How to See a Movie at Sundance When Your Broke Ass Doesn’t Have Any Actual Tickets:
1. Pick the movie you’re interested in seeing.
2. Pick a different movie, because you’re sure as heck not getting into your first choice.
3. Exactly two hours and one minute before your movie begins, make sure your Sundance iPhone app is lined up and ready to join the waitlist when it opens.
4. The exact second the waitlist opens, frantically press the button to join while screaming NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW! to all of your friends.
5. Congratulations! You’ve drawn number 179. Unfortunately, your friends are all somewhere in the 400s. Like a determined climber ascending to Everest, you must cut their dead bodies loose so you might make it to the peak.
6. Your draw number still qualifies as “Likely to Gain Entry,” so an hour before the movie starts you trek to the theater and join the waitlist, situating yourself by number and praying that the 178 people in front of you are suddenly stricken with violent diarrhea.
7. Worry that the negative karma you’re putting into the world is going to backfire and give you violent diarrhea. Shift nervously. One half hour to go.
8. The movie’s start time arrives. The volunteer coordinator comes to the front of the line. Everyone sucks in their breath. You realize you are unconsciously squeezing the hand of your neighbor, a white guy with dreadlocks who looks way too into it. The volunteer starts to speak:
9. “ALL 1200 SEATS HAVE BEEN FILLED! THERE WILL BE NO ADMITTANCE FROM THE WAITLIST! THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME!”
10. Shuffle in defeat back into the harsh cold of the Park City streets. You feel you are about to cry, but a wind rushes past you and, as if in a dream, you hear the high sweet voice of Zach Braff whisper in your ear, “Don’t give up!” You square your shoulders and steel your heart with new resolve. “I won’t, Zach Braff!” you shout, and before you even notice the judgmental stares landing upon you, you’re off and running, determined to see at least one goddamn movie at Sundance today.
(Welcome to Part Two of my Sundance review.)
Love Is Strange
Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play devoted husbands of forty years in this heartbreakingly sweet story of love and family. Do we really need to know any more to line up to see this?
In a world where a movie usually only has room for one decorated charismatic older male actor, what a delight to see longtime friends Molina and Lithgow share the screen in such an intimate fashion. Their relationship is blissful to watch; when the film opens on their wedding day—a nondescript morning, as we watch two men who have already grown old together finally cement a union long unofficially official—we are immediately entranced by their ebullient chemistry.
The conflict in director Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange never comes from the core relationship, thankfully, but instead from the circumstances that surround and challenge them. After their wedding, George (Molina) is fired from his job at a Catholic school, and suddenly the two older men are broke and forced to rely on the generosity—both willing and begrudged—of their friends and family. Ben (Lithgow) must move into his nephew’s home, headed by the self-important Kate (a terrific Marisa Tomei), while George crashes with Ted and Ian (Cheyenne Jackson and Christian Coulson), a pair of young gay cops with a zeal for partying. While Ben shares a bunkbed with the sullen teen Joey (Charlie Tahan) and George tries to get comfortable on the couch, their friends and families bitch and worry about them, revealing the stretched seams in their own relationships.
Love is Strange is not shocking or thrilling; it has no twists or sudden relevations. But its quiet, gentle demeanor draws you in, and by the time the closing credits roll, you will already be missing Ben and George as if they were your own family.
Love is Strange has been purchased by Sony Pictures Classics, so be sure to check it out when it’s released in theaters.
When it’s done well, the Sci-Fi Western can be one of the most fun, rewarding cinematic genres in the canon. When it’s done poorly, it’s a laughingstock. Lucky for us, Young Ones, directed by Jake Paltrow (brother of Gwyneth), is done very, very well. Set in a desolate future American West (played by South Africa) dried of water, Young Ones is the portrait of a frontier family who must fight to save their barren farmland from bandits, greedy neighbors, and an ever-encroaching military government. As Ernest Holm, the family’s patriarch, Michael Shannon gives a gritty, electric performance worthy of John Wayne. In his shadow walks our narrator, Ernest’s teenage son Jerome, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose excellent acting should earn him some deserved notice. Rounding out the core cast is the indomitable Elle Fanning—whom I have held to be the greatest young actor working today since I watched her burn through the screen in 2012’s Ginger and Rosa—as Jerome’s dreamy, bratty sister Mary, and British heartthrob/J-Law boytoy Nicholas Hoult, who not only looks damn fine but also continues to prove himself a chameleon of the screen in a dynamite performance as Mary’s boyfriend and Ernest’s rival.
