Audiences versed in the kinds of movies that break out at the Sundance Film Festival know what tends to gather momentum there: big themes and commercial value. Over the last three years, the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition illustrated this tendency: "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Precious" were both heavily stylized and overproduced visions that wound up figuring into the Oscar race; "Like Crazy" garnered less acclaim but found a lucrative distribution deal with Paramount Pictures. The prominence of such success stories routinely embolden the perception that Sundance's chief role is to seed the marketplace with new product. But the festival isn't entirely dominated by commerciality and it has finally organized the lineup to prove it.
Aside from the substantial presence of top-notch documentaries at the festival, Sundance has recently made room for a far more interesting set of movies in the NEXT section, which was created four years ago under vague parameters and finally came into its own this year. The NEXT program outdoes the overall quality of the U.S. competition by a long shot.
Ostensibly created to make room for the microbudget, outré indies that had begun developing a niche at the newly popular SXSW Film Festival, NEXT had a rough couple of years in which most of its movies failed to live up to the potential of the section. But last year, when Craig Zobel's divisive "Compliance" became one of the most talked-about films at the festival and Mike Birbiglia's "Sleepwalk With Me" won the section before garnering attention in theaters as one of the year's biggest crowdpleasers, the value of NEXT suddenly snapped into focus. This year's stellar lineup of 10 films confirmed that it's now the most uniformly interesting section of Sundance.
In each case, the NEXT movies — all narratives, although programmers may want to consider adding some documentaries next year — tell offbeat stories with an economy of scale. Nowhere is this more obvious than with "Escape From Tomorrow," which, like "Compliance," has intensely divided audiences while generating a shocking amount of national media attention. Randall Moore's surreal, disturbing tale of a family on a trip to Disney World that goes frighteningly wrong provides the most extreme realization of the contained narrative invention found throughout NEXT: Filmmakers are realizing their visions on small scales that play into their favor.
Moore's scathing indictment of corporate entertainment could only have been made using the scrappy guerrilla approach now publicized in countless articles about the production. The idea behind the movie excuses the frugality of its production. Other NEXT films this year require no more than two or three characters to get their themes across. In every case, they represent a distinct perspective on contemporary America largely underplayed in mainstream cinema — in short, they have the essence of true indies.
"A Teacher," a tightly wound sketch of a movie written and directed by Hannah Fidell, deals with the uneasy romance between a Texas high school teacher (Lindsay Burdge) and one of her students (Will Brittain), in admirably unconventional fashion. Fiddell's story starts with the relationship already in flux, and observes its progression from exciting liaison to perilous endeavor in sharply conceived fragments of conversations and arguments. There aren't many surprises in "A Teacher," but the movie sustains a bold intimacy with its topic that avoids sensationalism at every turn.
The other film in the section dealing with sexuality in fresh ways, Eliza Hittman's "It Felt Like Love" is a restrained, disturbing work that reverses the equation in "A Teacher": It involves a 14-year-old woman (Gina Piersanti in a breakthrough performance) attempting to sleep with an older guy she meets around town and facing graphically unsettling ramifications for her actions. More than anything else, "It Felt Like Love" successfully turns the coming-of-age formula into a foreboding nightmare.
Not every character piece populating the section is quite so brooding. Chad Hartigan's gentle portrait "This Is Martin Bonner" follows the titular middle-aged man (Paul Eenhoorn), a former theology student who fled to Reno in wake of a divorce, eking out a living working for a prisoner release program. Against the bland backdrop of greasy-spoon diners, soccer fields and other reference points for blue collar Americana, Martin forms a curiously symbiotic relationship with client Travis, a sad man estranged from his daughter and recently released from jail after 12 years. Both Martin and Travis face the daily challenges of getting through each day with muted, subtle performances that go beyond carrying the movies along and end up defining them.
The similarly quiet "Pit Stop," Yen Tan's tender look at a pair of gay men in an alienated Texas town, places a likeminded emphasis on small town America and the unspoken desires and frustrations contained therein. Echoing Andrew Haigh's "Weekend," the movie views homoerotic yearning in a refreshingly non-sensationalistic context that places it within the broader challenges of the nation's disillusioned middle class.
In essence, this is the theme percolating throughout the NEXT section among its other stronger offerings: Society's restrictions take their toll on individuals unwilling to conform. In Andrew Bujalski's very funny, very awkward black-and-white "Computer Chess," proto-tech nerds of the early eighties struggle to reconcile their introverted tendencies and academic obsessions with the prospects of genuine human interaction. On a substantially bleaker note, the distressing "Blue Caprice" imagines the lives of the two men responsible for the 2002 D.C. sniper attacks, attributing their mania to their unchecked aggression toward a stable world that has abandoned them. Thematically linked but less harrowing, Matthew Porterfield's "I Used to Be Darker" illustrates a touching means of coping with those same anxieties by pointing out the cathartic power of music.
"Milkshake," the feature-length debut of writer-director David Andalman, takes a lighter tack: Set in the mid-'90s, it follows the genial Jolie Jolson (Tyler Ross), a teen who wishes he could be black (and somehow thinks he has achieved this goal by landing a spot on the varsity basketball team). Despite its overly familiar coming-of-age mold, "Milkshake" cleverly downplays the silly premise with genuine protagonist who never devolves into a white-trash cartoon.
At the opposite end of the racial spectrum, Shaka King's "Newlyweeds" presents itself as the plight of a young black pot smoker (Amari Cheatom) vainly attempting to get his life together. While playfully meandering as it constantly shifts between the character's dream life and harsh reality, "Newlyweeds" never devolves into a bid to become the next "Half Baked." Instead, Cheatom's character develops into a fully defined, empathetic creation whose aspirations are constantly obscured by smoke. Anyone expecting a bumbling stoner comedy will be sorely disappointed, but equally fascinated by something far smarter and more attuned to behavior than any sort of market standard. That's a quality worth celebrating in all of these movies — and a good indication of more to come.