At once one of the more interesting and more over-hyped films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, first-time filmmaker Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow is stronger in concept than execution, but it’s still one of the films playing here this year that I’m most glad I didn’t miss. Is it a perfect film? No, it’s not. But one of the great things about this festival is that the programming often takes risks that other fests don’t, and you sometimes get to stumble upon something that, while flawed, still shows a brilliance and originality that’s lacking from so much of low-budget indie film. For that it’s absolutely deserving of some accolades.
The black-and-white, partially guerrilla-shot film takes us into the bowels of Disney theme parks through the story of one man, Jim White (Roy Abramsohn), who’s unceremoniously fired from his corporate job while on vacation there with his family. Determined to have one last day in the fantasy world with his wife and kids, unmarred by the grim reality of having to tell his wife he’s lost his job, Jim tries to make their final day at the theme park idyllic, but things quickly get surreal and more than a little disturbing.
A pair of flirtatious young French girls catches Jim’s eye, and soon he’s following them around the park, dragging his young son along with him for the ride, and getting increasingly shameless in revealing his lust as the film progresses. How much of the girls’ flirtation is real and how much is Jim’s delusion is left to you to judge, though given the rest of what’s happening here, I think it’s maybe a little of both; regardless, it’s a lot creepy, this middle-aged man trolling after a pair of young girls, but it also makes a statement of sorts about sexual fantasy and objectification that one doesn’t expect to overtly find in a film about Disney anything.
And yet, what are Disney princesses if not early gender role training for little girls? They are largely fantasy incarnate – the male fantasy of being needed and desired by a nicely busty, youthful and attractive young girl who flirtatiously giggles and bats eyelashes and radiates desire. Every now and again one may be a little feisty or independent, but at the end of the day what does a Disney princess want but to be rescued by her prince to live happily ever after, while sacrificing self-hood to be with her man?
Moore underscores this by contrasting Jim’s wife, Emily (Elena Schuber), a nagging wife and mother who’s always on his ass about something, with the giggling, attractive younger girls. Jim can’t seem to please his wife no matter what he does, but when he follows these young girls around, they stroke his male ego in a way that his wife does not, and whether that’s reality or fantasy matters little, given that we’re seeing it all from Jim’s perspective, warped through the lens of Disney-esque fantasy. All this fantasy exploration of screwed-up values is further underscored by an encounter Jim has with a seductive aging Disney princess who ties him up and beds him, a potentially fatal virus working its way through the happy, smiling tourists spending their dollars at the theme park, and a team of rogue scientists operating beneath Epcot Center, who have their own sinister plans for Jim.
Filmmaker Randy Moore says in his director’s statement for this film that it was inspired in part by his own trips to Disney theme parks as a child – something he loved when he was a kid, without realizing how he was being influenced by the surreal unreality of the temporary world of make believe and magic. The Disney theme parks create an illusion of fairy tales and princesses and happily ever after, and the influence of corporate branding and marketing sells children on a synthetic fantasy that doesn’t exist. While the execution of Escape from Tomorrow doesn’t always quite hit the fairly high ambition for which it’s aiming, it still manages to be an interestingly subversive exploration of the ideas and values peddled by a corporation that makes its billions off selling outdated ideas about gender roles and relationships. Moore plants the pretty princesses — both the young, fresh and dewy ones and the older, washed up and desperate ones — squarely in front of his protagonist, and reveals through Jim’s interactions with them just what’s so fucked up about the happily-ever-after Disney theme.
Among industry, there are films that are what we’ve come to think of as typical “Sundance films.” You know what I’m talking about here: low-key dramas exploring the rather mundane lives of lost and bored late-20-somethings who can’t seem to get their lives together; slow-burn relationship dramas, usually involving one or both partners cheating; small films that feel like extended visual blog posts in which the filmmaker is trying to sort through some aspect of their own lives. We get films like that at Sundance in spades. So when we get something that stands out as different in idea and execution, it’s a rarity, and there’s a tendency to immediately latch on and overhype the buzz. This is good in that it generates enough interest in a small, weird film like this to pack the press into the cattle chutes in the P&I tent, but not so good in that that same press come into the screening expecting to be blown away, and then are mildly (or even a lot) disappointed when they are not.
Is it absurdist and flawed in execution? Yes, it is, particularly in the green screen scenes, which are just not well-composed. But I’m not sure that matters as much as the idea of a filmmaker actually trying to do something different and new and darkly humorous, and at least it’s not another goddamn Mumblecore film. I’d far rather see a filmmaker doing what Moore is here, aiming for something completely original and darkly subversive, than yet another rehashing of the same story lines we’ve seen so many times we can predict the ending within the first five minutes. And a first-time filmmaker pulling off guerrilla filmmaking in the Disney theme parks, with a score that rather brilliantly both subverts and evokes Disney films, inventively using mics and smartphones in place of a sound mixer to capture the audio, all while exploring interesting ideas about gender roles, male sexual fantasy and the skewed view of reality the Magic Kingdom represents, is undeniably interesting. Escape from Tomorrow isn’t a perfect film, but it’s completely unlike anything I’ve seen at Sundance or any other fest, and for that reason alone I would highly recommend catching it if you get a chance.