Young Ones is built on a legacy of American Westerns, and it certainly knows its stuff. Everything from the cinematography to the music and characters feels authentic in a charmingly low-budget, campy way. Title cards unsubtly divide the film into chapters, each focusing on a new character, and the straightforward, homegrown storytelling method feels both familiar and refreshing. Add in a healthy dollop of sci-fi in the form of robotics (“machines” are the equivalent of very sturdy cattle in this neo-American West) and a tantalizingly short excursion across the border, where a high-tech “civilization” still thrives, and you have a meticulously detailed world that is a thrill to watch.
Young Ones has not yet been purchased for distribution, but hopefully it won’t be in flux much longer. This is a movie that deserves to be seen, and with the right buyer, it certainly will be.
If you saw writer-director Mike Cahill’s previous Sundance entry, the haunting 2011 Another Earth, you have some idea of what to expect which his newest film, I Origins. Employing the same subtle science fiction and tremendously thoughtful execution, I Origins is the movie that you will not stop thinking about for weeks after the closing credits roll.
At once a love story, a speculative scientific excursion, and a conversation on the existence of the human soul, I Origins is one of the most fascinating and beautiful films I have seen in a long time. Michael Pitt stars as Dr. Ian Gray, a young molecular biologist with an obsession with the human eye, determined to disprove Creationism by mapping its genetic evolution once and for all. When he meets a mysterious girl with a rare eye type (the impossibly beautiful Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), he is immediately transfixed, and thus begins a Williamsburg love affair that would be annoyingly trite if it wasn’t so goddamn adorable. Seven years later, long since married to his lab partner Karen (Brit Marling, also of Another Earth), Ian stumbles upon some evidence that draws him back into this past relationship, and will ultimately force him to reevaluate everything he once thought he knew.
Any more would be veering into spoiler territory, so hold onto your seats for what will hopefully be a quick release by purchaser Fox Searchlight. And when you do go see it (on the day it comes out!), make sure you stay through the credits—I Origins delivers not one, but two incredible epilogues that each give the film an entire new layer of meaning, and gave me such hard chills I nearly threw up. In a good way.
Dear White People
Last but certainly not least, Dear White People was the perfect note to end my Sundance adventure on. Winner of the festival’s Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Talent for writer-director Justin Simien, this is the movie that made me get up and cheer—multiple times, and I wasn’t the only one. Based on, of all things, Simien’s Twitter handle @dearwhitepeople, DWP is the best kind of campus movie that deserves a spot on the shelf next to all your frattiest favorites. This movie is a triumph on all fronts: intellectually, comedically, politically, generationally. Why it has yet to be purchased is an affront, if an unsurprising one.
Simien’s directing is clearly that of a newcomer, but that isn’t to say it doesn’t work. With flashy title cards, wacky camera play, and a mash-up of straightforward narrative and breaking of the fourth wall, Dear White People is a hell of a lot of fun to watch. With over a dozen characters to juggle, Simien never lets the story flag or the jokes get less zippy, and the result is a fast-paced, firing-on-all-cylinders shout to the heavens. As its title suggests, Dear White People is a letter to white folks—one that will and should make them/us uncomfortable in all the important ways—and a breath of fresh air in a market of black filmmaking dominated by Tyler-Perry-style bawdiness that depressingly often blurs the line into minstrelsy—a point specifically called out by Dear White People. And despite its title, Dear White People does not pander to white audiences nor does it isolate black audiences: it is a film that will be received differently by each individual, and holds a universal importance without ever being self-important.
The film takes place at Winchester College, a substitute for whatever predominantly-white elite university you may be familiar with, and it explores what it means to be black—or white—in an environment that is willfully ignorant toward its own racial bias. The movie opens with a news clip that informs us that a “race riot” has broken out at Winchester, in reaction to an “African-American theme party” thrown by a white student group. We flash back to several weeks prior, where we meet the characters who will ultimately contribute to this final conflict, including radical “Lisa-Bonet-wannabe” Sam (Tessa Thompson,) golden boy Troy (Brandon Pell), social climber CoCo (Teyonah Parris), and gay loner Lionel (Tyler James Williams, in a role that cements him as one of the sharpest—and hardest-working—comedic actors on the market.)
What impressed me most about Dear White People was the sheer volume of its intelligence. DWP does not stand on a platform, rather, it lets its characters mount their own—and they are widely different from one another, all presented with equal validity. I honestly can’t think of a perspective unaddressed in DWP, and that’s no glib statement.
And if the events of the movie seem to veer too far toward caricature—come on, a party of white kids in blackface, eating fried chicken and shouting rap lyrics?—the film drives its point home in the closing credits, which roll as a montage of photos from recent college parties—2007 Clemson, 2012 University of Florida, 2013 UC Irvine—show students doing exactly that. Lucky for us that this comedy is so much fun to watch, otherwise we might just be bowled over by its powerful relevance.
Thanks for tuning in for these Sundance reviews–it’s been awesome getting to write and report on the coolest film festival in the world. Until next year (hopefully)!