I vividly remember the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, even though I was 2,000 miles away when it happened. That was the year “Beasts of the Southern Wild” premiered to the kind of rapturous response that’s usually reserved for new popes or Marvel trailers. The reviews were ecstatic, and on Twitter critics were falling over themselves to declare the movie a milestone in the history of independent cinema. I couldn’t wait to see it.
And then I did.
That’s when I decided that I had to go to Sundance for myself, that I had to vet these films first-hand. I was fascinated by the disconnect. I had big questions. Was the air in Park City as thin as they say? Why do Sundance films always seem to get over-hyped while Cannes films always seem to get under-hyped? (I’ll never forgive the shrugged response to “Certified Copy.”)
And then, on day three of my very first Sundance, this happened:
ME AND EARL & THE DYING GIRL: The Fault in Our Stars for Criterion Collection fetishists + an Eno soundtrack ugh it’s so good ugh #sundance
— david ehrlich (@davidehrlich) January 25, 2015
And also this:
so ME & EARL & THE DYING GIRL is *so* Sundance and you’re about to hear *such* Sundance reactions… but just let it happen. #EyesWideButts
— david ehrlich (@davidehrlich) January 25, 2015
You either die the hero, or live long enough to become the villain.
But last week, as I soldiered through my third Sundance and tapped out positive reactions to almost every film I saw during the front-loaded first weekend, I began to wonder if it might not be that simple. I began to fear that I had gone soft in my old age, or that maybe — given the state of our sick, sad world — I was being unusually charitable towards anything that had the power to distract me for 90 minutes at a time. I began to think something that I once would have considered unthinkable: What if Sundance hype… is a good thing? What if it’s important, even when it arrives via a tide of bad movies? What if Sundance hype is ultimately inextricable from how the festival functions, what it represents, and why it continues to be an increasingly vital institution?
It’s easy to get swept up in things, and that’s doubly true at Sundance. Festival culture usually hinges on the joy of discovery; on Planet Sundance, it’s the very atmosphere. While other fests exist to celebrate the present, this one is dedicated to the immediate future. If Cannes is about drilling for oil, Sundance is about striking it, and there’s a real thrill in having a front-row seat to see nothing become something (and then, at least in the festival bubble, suddenly become everything). Names you’ve never heard become names you must know. Movies that barely got financed become the focal point of the industry that wouldn’t make room for them. Dreams become reality. These transformations are galvanized by little more than a feeling that’s shared between strangers in a high school auditorium.
By this point in Sundance’s incredibly successful history of inciting these changes, people go with the expectation that they will not only witness this alchemy, but that they also will take part in it. There’s even an element of gamification, since while the festival plays host to dozens of premieres, there’s only a small handful of happenings. People don’t want only to respond to films; they want to bear witness. They’re participating in a moment.
Those moments don’t always make it down to sea level intact. Looking at the films that stole this year’s festival, I worry that Dee Rees’ highly acclaimed “Mudbound” is a smaller work than reviews and reactions may lead people to expect, and that Luca Guadagnino’s masterful “Call Me By Your Name” is more subtle than its steamy reputation might suggest. Both sneak up on you, planting their power for almost two hours before allowing it to bloom over the course of an extraordinarily emotional finale. I worry — perhaps needlessly — that Michael Showalter’s “The Big Sick,” a heartfelt and hilarious rom-com retelling of how Kumail Nanjiani met his wife, will be regarded as an indie darling and denied the massive audience that it deserves. There will be backlash. There will be think pieces. Some of them will be dumb.
I definitely worry that David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story,” which many critics (myself included) regarded as the best of the fest, will be reduced to “that movie where Casey Affleck walks around with a sheet on his head” by the time it reaches people who’ve been hearing about it for six months. On the other hand, it’s also great that people will be hearing about “that movie where Casey Affleck walks around with a sheet on his head” for six months (for the record, it can also be referred to as “that movie where Rooney Mara devours an entire pie in a single shot”).
Last year, when Nate Parker’s urgent but amateurishly made Nat Turner biopic “Birth of a Nation” premiered during the height of the #OscarsSoWhite movement, the energy in the Eccles theater was electric. The audience was primed for a paradigm shift, and it was a moment when cultural crosswinds met the experience of discovery. The film received a standing ovation before the movie began. That screening would cost Fox Searchlight $17.5 million.
This year, the same company — a smart outfit that regularly releases several of a given year’s best films — paid $10.5 million for the similarly dreadful “Patti Cake$,” a film that feels Frankensteined together from every over-hyped breakout in Sundance history. (IndieWire head critic Eric Kohn has a different take.) Described to me more than once as “‘Hustle & Flow’ meets ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ in New Jersey,” I summoned the courage to see it because the enthusiasm generated by its premiere made it seem like an Audience Award shoo-in (which ultimately, and even more inexplicably, went to “Crown Heights”). Fronted by a fearsomely winning cast, “Patti Cake$” combines the quirk of “Little Miss Sunshine” with the raucous energy of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and the non-existent commercial appeal of “Happy, Texas.” It’s a movie about rap in which every beat feels like it’s been sampled from something better.
It’s also a movie that will inspire someone to fly out to the fest next year in the hopes that they might be able to put a stop to such madness. And when they get there — when they sit through the 2018 equivalent of “Patti Cake$” — they might come to the same perverse realization that I did: Sundance hype can be a beautiful thing, even when it sets you up for a fall. It’s less a reaction to an individual movie than a reaffirmation of what we watch them for; the high matters more than the drug.
There’s a reason Sundance is in January. I mean, in addition to whatever the real reason is. At the top of a new year, we need Sundance to give us this feeling, to restore our faith in film, to help us find it in each other. The enthusiasm the festival generates drives the marketplace. It empowers filmmakers. It whets appetites. It reenergizes the communal spectacle of cinema, which only becomes more precious as Netflix continues to buy every other film at the fest (denying strong titles like “The Discovery” and Grand Jury Prize winner “I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.” the prospect of a theatrical release). At Sundance, every screening has the potential of catching fire. When you’re in a room that’s drenched in kerosene, it’s hard not to blame people for losing their minds over any hint of a spark.
At a time when getting excited about anything feels like an extraordinary act of courage, Sundance turns it into a ritual. So when someone tells you that they saw something great there, it’s best just to believe them.
And for the record, I’m still ready to throw down for “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”