Blissfully naive, armed with a handwritten itinerary and ambitions to see everything—before realizing how impossible that will turn out to be—I arrive in Park City on Wednesday for the festival’s second half. The great advantage of showing up midway is that by now, the major titles have been vetted, and you know what to see and not to see. Or so they say.
Fresh off the plane, I race to catch hotly touted competition entry “Dope,” a drug-addled teen comedy in the ’90s hood film tradition that eventually goes on to win, to my bewilderment, the festival’s editing prize. This movie, picked up by Sony and Open Road for a pretty penny, is a mess. It’s more than a little disenchanting when, on your first day at the festival, you show up at the most-talked about movie and find that you’re deeply underwhelmed by it. What am I missing here? Like the festival’s Grand Prize winner “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “Dope” checks all the boxes of a quirky indie, albeit with a bit more edge. It’s stylistically ham-fisted, about as subtle as a mallet in its on-the-nose pop culture references.
Director Rick Famuyiwa gives his mildly charming actors far too long a leash, in one overlong scene after another. There’s just too much air in the room. A film like “Dope” should be zippy and fast. This slogs, and feels weighty. Though Sundance jury members obviously disagree, the editing could use a lot of tightening—cut this down to a lean 90 minutes and you’ve got a hit high school comedy of the likes of “Superbad.” Audiences are eating up this movie and its broad humor (“where do you sell molly?” “Go to the white people, go to Coachella”). Later that night, back at the Indiewire condo, I talk about the film with Grantland’s Wesley Morris, who adamantly agrees and articulates my points far more astutely than me, here.
Next up, I hustle over to the Library — one of Park City’s many, surprisingly well-equipped venues — to catch buzzy horror film “The Witch.” This movie is a huge talking point throughout the week, heralding a bold new filmmaking voice in Robert Eggers, who rightly won the best director prize for his elemental, impeccably crafted horror — dare I say it — masterpiece. The first-time filmmaker concocts a witchy brew of madness that bears the mark of a seasoned auteur. Painterly images, ye-olde English, oozing ominous portent and pitch-perfect period detail drive this chilling tale of a family of 17th-century New England settlers pushed to hysteria and violence by the malevolent, titular force nesting in the woods. I walk out of the theater grinning like a fool. This is just the kind of movie you hope to see at a festival like this.
Anya-Taylor Joy, who I meet in-person at a party back at the Indiewire condo, gives a breakout performance as the teenaged daughter of puritan parents, played by the brutally committed Kate Dickie (oh so lovely and sexy as an embattled rape victim in Andrea Arnold’s 2006 debut “Red Road”) and Ralph Ineson.
When you’re a Sundance virgin, there’s a hell of a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, along with plenty of despair over what to see or not to see. And then there’s the altitude sickness. Branded by the mark of the green badge, that scarlet letter of film festival journalism, I’m running to and fro screenings all over town yet somehow manage to wriggle my way into every movie I set out for. Sebastian Silva’s delicious surprise “Nasty Baby” is a close call, but I get in by the skin of my teeth. This is a fantastic little movie that takes the Sundance model–the cutesy Brooklyn romcom, with quirky characters with weirdly specific tastes and professions and painful self-awareness– and smashes it to smithereens. This darkly refreshing film, delivering on the promise of its title, has a nasty streak and takes a dark hairpin turn in its final hour that has people flying from their seats– but I’m glued.
Betwixt and between tightly packed screenings, there’s a casual rubbing of the elbows that goes down at Sundance, which I love. One minute you’re at an after-party and the next you’re suddenly standing in a kitchen with Cary Fukunaga, Jason Schwartzman or Kristen Wiig, along with some of the fest’s big winners, drunk to the gills on the celebratory spirit–and the alcohol. By night, you’re partying; by day, you’re hungover in a too-early screening wishing the ushers would stop shining those flash lights — because, damn, can’t people find their own way to the bathroom ?– and that you had something to eat other than under-seasoned, overpriced popcorn.
There’s definitely a rush, almost drug-like, to any festival experience but you especially feel this at Sundance (as I felt in Cannes a few years back). You feel like you’re part of something special, ahead of the curve of your far-flung peers, those regular-normals who didn’t make it to the fest. But that rush also comes from all the movie jabber you’re having throughout the week, talking about this or that film with any and everyone. Whether queued up on the waitlist for the next screening or swilling a Smirnoff and Diet Coke in a red plastic cup on a chilly porch late at night, no one dismisses the opportunity for movie talk. Which makes coming home so hard. There are movies you want to scream from the rooftops. But only your Sundance compadres have seen them. (For the record, I also see, and enjoy, “The Nightmare,” “Entertainment,” “Take Me to the River,” “The Forbidden Room,” “H.,” among others, and a fistful of duds not worth mentioning.)
