When a critic describes something as a “Sundance movie,” they usually mean it disparagingly. (Sometimes they just mean a “movie that played at Sundance,” but that’s not what I’m talking about.) The expression has become a lazy but admittedly useful shorthand, a way to identify a particular kind of film that traditionally goes over like gangbusters in Park City. These are cheerful crowd-pleasers that don’t push their audiences too hard. They tend to mix comedy and drama, sometimes in a way not so different than what a Very Special Episode of a network sitcom might offer. They star well known actors. They often get picked up by Fox Searchlight and get slapped with a bright yellow poster. Little Miss Sunshine is the quintessential Sundance movie, by dint of its aggressive mediocrity and the fact that it both sold for and made a boatload of money.
I’m guilty, too, of using this non-description at times; most recently, I applied it to last year’s divisive opening-night dramedy, Other People. Usually, I mean it the same way everyone else does, as a vaguely pejorative dig. But the truth is, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the kind of movie that meets that list of criteria above. Many people go to film festivals—and to movies in general—to laugh and cry and have their spirits lifted. If something can achieve that response honestly, without too many cheap shortcuts, than more power to it. Yesterday, in fact, I caught two films back to back that give the much-derided Sundance movie a good name.
The better of the two—and indeed, the best thing I’ve seen in Park City yet this year—is The Big Sick (Grade: B+), an enormously winning comedy that’s reportedly inspired the first major bidding war of the festival. (The money will be well spent, if the elation that rippled through the world-premiere screening is any indication of box-office prospects—though many thought the same thing about Me And Earl And The Dying Girl.) On paper, it sounds like pure navel-gazing: Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, dramatize the rocky first year of their relationship, with Nanjiani starring as a (very lightly) fictionalized version of himself. Thing is, it’s actually a really good story—one of cross-cultural romantic obstacles and unforeseen emergency, all filtered here through the nerdish comic voice of its married creators.
Confidently directed by Wet Hot American Summer mastermind Michael Showalter, The Big Sick begins in appealing romantic-comedy mode, as budding comedian Kumail woos the funny, smart psychology student (Zoe Kazan, immensely charming as Gordon’s onscreen surrogate) he meets at a Chicago gig. Kumail hails from a traditional Pakistani family, and his parents’ persistent attempt to arrange a marriage with any one of several nice Pakistani girls—weekly family dinners inevitably devolve into awkward matchmaking—plants a seed of conflict for the couple. The film also breaks up its relationship study with some backstage glimpses of the stand-up world—one of several ways that producer Judd Apatow makes his presence felt.
Another way is length: At around two hours, The Big Sick has some of that trademark Apatow sprawl. But the hefty running time is justified in the terrific second half, when the film deepens into something much more distinct and perceptive, as Kumail is thrown into an intense, unusual ordeal with Emily’s parents, wonderfully played by Holly Hunter and a never-better Ray Romano. It’s at this point that viewers may start to understand why this particular courtship cried out for cinematic treatment; theirs was a unusual situation, rife for both cringe comedy and pathos. The Big Sick is a date movie that becomes, essentially, about the strange business of connecting with your significant other’s parents—a relationship that’s usually treated as fodder for Ben Stiller pratfalls, not the smart, honest comedy Kumail and Emily have made from their life experiences. It’s also the best thing Apatow has been attached to in a while.
The stand-up scenes in The Big Sick actually made me think of the ones in Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child; both films even include an onstage personal meltdown. Maybe I made that connection because I watched Nanjiani’s movie immediately after Robespierre’s new one, Landline (Grade: B-), which ended up suffering in retroactive comparison to The Big Sick. Like Obvious Child, it’s a minor, slightly tidy, and very likable indie showcase for Slate, who plays the eldest daughter of a family in crisis. Unlike Obvious Child, it’s more of an ensemble piece, weaving together several storylines. Also, there’s nothing here as casually progressive as the earlier film’s abortion subplot.
The engaged Dana (Slate) entertains a flirtation with an old college hookup (Finn Wittrock) behind the back of her fiancé (Jay Duplass). Meanwhile, her angry teenage sister (Abby Quinn, in a breakout role that briefly highlights her excellent singing voice) feuds with their mother (Edie Falco) and potentially unfaithful father (John Turturro). The cast is hard to beat—especially Slate, playing another loopy screwball heroine and again scoring laughs from her character’s sexual misadventures. (There’s a golden showers joke that helps the film avoid becoming the genteel Nicole Holofcener movie it occasionally resembles.) Landline feels truthful but a little sitcom-easy; the most distinctive thing about it is that it’s set in 1995, which Robespierre goes overboard underlining, with almost every scene finding a way to work in a Clinton-era cultural reference (Must-see TV!), technology (pay phones!), or music cue (PJ Harvey!). Still, on a whole, this is an agreeable sophomore effort from the filmmaker—a Sundance movie in one of the better senses.
