Editor’s note: Sundance Curiosities is a feature designed to preview
films at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. Entries are written by
members of the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism.
As old as the nation itself, the ideals of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” may have been penned a few centuries ago, but the American Dream lingers still today, as implied by three films in particular at Sundance 2015.
Albeit screening in different categories, “Brooklyn,” “Umrika,” and “Mistress America” suggest that there remains a place for, and an interest in, stories that celebrate — or at least probe further into — the image of the United States as the ultimate land of opportunity. However, perhaps unlike films of the past that blindly exalted the dream, these appear to have an edge to them, each shedding various perspectives and questions on the meaning, legitimacy, and strength of a longstanding national ethos.
In “Brooklyn,” Nick Hornby’s screen adaptation of Colm Toibin’s highly-praised novel interlaces the American dream with a love story. Beginning in 1950s rural Ireland, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) struggles for employment in the strained post-war economy. When given the chance to emigrate to America, she leaves behind her mother and sister and heads for New York, where she finds work, love, and unexpected happiness. But the security and permanence of her new life is shaken when tragedy back home calls for her return to Ireland.
Eilis’s story may highlight the heartbreaks that inevitably follow when splitting one’s allegiances to countries, futures, and loved ones. While the promise of supporting her family is irresistible, a look at life on both sides of the Atlantic suggests the allure — and, simultaneously, the cost — of living the dream: Eilis is torn between past and present, responsibility and opportunity, family ties and a potential soulmate.
“Brooklyn” stars Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, and Emory Cohen, and is directed by John Crowley. It will screen in the Premieres section.
“Umrika” was developed at the Sundance Mahindra Lab in Mumbai, and now will premiere in Park City; director Prashant Nair’s very screenplay is, in itself, manifestation of the American dream. But the film’s story seems to take a more apprehensive approach to the concept: Ramakant’s (Suraj Sharma) older brother leaves their remote Indian village for a better life in America, sending letters to his family detailing the adventures of his new life. But the discovery of unexpected truths eventually leads Ramakant in search of his brother’s real whereabouts.
Set in the 1980s, a decade of exponential increase in immigrants — legal and otherwise — to the United States despite widespread racism and unemployment, the premise of “Umrika” seems to highlight the double-edged sword that the American Dream can be: its possibilities may be better than one’s alternatives at home, but chasing it can be wrought with more complications than ever imagined. As Ramakant continues writing letters to his family on his missing brother’s behalf, he propels the illusion of America as a place of promised wealth and hope, hesitant to let the myth die. At once a validation of the dream as well as a warning not to blindly buy into it, “Umrika” is poised to point to the pitfalls and the values of a pursuit whose path is so often blurred by the starry eyes of dreamers.
Umrika stars Suraj Sharma and Tony Revolori, and is directed by Nair. It will screen in the World Dramatic Competition section.
Already snatched up by Fox Searchlight for distribution ahead of Sundance, “Mistress America” has immediately been catapulted to must-see status (if it wasn’t there already) before the festival even began. The most contemporary of the three films here in terms of time period, it’s the story of Tracy (Lola Kirke), a disillusioned college freshman whose first year at university in New York is far from the thrilling experience she had imagined. Life takes a wild twist when her future stepsister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), takes her in and introduces her to a whole new world of adventurous antics in the city.
Based on characters born and raised in the U.S, the premise of “Mistress America” is a reminder of the homegrown origins of the American dream, and as such, its equal, if not even deeper, resonance for the nation’s citizens as for new immigrants. Rather than translating the dream into monetary prosperity like many who arrive from outside its borders, “Mistress” implies a story that is tinged with the ideal’s more romantic side: young, ambitious passion for life and the freedom to live it to its fullest.
Co-writing the screenplay in their third collaboration after “Greenberg” and their Golden Globe-nominated “Frances Ha,” Baumbach and Gerwig have already proved themselves to be a successful pairing; as such, particularly critical in “Mistress” will be how they break away from the endearingly eccentric lead role they created together in “Frances Ha” and still put forth an equally captivating character — one we can root for as she chases her own vision of opportunity, fulfillment, and happiness, as whacky or as abstract as it may seem.
Mistress America stars Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke, and is directed by Noah Baumbach. It will screen in the Premieres section.