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Sundance Watch: Humpday Scores Laughs

Sundance Watch: Humpday Scores Laughs

Humpday was the best of the three movies I screened today at the Eccles. The third feature from Seattle photographer/filmmaker Lynn Shelton is deceptively entertaining.

Filmed on the Mike Leigh model of gifted actors improvising off a well-rehearsed and prepared series of scenes, the relationship comedy played well with a crowd of squirming, giggling adults. Happily married Ben (Mark Duplass) feels compelled to break out of the confines of his life when his old college chum Andrew (Joshua Leonard) turns up out of nowhere and lures him to a free-wheeling party where they dare each other to make a porn film starring themselves. How is Ben’s straight-laced wife Anna (Alycia Delmore) going to react? No matter how implausible, every move that these characters make is understandable. They want to be so much more interesting and transgressive and not trapped by convention than they are.

Clearly, these collaborators–much like the team behind The Blair Witch Project, which also starred Leonard–knew what they were doing. But the breakout performance is Mark Duplass, of the writer-director Duplass brothers behind Puffy Chair and Baghead. “We shot the whole film,” said Shelton at the Q & A, “in order to get excited about the idea that we wouldn’t know what happens next. For it to look right we had to show up and shoot. We didn’t know what happened until we got there. There was no written dialogue, a clear outline, a strong narrative drive.”

The actors developed detailed back stories for their characters over a few months, so that they had a clear scaffolding to work with. “I can’t write dialogue as awesome as what these actors say out of their mouths,” Shelton said. She had worked as a still photographer on the Seattle set of True Adolescents, starring Duplass. “I fell in love with him as an actor,” she said. “Luckily he said yes when I asked him to play the part of one of two guys trying to have sex together.” She shortly introduced him to Joshua Leonard. Delmore was a local Seattle actress. And Shelton cast herself as a bisexual who invites Andrew into her bed with her girlfriend.

Inspired by a straight friend’s reaction to seeing gay porn at Seattle’s Hump Day, Shelton started thinking about straight men and gay sex and the rigidity and fluidity of their identities.

Onstage, Duplass insisted he didn’t mind kissing Leonard, who responded, “it was way worse than I thought it would be.”

Added Shelton: “It’s the most awkward kiss ever recorded on film.”

Buyers are circling. The danger with a movie like this is for a distrib to get too excited about its potential, as the Weinsteins did with Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno (a title that should have been ditched). They behaved like the movie was more commercial than it was and failed to build support on a smaller scale. This movie needs that kind of nurturing. Here’s the trailer.

Emily Abt’s Toe to Toe is an earnest, schematic, and sincere attempt to show the dynamics of an interracial friendship between two teenage girl lacrosse players near Washington D.C.. One is rich, lonely, promiscuous and white, the other poor, hard-working, and black; both are trying to overcome obstacles. Abt brings authenticity and compassion to this straight-forward story. It’s very Sundance, in the well-intentioned sense.

[Originally appeared on Variety.com]

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