Each year, the Sundance Film Festival faces expectations established by the previous edition. Assessing program quality often becomes secondary to following the hype, and the festival is defined by the movies that cost the most and have the greatest promise of commercial viability. However, in 2018 the question isn’t which Sundance movies are this year’s “The Big Sick,” “Mudbound” or “Call Me By Your Name;” it’s ultimately more constructive to consider what’s not.
In year of cautious buyers and fewer blockbuster breakouts, smaller and stranger movies stepped into the foreground, dividing audiences and fueling thoughtful conversations. (When one Sundance first-timer for whom English was a second language asked me to define “hype,” I replied, “Everything you should ignore.”) In a consumer age dominated by customized viewing habits, a festival that’s hard to define actually epitomizes the zeitgeist.
It also imbues the the program with greater intrigue. While the media struggles to extract trends about the marketplace, the actual Sundance culture tells a more nuanced story. At the raucous party hosted by perennial sales company Cinetic Media, founder John Sloss held court on the edge of crowded dance floor, where Darren Aronofsky shimmied alongside documentarian Lucy Walker and Sundance programming director Trevor Groth. Sloss, once seen as Sundance’s preeminent kingmaker, has been sidelined at the festival by a preponderance of bigger agencies that rep many of the buzzy sales titles. Reflecting that there were few of those in sight this year, he grinned ear to ear. “I’ve been doing this long enough,” he said, “to know that every festival has its own rhythm and arc.”
It’s a handy template for defining the winding path of the festival experience. The arc won’t come into view until the festival recedes into the history books, but the rhythm takes hold by the end of the first weekend. Last year, big sales to heavy-hitters Amazon, Netflix, and Fox Searchlight brought the blaring power chords of a hard-rock landscape, where deep pockets found traditional crowdpleasers. This year is better characterized as a slow jam, with dissonant notes adding charm and surprise.
While many festival highlights adhere to the old-school Sundance cliché of coming-of-age stories, the best of them approach the trope with fresh ideas, suggesting that the story of young people coming to grips with an uneasy world has greater currency in modern times. These are not movies made on autopilot.
Not everyone may rush to see “We the Animals,” Jeremiah Zagar’s expressionistic coming-of-age story that this critic compared to “Moonlight” — a characterization that has provoked some debate about the best way to describe this swooning, elegiac portrait of an adolescent mixed-race child growing up in the Catskills and contending with his dysfunctional family— but hey, it got people to check it out. In a post-“Moonlight” era, the very idea of a tender, understated character study told with a blend of nostalgia and melancholy appealing to mass audiences may not be that radical. Zagar’s virtually non-linear narrative grapples with otherness from the inside out, its young protagonist narrating the drama as he gradually develops a sense of self distinct from his family. Nothing could be more modern than the plight of the individual in a sea of sameness.
Screening alongside “We the Animals” in Sundance’s ever-exciting NEXT section, director Josephine Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline” stands out as an audacious filmmaking gamble, telling the fragmented story of an emotionally disturbed teen (overnight sensation Helena Howard) who evades the trappings of her doting mother (Miranda July) in an avant-garde theater troupe. The movie, directed with an alacrity of vision by Josephine Decker, roams through goofy and disturbing acting exercises until they overtake the story.
As performance art transforms into therapy, “Madeline’s Madeline” recalls 2015 Sundance NEXT discovery, “The Fits,” another movie that conveyed the turmoil and wonder of youth with abstract twists and choreographed dance. The climax harkens back to the prolonged theatrical sequences of Brian DePalma’s “Greetings” and Jacques Rivette’s “Out 1,” but ultimately it’s a consolidation of Decker’s experimental instincts in her astonishing debut, “Butter on the Latch,” with the visceral thriller components of “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.” The result is her most polished and uncompromising achievement to date.
Even some of the familiar tales of young adulthood find fresh perspectives. Desiree Akhavan’s “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” finds Chloe Grace Moretz playing as the titular teen forced into gay conversion therapy by her Evangelical guardians. Not much happens in “Cameron Post” aside from prolonged scenes in which the girl and her peers talk through their frustrations and push back against the conservatism of middle America circa 1992. It’s the most traditionally commercial movie in the U.S. competition, but Akhavan’s complicates her narrative with long takes and meandering scenes that dig into the psychology of her characters more than they forward the plot. At the same time, it revitalizes the narrative of teen hangout movies with an underrepresented protagonist, which makes its very existence a progressive statement.
A similar tendency courses through “Eighth Grade,” Bo Burnham’s A24-produced debut about ostracized middle-schooler Kayla (Elsie Fisher) who recedes from her awkward social life by burying herself in her phone. Posting YouTube clips in which she projects a degree of confidence she can never muster in the real world, Kayla — who spends much of the movie in closeup, struggling to interact with potential friends and cute boys — becomes the ultimate face of Generation Me, a plight characterized by young people caught between disinterest in the world and the technology that allows them to escape it.
“Eighth Grade” provides a cautionary tale about the ills of technology (and will mortify any parents whose young children have smartphones), but Crystal Moselle’s “Skate Kitchen” provides the idealistic alternative, with its charming look at a skateboarding teen (Rachelle Vinberg) who discovers likeminded outcasts on Instagram and eventually works her way into their clique. Moselle’s naturalistic filmmaking and quasi-documentary approach to her subjects yields an engaging portrait of American rebellion that’s both timeless and specific to its moment.
There are other Sundance highlights beyond this trend, including Boots Riley’s outrageous satire “Sorry to Bother You.” The U.S. competition entry offers a Buñuellian riff on race relations and the corporatization of the American workforce, with its bored telemarketer (Lakeith Stanfield) finding he can climb the hierarchy of his company by adopting a stereotypical “white person” voice. It’s the ultimate rejoinder to a society that has wrestled with homogenization for too long, a tendency that the film industry knows all too well. But this year’s lineup suggests that, at least for now, difference rules.