately in love with Carr. When Kammerer is found dead, and Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr are arrested in conjunction with the murder, the nascent artists’ lives change forever.

Daniel Radcliffe fearlessly takes on the role of the young Ginsberg on a journey of discovery—to find his sexuality and his voice as a writer. Cowriter/director John Krokidas takes on this less-explored early chapter of the Beats and captures the period with visual flair, kinetic energy, and imagination. Kill Your Darlings is the riveting true story of a crime, a friendship, and the nexus that spawned a cultural movement.

Why It’s Interesting: One of the films I’m most excited to check out here at Sundance. Radcliffe has impressed me with both his growth as an actor since the first Harry Potter film, and his deliberate effort not to remain typecast as the Boy Who Lived. This is Krokidas’s first feature effort; his short Slo-Mo debuted at Telluride before playing at Sundance 2002. Looking forward to seeing what he does with a feature.

Title: Touchy Feely

What It’s About: What happens when a family’s delicate psychic balance suddenly unravels? Abby is a free-spirited massage therapist. Her brother, Paul, an emotional zombie, owns a flagging dental practice, where he enlists the assistance of his equally emotionally stunted daughter, Jenny. Suddenly, transformation touches everyone. Abby develops an uncontrollable aversion to bodily contact, which seriously hinders her chosen profession and the passionate love life she once shared with her boyfriend. Meanwhile, rumors of Paul’s “healing touch” begin to miraculously invigorate his practice. As Abby navigates through an identity crisis, her brother discovers a whole new side of himself.

Boasting superb performances from an ensemble cast that includes Rosemarie DeWitt, Josh Pais, Ellen Page, Scoot McNairy, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, and newcomer Tomo Nakayama, Touchy Feely is about learning to live in your own skin—literally and figuratively. Written and directed by talented Sundance alumnus Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister), Touchy Feely bristles with originality, coupled with Shelton’s trademark sensitivity to the foibles of human nature.

Why It’s Interesting: I haven’t not liked any film by Lynn Shelton to this point, and her last film, Your Sister’s Sister, showed a real maturing of the director as an artist. I’ve heard very positive buzz on this film from industry folks who saw it in the editing process, which makes me hopeful that the final cut will be pretty stellar. With a cast including a powerhouse trio of women in Allison Janney, Rosemarie DeWitt and Ellen Page and Shelton writing and directing, this is one Sundance film I absolutely cannot miss.

Title: Upstream Color

What It’s About: Kris is derailed from her life when she is drugged by a small-time thief. But something bigger is going on. She is unknowingly drawn into the life cycle of a presence that permeates the microscopic world, moving to nematodes, plant life, livestock, and back again. Along the way, she finds another being—a familiar, who is equally consumed by the larger force. The two search urgently for a place of safety within each other as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of their wrecked lives.

Shane Carruth’s sensuously directed and much anticipated sophomore effort (his feature debut, Primer, won the Sundance Film Festival 2004 Grand Jury Prize) is a truly remarkable film that lies beyond the power of language to communicate while it delivers a cohesive sensory experience. With its muscular cinematic language rooted in the powerful yearnings felt before words can be formed, Upstream Color is an entirely original, mythic, romantic thriller that goes in search of truths that lie just beyond our reach.

Why It’s Interesting: Finally, finally! Upstream Color, the long-awaited second film from do-it-all-yourself Primer director Shane Carruth arrives at Sundance off some pretty heady buzz at New York pre-fest screenings. Primer, in case you don’t know, is an astounding, complex sci-fi indie that was shot for $7,000 and went on to snatch the Sundance Grand Jury prize in 2004 from films like Napolean Dynamite and Garden State. It’s also one of my favorite indie films of the past decade and I, like many of you, have been eagerly anticipating Carruth making another film. I am super excited to get my eyeballs on this film. Must. See.

*All film descriptions courtesy the Sundance Film Festival program.

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“I always thought that once I had lived in Chicago for a while, it would be interesting to do a portrait of the city – but to do it at a significant time. Figuring out when would be the ideal time to do that was the trick. So when this election came around, coupled with the Laquan McDonald trial, it seemed like the ideal time to do the story. Having lived in Chicagoland for thirty-five-plus years and done a number of films here, I’ve always been struck by the vibrancy of the city and its toughness. Its tenderness too. I’ve always been interested in the people at the center of all the stories. This is a different film in that regard, because we’re not following a couple of individuals over the course of the project in the way that a lot of the films I’ve done have, but I still feel like people’s voices and aspirations and hopes are at the center of this series.

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