“Sundance movie” used to mean something very different than it does today, in the aftermath of the Weinstein indie boom (circa Landline’s chosen era). Before SNL alums and movie stars took dramatic pay cuts to prove their dramatic range, the festival gravitated towards truly independent films—scrappy, zero-budget ones with fewer stars and less blatantly obvious Hollywood aspirations. Dayveon (Grade: C), the feature debut of writer-director Amman Abbasi, fits neatly into that tradition, though beyond its genuine sense of environment and verisimilitude, the film doesn’t offer a lot to cling onto.
What there is of a plot is overly familiar, revolving as it does around a 13-year-old boy (Devin Blackmon) in small-town, impoverished Arkansas, drawn towards gang life after the murder of his brother. The story seems mostly like an opportunity to hang out with an all-black cast of young unknowns as they shoot the shit. But while most of these non-actors have a natural screen presence, composer-turned-director Abbasi lacks the experience to shape their likely improvised musings into purposeful scenes. The result is a drama that feels baggy moment-to-moment and thinly sketched on the whole. It’s also detrimentally derivative: While The Big Sick meaningfully riffs on the Apatow formula, Dayveon simply cribs from the Southern-fried playbook of its own big-name producer, David Gordon Green. That means lots of dreamy slow-motion images of boys riding bikes at dusk and insert shots of insects. In George Washington, that kind of stuff counted as a stylistic strategy. Here it just feels like visual filler.
A more recent strain of Sundance film, if we can stretch that definition for a moment, is the indie sci-fi brainteaser—a subgenre one might reasonably nickname The Brit Marling Movie. This year’s addition to the trend is The Discovery (Grade: B), an ambitious, convoluted genre tightrope act that kept me thoroughly engrossed, even if I’m not entirely sure it works on the level it wants to. The film opens with bangs both literal and figurative, neatly establishing its outlandish premise. Sundance founder Robert Redford plays Thomas Harbor, a scientist who’s uncovered irrefutable evidence of an afterlife—a bombshell that’s created an enormous uptick in global suicides, what with fear of oblivion no longer outweighing desire for escape. Having laid that intriguing foundation, The Discovery adjusts its information flow to a slow drip, as Will (Jason Segel), the scientist’s son, travels to a remote island where his disgraced dad has continued his work in secret, several years after his revelation rocked the planet. What’s Thomas up to? And why has the prodigal son come home?
This is the second feature by Charlie McDowell, back at the festival that premiered his debut, the sharp relationship parable The One I Love. His new one is a bigger, bolder film, both conceptually and stylistically. As it turns out, Thomas has transformed his research facility into a kind of New Age cult, and that detail—combined with brilliantly blue ocean imagery, a sometimes atonal score, and a questionnaire scene that plays like a milder form of “processing”—makes The Discovery the first American indie, by my estimation, to owe a considerable debt to The Master. There’s also a fair share of Christopher Nolan in its twisty plot architecture, which spirals into a melodramatic series of reveals I thought I had gotten ahead of, until another layer was exposed. At the same time, McDowell preserves the balance of human drama and Twilight Zone fantasy that characterized his last movie.
Blessed with a strong supporting cast (Jesse Plemons is especially good as the jam-band-loving other son), The Discovery pulls you into its island mystery, then aims for both the heart and brain in the final stretch. As a sucker for these kind of goofy mind-benders, I proved receptive to the latter attempt. It’s the former—the film’s emotional aspirations—that fall a little short. McDowell pairs Segel with Rooney Mara, rocking a blond wig as a blunt, suicidal stranger he meets in transit, and while the two have a playful, antagonistic rapport for a while, The Discovery’s climax hinges on a romantic chemistry that doesn’t quite spark. (Segel, alas, is far more miscast in this role than he was as David Foster Wallace in The End Of The Tour, from two Sundances ago.) Still, the film kept my interest from jarring start to soapy finish—never a given for a Sundance movie by any definition.