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By now, the Sundance Film Festival — the world’s premiere independent movie showcase — should have outgrown its roots. Park City, Utah (population less than 8,000), which hosts the event, is a logjam of traffic; the town’s heavily improvised venues (only two of its cinemas are actually designed to be cinemas) are starting to turn ticket-holders away; and late-night party sites live in fear of fire marshals, who threaten closure after the most minor of infractions. Yet there is still something charming about this chaos, from the mom-and-pop nature of the volunteer structure — imagine having your tickets torn by the cast of McMillan & Wife — to the excitable school-trip atmosphere that exists on the free local transit system.
At any other festival, the presence of Brad Pitt would have sent shockwaves through the media, but the A-lister’s fleeting appearance this year, to support Rupert Goold’s True Story, barely caused ripples. Because, for all its perceived glamour, Sundance is really about the new and not the established. Which is why, instead of opening with a big, gaudy, starry mess, as Cannes did last year with Grace of Monaco, it launches softly with four low-key “Day One” selections: two documentaries and two fiction features.
Usually the tactic works: last year it offered Whiplash, now nominated for five Oscars, while in 2012 it introduced the hit documentary Searching for Sugar Man. This year, however, instead of being just a taster, Day One acted as a reminder that punters here can’t expect a Boyhood every year (the Oscar favourite debuted here last year as a surprise film). While by no means terrible, the four early offerings didn’t quite quicken the pulse, raising the curtain on a festival that this year has so far offered few diverse crossover hits of the kind that have come to characterise its success (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Precious and Little Miss Sunshine).
A good example is Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone?, one of the two Day One documentaries and an astute attempt by Netflix to break into the non-fiction market. Dotted with excellent archive footage and sporadic testimony from first-hand sources, this loose biography of jazz and blues icon Nina Simone offers some wonderful music and arresting moments (notably from the singer’s intense civil rights activist period) yet never really catches fire.
The same is true of clumsy fictional comedy The Bronze, which tells the story of a bitter gymnastics queen and her protégée in a worn-out version of the mannered, grotesque style that worked for Napoleon Dynamite in 2004.
After these two, plus the slight Lithuanian coming-of-age drama, The Summer of Sangaile (a much more demure Blue Is the Warmest Colour), and the efficient, politely received Greenpeace doc How to Save the World, audiences were left to their own devices. Usually there are several signposts indicating where to go next, above all in the festival’s Premieres section, where major studios like to parade their freshly inked minor acquisitions. This year, however, there were few instant draws: Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Mississippi Grind offers Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn as a kind of modern-day Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo, hustling bars and gaming tables en route to New Orleans, but its rambling narrative and bizarrely upbeat ending mean this is no Midnight Cowboy.
Among the better offerings, Jason Segel effectively captures the blue-collar savant appeal and intelligence of Infinite Jest novelist David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour — even if James Ponsoldt’s film doesn’t fully sell his genius. Framed as an interview with Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), it works largely because it doesn’t try too hard.
This is also broadly true of Noah Baumbach’s sometimes laugh-out-loud-funny comedy Mistress America, which (like his 2012 indie hit, Frances Ha) stars his partner and muse Greta Gerwig. Its privileged, gentrified Manhattan milieu threatens to be a turn-off, as a first-term literature student (Juliet Brett) finds inspiration in her cartoonish, socialite, soon-to-be-stepsister (Gerwig). But Gerwig and Baumbach aim for the heart rather than the head, and though there is much witty, would-be Wildean banter, the well-fleshed-out, human characters manage to stay on top of the one-liners.
In the US drama competition, usually home to white-trash poverty porn, there was more diversity than usual. Standing out by some distance was Rick Famuyiwa’s charismatic and kinetic comedy-thriller Dope, an outstanding and invigorating African-American crime romp about three nerds caught up in a drug deal gone wrong. Advantageous, meanwhile, offered a feminist take on sci-fi; bromance Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (which premiered to a standing ovation) took comedic liberties with the formulaic weepie; and the gentle People, Places, Things cast Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement as a most unlikely — but very funny and poignant — romantic hero.
Documentaries, which are part of the very fabric of Sundance, have been mostly functional this year: story rather than technique being the selling point. This was very true of The Wolfpack, a sporadically captivating study of seven children brought up in near-captivity by their lapsed Hare Krishna father in an inner-city New York housing project. The scrappy direction disappoints, but the subjects do not, as they recreate films such as Reservoir Dogs and Halloween with an inventive armoury of foil, clingfilm and cardboard.
A more traditional kind of doc was to be found in Stevan Riley’s Listen to Me Marlon, a clip-based work assembled around audio tapes supplied by the estate of Marlon Brando. What starts ostensibly as a simple (auto) biography soon becomes something more gripping and human, as it transpires that the reclusive star had much more of a handle on his talent and insecurities than has ever been previously reported. Indeed, Brando’s thoughts on death — inspired by his recollections of the demise of Don Corleone — are made all the more bittersweet in retrospect.
The World Cinema Dramatic Competition didn’t bring many breakout surprises either. The Nicole Kidman-starring thriller Strangerland, in which two missing children drive a wedge through their parents’ already fractious relationship, suggested a psychological drama that never quite arrived.
More subtle and promising was the Irish entry Glassland, the story of a taxi driver (Jack Reynor) dealing with his alcoholic mother (Toni Collette). Directed by the impossibly young Gerard Barrett (27), it featured a common trope at this year’s festival: parents and children, a theme also powerfully captured in Josh Mond’s cancer drama James White, an edgy, quasi-Graduate-style drama that features a breakout performance by Christopher Abbott in the title role and a standout turn by Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) as his mother.
Last year, some of the more commercial breakout titles, such as The Babadook and The Guest, came from the Midnight genre film strand. This year, from the UK came Corin Hardy’s The Hallow, a grisly old-school horror yarn in which the flora and fauna of rural Ireland turn against new residents, while veteran horror-hound Eli Roth turns his hand to something new with the lurid home invasion thriller Knock Knock, which stars Keanu Reeves as a suburban dad cut down to size by two visiting vamps.
More unusual, though, was the lean, stripped-down neo-noir Cop Car, in which two boys find and abscond with an abandoned sheriff’s car, unaware of the dangers in the boot and on their tail. Reminiscent of early Coen Brothers, with its black humour and studied banality of detail, Jon Watts’s film delivered some of the Sundance promise of old. At this festival, it is such singularity of vision that matters most, and in 2015 it has been in somewhat short supply.
Ends Monday February 2, sundance.org
Main image photograph: Ryan Muir