Wrapping Sundance, I saw six of the ten titles in the insurgent section, Next. (Every festival is tinged with regret and missed chances, and my biggest was foolishly passing up a chance to see Blue Caprice.)
With Ryan Coogler’s prize-winning Fruitvale, probably the most talked about film in the festival was Randy Moore’s sometimes scabrous debut, Escape from Tomorrow. As most people know, he surreptitiously shot his film at Disney World, with small, mobile cameras. It’s a searing, dark fantasia about a suburban Everyman (nicely played by the actor Roy Abramsohn), a somewhat unprepossessing married father of two good-looking young kids, who’s plunged down his own rabbit hole.
The movie opens with the man standing on his balcony on the outskirts of the theme-park resort and being informed that he’s been fired from his job. His young son playfully locks him out of the room, the first of a string of emasculating, humiliating acts he must endure. The man, with family in tow, spends his final day of vacation at this idealized American representation of escape and elaborate make-believe.
Transformed through the black and white cinematography and sinister disorientation into a cautionary, soulless Mecca of cultural conformity, mind-numbing consumerism and lethargy, Moore intensifies all manner of free-floating anxiety and helplessness. In a touch redolent of Vladimir Nabokov, by way of Stanley Kubrick, the man is further unhinged by his deepening and criminal fixation on two lascivious French teenage girls.
The movie occasioned all manner of wild speculation that Disney would seek legal injunctions to prevent the movie from ever being seen. I overheard one woman insist that Disney would buy the film and then suppress it. Tim Wu, a journalist who specializes in law and copyright issues, wrote in the New Yorker the film fell under the legal doctrine of “fair use,” and said Disney would have no legal recourse to ban the film. Not all the movie’s ideas are that original (much of it seems inspired by John Carpenter’s great They Live).
The best performance I saw at Sundance was by a fearless and remarkable young actress named Lindsay Burdge (above). She’s the star and eponymous figure in Hannah Fidell’s debut, A Teacher, about an English teacher at a suburban Texas high school who’s carrying out an affair with one of her students. As a study of dislocation, this stripped down, neo-Bressonian work is pretty entrancing, anchored by the tremulous and wound up Burdge.
Fidell has a striking compositional eye, and the movie is rigorously framed, like a terrific and sexually charged moment captured from a fixed perspective from the interior of an SUV. The clipped, paired down style, removing background and psychological realism, is very welcome. The affair’s in full bloom at the start, and the most riveting parts are the transgressive acts, like Burdge momentarily frozen by the sight of her semen-stained blouse, or her steady and inevitable unraveling, that she makes hypnotic and all-too real.
Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love is another trenchant and disturbing study of young female sexual consciousness, centered on a fourteen-year-old Brooklyn girl’s growing obsession with an older guy. (Disclosure: a friend of mine, Gill Holland, is an executive producer.) Like A Teacher, the writing’s not always as assured and enveloping as the visual construction, but Gina Piersanti, the teenager, is somebody to watch.
Next to Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the best film at I saw at Sundance was Matthew Porterfield’s superb I Used to Be Darker. Taryn (Deragh Campbell, pictured left), a Belfast émigré, turns up at the Baltimore home of her aunt and uncle (played by the musicians Kim Taylor and Ned Oldham) unexpectedly, seeking sanctuary after a summer love affair gone sour, only to find out their marriage is also dissolving. Taryn’s cousin, Abby (Hannah Gross), a theater student, is on edge with her mother, whom she apparently blames for the breakup.
Unlike Hamilton and Putty Hill, Porterfield’s third feature is fully scripted. It’s like a John Cassavetes film (Porterfield told me Opening Night was a major influence), a meditation on acting and performance about private tumult, anger and breakdown. Abby performs Gertrude’s soliloquy about the death of Ophelia and the movie is shaped by several knockout musical performances that give a palpable and electric emotional shading.
Andrew Bujalski’s omission from Sundance has long been one of the most galling oversights of its programming. His funky and idiosyncratic fourth feature, Computer Chess, is strange, beguiling and mostly fantastic. It relates the early days of computer programming, set in the late seventies and early eighties, at the dawn of the revolutionary shifts in personal computing and programming. The movie is even shot on splotchy, low-grade black and white video that perfectly meshes with the peculiarity of the narrative, about a weekend competition to master each other in chess.
Bujalski inventively pairs one subculture with another, in this case, a couples’ retreat, at the hotel where the chess competition is going on, and the interplay of wounded narcissism, self-invention and comic befuddlement produces some very funny and stylized shocks of recognition. (Furthermore, another old friend, Gerald Peary, turns up in a crucial role, completing an impressive career of having written intelligently about films as a critic and scholar, made a documentary about the history of film criticism and now acted in a first-rate movie.)
The audience prize in the section went to Chad Hartigan’s This is Martin Bonner, another subdued and sometimes penetrating exploration of loneliness and regret, played out in the contrasting stories of the title figure (very well played by Paul Eenhoorn) and the friendship he develops with a former convict (Richmond Arquette) just released into the general population.
Hartigan finds inventive and sharp ways to link the two, especially visually. The performance strike the right balance of empathy and sadness, and the evocation of freedom and open space, captured in the forlorn Reno landscapes and quietly desperate sounds of an empty stretch of road, makes an impression.