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Observed: 7 Trends We Noticed At The 2015 Sundance Film Festival

Observed: 7 Trends We Noticed At The 2015 Sundance Film Festival

We may be accused of suffering from apophenia, but we observed a lot of trends at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. What do trends at film festivals mean? Well, considering films aren’t made by some committee of filmmakers disparately selected to appear at the festival, trends can mean nothing and they can mean a lot. Observing the zeitgeist, some trends are worth watching to see if they crest, and some, of course, are just random coincidence.

Between Katie Walsh, Rodrigo Perez and contributors Drew Taylor, Oli Lyttelton, Kevin Jagernauth, Nik Grozdanovic, Kate Erbland and Jenni Miller, we saw over 50 films at the Sundance Film Festival collectively (all of our 2015 Sundance Film Festival coverage is here). So patterns emerge and perhaps abnormal meaningfulness is found. You be the judge. Here are some of the trends we spotted at the 2015 festival.

The Rise Of The Black Nerd
Here’s an interesting little phenomenon coalescing: the rise of the black nerd. Kanye West, Urkel and Donald Glover would be proud. The “black geek” is featured prominently in at least three films at Sundance. There’s “Dope” which is almost specifically about this phenomenon, about a trio of outcasts living in Inglewood, California who are obsessed with ‘90s hip-hop and fashion (in fact the pop-culture-fixated movie references both Kanye and Glover). There’s also “Cronies,” a movie about complicated friendships that features a “cool-ass nerd” protagonist in Louis Johnson (George Sample III). And while not quite as “nerdy” and perhaps the coolest of the bunch, “Me And Earl And The Dying Girl” has Earl, the taciturn cinephile dork who’s preoccupied with Werner Herzog and makes little short film homages to all his favorite auteurs and foreign film directors (Fellini, Kubrick, Bergman, etc.) with his best friend Greg. You can call it quirky, you can call this trend whatever you like, but at least it’s not a stereotype.

Comedies & Coming-Of-Age Films That Are Desperately In Need Of An Edit 

It’s the case at every film festival really, but it became abundantly clear at Sundance 2015 that filmmakers use the festival as their first test-screening for what works and what doesn’t in front of an audience. And this year we saw a preponderance of movies that ran too long and overstayed their welcome. Coming-of-age films and comedies can rarely outlive ninety-five minutes, and hey, there’s an exception to every rule, but none of the films in question here were lawbreakers. The hip-hop coming-of-age comedy “Dope” is a funny and vibrant film, but just five minutes shy of two hours, it’s way too long. We gave it a B+, but somewhere in that film is an A-grade picture. Furthermore, we really wouldn’t argue with anyone who said the second half of the film dragged and sapped it of its vitality. That was really the case for a lot of films: they started out strong and didn’t know when to quit. Even the celebrated “Me And Earl And The Dying Girl” featured about two or three endings and should have bowed out about ten minutes earlier. Fortunately, it’s a winning crowdpleaser, but an edit would only improve the picture. The widely-praised “The Diary Of A Teenage Girl” has the same problems and its darker and draggy second half really drained it of its delightful opening charms. Even dramas suffered from this issue: “Mississippi Grind” is a carefully observed buddy story about luck, chance and fate, but its four endings (no, seriously) were far, far too much — the directors didn’t know when to fold on this gambling picture. We suspect that, more than ever, a lot of Sundance films this year, praised or otherwise, are going to get a serious nip and tuck.

Films That Could Be Oscar Contenders

Sundance and Oscars is a whole other ball of wax. But to keep it as brief as possible, Park City films and the Academy usually don’t mix, right? Well, last year, “Whiplash” and “Boyhood,” both Sundance movies, became Best Picture nominees (“Whiplash” actor J.K. Simmons seems like the shoo-in winner for Best Supporting Actor). In fact, “Boyhood” has a great shot at winning, and earned itself six nominations including Best Director for Richard Linklater. “Beasts Of The Southern Wild,” a 2012 Sundance film, also earned a Best Picture/Best Director nominations (four in total), while “Precious” (class of 2009) earned six (also Best Picture and Best Director) and won two (Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay), so Sundance films are making in-roads in this direction. But will the trend continue? It’s hard to say for myriad complicated reasons, but O-word talk has already been buzzing at Sundance. Jason Segel’s name has come up for “The End Of The Tour” as Best Actor, and Saoirse Ronan’s name is definitely part of the conversation as a Best Actress possibility for “Brooklyn.” There were whispers that Blythe Danner’s sensitive and nuanced performance in “I’ll See You In My Dreams” could make a run for Oscar gold, and she demonstrates new sides of herself in this performance of an older woman finally waking up to new experiences in life. Sarah Silverman’s devastating performance as the drug-addicted housewife in “I Smile Back” carries the film, and could make an awards run with the right timing and marketing. Is it premature to have this discussion now? You bet. Could it still happen come the fall when some of these films are let out into the wild? More than ever it at least feels like a possibility.