And then there are movies you really want to scream about from the rooftops. I’m going to spend all of 2015 renouncing films like “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” the third Sundance premiere in a row to win both the Grand Jury and Audience awards. It utterly baffles me: why do critics and festivalgoers go gaga for this movie? It’s through and through, almost calculatedly, a “Sundance” movie, a prepackaged affected quirkfest whose characters are no more real than a cardboard baby. I’m especially disgruntled because I physically bought my ticket off a scalper, for $20, perched desperately outside the Eccles, one of Sundance’s bigger venues (a press badge doesn’t guarantee anything). But how could I return to LA without having seen the fest’s big winner? I leave the theater feeling regret. There were other, probably better films screening at the same time. Coulda, shoulda, woulda.
On my final day at Sundance, I catch a triple-bill: the aforementioned “Me and Earl,” which I’m trying to forget, plus “The Stanford Prison Experiment” and “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.” The latter two are hugely impressive feats of acting, writing and filmmaking. How refreshing it is to see female sexuality on display the way it is in “Diary.” “I’m a fucking woman,” says the titular Minnie, played by spectacular newcomer Bel Powley, “and this is my life.” As TOH!’s Anne Thompson notes, the sex she has with much-older mom’s (Kristen Wiig) hunky boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard) isn’t icky whatsoever — it’s totally believable, even tender, and I love this movie’s nonjudgmental embrace of sex and drugs and hedonistic behavior. De rigueur for the film’s ’70s San Francisco period, of course, but also relevant for the millennial set, and for anyone who’s had their heart crushed before realizing that their object of infatuation probably wasn’t worth it for starters, and most definitely shouldn’t define them. Kristen Wiig is fabulous. Powley is fabulous. I hope wholeheartedly that this movie explodes when Sony Pictures Classics releases.
As for “Stanford Prison Experiment,” maybe I’m biased because every hot young thing is in this movie. I mean, really: Ezra Miller, Sundance breakout Logan Miller, Keir Gilchrist, Jack Kilmer, Michael Angarano, James Wolk and Tye Sheridan. Name a young indie rising star and he’s probably in Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s astute rendering of psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s ill-conceived, 1971 faux prison. The movie works because it has a lick of black humor to the otherwise grueling, infuriating proceedings.
I love “The Witch,” my favorite film of the festival, from an intellectual, visceral standpoint. But one movie drives me to the brink of emotional spiraling, and that’s NEXT entry “James White.” Good god, this movie kills me. Never in my life have I cried so much in a film. I resisted seeing it for a good portion of the festival because it sounds like another one of those indies, where a white male spoiled rich brat acts like, well, a white spoiled rich brat, with ex-“Girls” star Christopher Abbott fulfilling this particular role. But this wrenching film hits like a brick through the windshield. Abbott, parroting his best Marlon Brando, plays the self-destructive son, perpetually trapped in arrested development, of his strong-willed mother (played with brutal commitment by Cynthia Nixon, deserving of any and all awards) who’s dying of cancer. The last 20 minutes, a raw-nerved, devastating all-nighter with these two amazingly good actors, are as emotional as any I’ve seen on screen. I worry my fellow theater-goers can see what an ugly, guttural sobbing this movie is stirring in me. No matter, because it wins the NEXT Audience Award.
One or two of my colleagues dismiss “James White” as another “Simon Killer,” A Portrait of the Millennial as Dissolute Wastrel, but “James White” dives so much deeper than that. On Saturday night, my second to last in Park City, director Josh Mond shows up at our Indiewire-hosted after-party with nothing but gratitude for our collectively strong response to the film (Indiewire critic Eric Kohn likes it, too). At the same party, I meet “Witch” director Robert Eggers and his lovely star Anya-Taylor Joy, who, oops, mistakenly leaves her badge at our condo at the end of the night. She sends me a Twitter message– she’s a sentimental sucker with attachment issues and wants that badge back. I’ll mail it to her this week.
Back to LA I go Monday morning, crack of dawn, en route to the Oscar nominees luncheon for the next phase of winter movie madness, the Sundance experience slipping away as if a ghost. I land in LA, and I feel the hard tug of nostalgia, a vacant, numb, sad feeling best articulated by Patricia Arquette in a film that premiered at last year’s Sundance: “I just thought there’d be more.”