The Sundance Film Festival arrives at the top of every year to take the temperature on the American independent film scene. That’s not to say that the festival provides any kind of scientific formula for evaluating the artistry or commercial potential of movies in this country, but with over 100 world premieres, filmmakers old and new gathering alongside innumerable industry types with varying agendas, Sundance becomes a unique window into the health of the medium. So what to make of a year in which buzz is minimal?
Each time around, Sundance attendees look to the previous edition as a point of comparison. With “Boyhood” arriving out of nowhere at last year’s festival and transforming into the year’s greatest success story, and Grand Jury Prize-winner “Whiplash” doing pretty great as well, expectations may be stacked unfairly high—especially because, for the first time in a while, no single movie seems to be generating the kind of deafening hype that drives journalists, distributors, and programmers into an anticipatory frenzy.
Sure, there are plenty of movies likely to find deals large and small, many of which sync with traditional Sundance expectations. Usually, that means they’re coming of age stories. In the U.S. competition, titles such as “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” in which an alienated high schooler forms an unlikely friendship with a cancer-stricken classmate, has been generating anticipation among buyers for its heartwarming prospects. Along similar lines, first-time director Marielle Heller’s adaptation of the graphic novel “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”—in which said teenager confronts her sexuality in 70s-era San Francisco—shows similar potential.
Then there are the familiar faces and genres: Jack Black in “The D Train,” an intriguing character study in which Black plays an overeager organizer of his high school reunion. “The Witch,” a reportedly spooky tale of colonial families facing ominous threats in rural New England, could offer the ideal blend of artful storytelling and dread. “The Bronze,” a raunchy comedy about a disgraced Olympic gymnast produced by Sundance vets Mark and Jay Duplass, already seems to have secured its status as the festival’s first big crowdpleaser with its opening night slot.
But none of these movies have been deemed truly next-level in their capacity to define this year’s proceedings. It’s not their fault; for years, Sundance buzz has turned into such a focal point for the industry that it tends to pass judgement long before the beginning of the first day. In truth, a Sundance light on buzz is actually a reason to get excited: Rather than offering one movie to rule them all, the lineup may very well offer something for everyone.
That’s good news for the folks in town eager to bring the discoveries home. Buyers see more and more titles before they get to Park City, facing an increasingly competitive marketplace that changes on a regular basis. (Presumably one of the most commercial movies in this year’s lineup, Noah Baumbach’s “Mistress America,” closed a healthy deal with Fox Searchlight weeks ago.) While companies such as IFC Films and Sony Pictures Classics continue to mine Sundance for all kinds of material, deep-pocketed newcomers like Broad Green Pictures and A24 continue to complicate the picture; moreover, digital pioneers such as Netflix snatch up streaming and VOD rights to movies that make the entire notion of discovering a movie anywhere but your living room less enticing than it was just a few years ago.
The media follows the festival narrative each day from every possible angle, which means stars and controversies stand out by default. There are plenty of stories to expect out of Sundance this year, from the allegations in Alex Gibney’s Scientology exposé “Going Clear” to those of Kirby Dick’s campus rape exposé “The Hunting Ground”; the Nick Hornby-scripted immigration drama “Brooklyn” holds plenty of mainstream potential, while the James Franco vehicle “I Am Michael” seems likely to find support for its allegedly nuanced portrait of gay rights activist Michael Glaze. Spike Lee has found success at Sundance over the years as a producer, and his latest credit on that front is “Cronies,” the promising debut of writer-director Michael Larness.
All of which is to say that this year’s program features a diverse set of options, and that’s just among the higher profile selections. In the typically unpredictable NEXT section, oddball titles such as “Bob and the Trees”—in which a middle-aged Massachusetts logger who loves gangster rap tries to keep his life on track—have sleeper hit potential. “Entertainment,” Rick Alverson’s portrait of a glum comedian, will surely divide audiences with fascinating results, while “Simon Killer” producer Josh Mond’s tender drama “James White” is poised to generate tears on cue. Elsewhere in the section, sexuality gets its due from a number of angles: Festival regular Sean Baker (“Starlet”) explores the travails of two transgendered women on Christmas Eve; newcomer Matt Sobel’s “Take Me to the River” involves a young gay man struggling against his conservative Nebraskan relatives.
Then there’s the really far-out stuff: Danish documentarian Michael Madsen’s “The Visit” explores the real-world implications of a UFO landing on Earth; “Sam Klemke’s Time Machine” features an eccentric man who records himself every year for nearly four decades. The reliably eccentric Guy Maddin returns with the cryptic “The Forbidden Room.” Rodney Ascher, whose “Room 237” was a Sundance surprise a few years back, follows it up with the creepy-sounding “The Nightmare,” a portrait of sleepwalkers. “The Wolfpack” revolves around a group of teens trapped in a New York City apartment by their overbearing father, forcing them to learn everything about the world from the movies. By the end of Sundance, wandering from one dark room to another, many audiences may be able to relate.
The broad spectrum of titles at this year’s festival is ultimate antidote to the deafening roar of the hype machine, when all but a handful of films receive the attention they deserve. At a time when niche audiences thrive on customization, this year’s program seems well-positioned to address the variability of modern taste. That’s not to say there won’t be some disappointments or certain so-called “breakouts” that don’t deserve it. In a year’s time, some of them will fade to obscurity. But until everyone sees everything, nobody can say for certain just how much of this year’s Sundance deserves attention, and at a time of seemingly ubiquitous scrutiny, that’s nothing short of miraculous. In ten days, Sundance may look quite different—but its quality will lie in the eyes of the beholder, and this year there are innumerable places to look.