Family Values

There were more than a few films at Sundance this year that dealt with pregnancy, trying to get pregnant, or the ramifications of finding oneself in the family way, and these stories ran the gamut in the options explored. In “Ten Thousand Saints” and “Unexpected,” teenage girls, unexpectedly with child, weigh abortion only momentarily, and end up making their own independent decisions about what to do. The older woman in “Unexpected,” while caught off guard by her pregnancy, never really entertains any options other than marriage and baby. In Sebastian Silva‘s “Nasty Baby,” alternative families are celebrated, as a gay couple plans to parent a child with one of their best friends, and the process of artificial insemination becomes one of the funnier subplots. The pregnancy idea is, however, quickly soured with the film’s dark denouement. We have yet to see “Grandma,” starring Lily Tomlin, but we hear that like last year’s festival darling, “Obvious Child,” it embraces the pro-choice message. It’s clearly a way to have some easy, authentic drama and heart in a story, but we’re not sure why babies are top of mind this fest — maybe filmmakers, maybe programmers. But it went hand in hand with the many films about marriage we also saw (see below), though the baby films were a bit more willing to embrace non-traditional options than the marriage ones were.

James Franco (& Many Others) Was In Everything

There were many actors who had multiple movies at the fest — James Franco, Saoirse Ronan, Kristen Wiig, Cobie Smulders, Tye Sheridan, Thomas Mann, Logan Miller, Cynthia Nixon, and many of these faces became ubiquitous in Park City. James Franco offered up two very different star turns playing real-life characters, one as the murderous Christian Longo, and the other as Michael Glatze, a gay activist who renounces his lifestyle and goes straight. Schedule it right and you just might feel like Franco’s everywhere (which is probably what he wants you to think). The problem with Franco, particularly, and his lightning speed of production, is that you stop seeing the character, and just can’t stop seeing Franco. Take a break, dude! (And oh yeah, he was in “Yosemite” which premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival, the sister fest to Sundance). Tye Sheridan showed up in both “The Last Days In The Desert” and “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” Cynthia Nixon had an excellent Sundance run “James White” and “Stockholm, Pennsylvania,” and Cobie Smulders surprised us with two great performances (“Results” and “Unexpected”). Maybe it’s less of a trend of double-duty than it is actors finding challenging, indie material that happens to debut in Utah. Either way, it was a welcome “problem.”

Bong Rips

Sometimes you just see two movies back to back and are struck by something like “wow, there are a lot of bong hits in this movie, too.” Ethan Hawke’s stoner dad character in “Ten Thousand Saints” consistently breaks out the bong, and there’s a very funny scene where squares Alex and Emily take a few rips from Kurt’s bong in “The Overnight,” which really fires up the mood for the rest of the evening’s shenanigans. Jake Johnson keeps it to rollies in “Digging For Fire,” but he certainly partakes.

Movies About Love and Marriage

The complications and difficulties of marriage seemed to be on the mind of many filmmakers at Sundance this year. Joe Swanberg indirectly already tackled this subject in “Happy Christmas,” a movie about a drunken woman who complicates the relationship with her older brother when she comes to temporarily live with him and his wife. But the movie was primarily about her difficulties and struggles with alcohol. Swanberg focuses on the married couple and baby of “Happy Christmas” for his latest film “Digging For Fire.” It’s a completely different family of course, but it feels as if Swanberg, who dedicated the movie to Paul Mazursky, another filmic observer of relationships, decided to follow through on the married couple’s story and give it its own twist. Funny, sharp and well observed, it’s not a perfect film, but for the thirty-something hipster with kids who’s losing his or her edge because of family, kids and life, this movie should totally resonate. As for pro-marriage films, while “The Overnight” flirts with the idea of swinging as marital repair or enhancement, it’s pretty pro-monogamy, ultimately. And though Sarah Silverman‘s addiction drama, “I Smile Back,” is all about the darkness and desperation that can lurk underneath perfect suburban surfaces, all Laney wants to do, as she professes, is be a good wife and mother, but her skills as a functioning human being aren’t so hot. It’s a film that seems to indict the system, but it also holds up the institution as something worth striving for. Even “I Am Michael,” about a gay activist turned straight pastor, in refusing to take a stand on the issue, can be seen as very much for the heteronormative take on marriage. while “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” also could be seen as a movie that’s gung-ho about marriage and babies.

Movies about fathers and sons aren’t wholly unique, and Sundance had a few like “The Last Days In The Desert” and the Western “Slow West,” which in many ways is about unlikely and adopted families that keep getting handed down via fate and circumstance. There were a few films about the sticky nature of older/younger friendships such as Noah Baumbach’s “Mistress America,” and “The End Of The Tour” explored how power dynamics can constantly change depending on agenda and motivation. We’re sure there’s lots more, but this is what we observed in brief.  — Rodrigo Perez, Katie Walsh

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