You could come to Sundance and only party. Those who do probably spend a lot of their time on Main Street. The historic thoroughfare is the nightlife epicenter of Park City, its Bourbon Street. Swarm in from the adjacent transit hub, as many locals and tourists alike do, and you’ll experience an uphill climb of bars, restaurants, cafés, galleries, boutiques, and rented HQs. After dark, every sensation junkie in town seems to converge on this one stretch of commerce, flooding in and out of invite-only soirees, congesting the sidewalks in their trendiest winter wear. When truth-bomb-dropper Mila Kunis talks about how “you can’t walk down the street” anymore, she means this street.
There’s a movie theater on Main, too. It’s the Egyptian, one of the festival’s most iconic venues, complete with gorgeous marquee and seats that feel like they haven’t been reupholstered since the silent era. It’s a strange experience, passing out of the chaos of Main Street and into the darkness and quiet of a movie screening; it’s a bit like stumbling into church on Sunday morning after an all-night Saturday bender. The whiplash can be especially severe when the film in question is meditative—an oasis in the bar-hop desert, a sanctuary from the festivities just beyond the auditorium walls.
On the other hand, sometimes you get a movie perfectly in sync with the atmosphere outside. Take Zola (Grade: B-), which played right before midnight on Saturday at the Egyptian and would have required no shift to indoor energy from a reveler looking to keep the party going. Written and directed by Janicza Bravo, whose Adult Swimish Lemon premiered to some cheers and plenty of jeers at Sundance three years ago, this fitfully funny comedy of danger and transgression almost seems designed—in style and nonstop outrageous incident—to hold the attention of audiences as hopped up as the characters. Its allegedly true story is #TheStory, originally recounted through a series of 148 tweets. “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out?” the thread begins—an introduction the film repurposes as voice-over, before launching into a largely faithful retelling of how Detroit waitress and moonlighting exotic dancer Aziah “Zola” King (Taylour Paige) agreed to accompany a stranger (Riley Keough) to Florida to make some money stripping, only to get wrapped up in a life-threatening misadventure involving her new companion’s boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) and pimp (Colman Domingo).
One of the big conversation pieces of the festival, Zola has already been mentioned in the same breath as Hustlers and Spring Breakers. But the arch vibe is closer to a funky-discursive post-Tarantino joint, just with more smart-phone-inspired stylistic tics (like the little bloops that announce both an incoming text and a moment that Zola will later tweet about) and a general debauchery that’s presented both salaciously and with a certain detached unease courtesy of Mica Levi’s latest sci-fi score. Outside the theater, volunteers warned those of us in line that they’d be checking IDs—a great pump-up-the-crowd move on their part, especially given that the sex and violence we’d all be taking in soon is pretty safely in the R range. (Even with a montage of dick shots like the one stuffed in the middle of another movie that got me carded outside the Egyptian a few years back, Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac.)
The performances are a hoot, Keough showing off her range with daft enthusiasm and a singsong cadence (it’s on the other end of the spectrum as her haunted work in last year’s Sundance midnight selection The Lodge, which hits theaters next month), while Domingo boosts the live-wire menace playing a character whose gregarious chill eventually reveals itself to be a front. But the film has perspective problems that extend beyond the slightly queasy, half-comic depiction of sex work. For all Bravo leans on Paige’s deadpan reaction shots and sporadic zinger interjections, the real Zola’s voice, so crucial to the appeal of #TheStory, goes missing—the film doesn’t lock us into either her stunned disbelief or the growing terror of her ordeal. It’s a chronicle of an unbelievable experience that never conveys the experience part, instead gawking at every twist and turn from a slightly amused remove. Turns out Twitter might really have been the ideal platform for this anecdote.
In the audacity department, Zola has nothing on Promising Young Woman (Grade: B+), a truly discomfiting blend of revenge thriller and darkest of dark comedy that’s proving among the more divisive of this year’s Sundance selections. Writer-director Emerald Fennell (Killing Eve) begins toying with expectations from the opening scene, when a young professional (Adam Brody) squirms at the sleazy remarks his friends make about a woman (Carey Mulligan) they see possibly blackout drunk at the bar, and goes over to offer her assistance getting home—only to show his true colors when he reroutes the Uber to his place and tries to take advantage of her. But the woman, Cassie, isn’t what she’s pretending to be either—she’s working out a vendetta on a world of sexual predators both blatant and deceptive about their intentions.
Promising Young Woman would be plenty bracing if it were just a topically righteous and progressive riff on the rape-revenge genre, a Ms. 45 for the #MeToo era. (There’s something automatically daring about any movie headed for multiplexes that’s genuinely interested in exploring rape culture and how it’s perpetuated through the silence and excuses even of supposedly sympathetic bystanders.) But Fennell complicates matters throughout, toying with our identification by pushing Cassie’s tactics into some uncomfortably nasty places, even as she slowly reveals her motives. (Mulligan, her smoky voice dripping with rage and sorrow, resists making Cassie a one-dimensional avenging angel, peppering her crusade with notes of doubt and self-loathing.) Meanwhile, the film’s mainstream sheen actually works for, and not against, its provocations; I may have anticipated one major subversion of romantic-comedy convention, but that didn’t blunt its impact or pointed purpose. Promising Young Woman stops short of a truly radical ending, but only just. I can’t believe Focus Features is releasing the thing. (It opens in April.)
Competing mini-major Fox Searchlight (or, sorry, just Searchlight—Disney has already pettily sliced off the “Fox”) has their own Sundance movie headed for theaters this spring. That would be Wendy (Grade: C-), an insufferably precious and weirdly dull reimagining of Peter Pan from writer-director Benh Zeitlin. It’s apropos subject matter, as Zeitlin is apparently something of a lost boy himself, stubbornly refusing to grow. It’s taken eight years for him to fashion a follow-up to his celebrated, Oscar-nominated, and—in my less-than-popular opinion—grossly overpraised debut, Beasts Of The Southern Wild, one of those Sundance success stories that feeds into the whole legend of the festival as a launching pad for bold, industry-reshaping visions. But Wendy, which has been gestating for almost the entire interim, shows no real evolution. It boasts the same awed-mythic gloss on impoverished America, applying a cutesy-poo fairy tale grandeur to the rustic aesthetic of marginalized communities.
In other words, if you loved Beasts, maybe you’ll like Wendy, too. Zeitlin’s eye for a striking image remains intact—even I can’t deny that his aesthetic, at once naturalistic and sweeping, has its appeal. And his talent for eliciting unaffected performances from young actors makes this a J.M. Barrie adaptation that actually captures some of the rambunctious energy of real childhood, as opposed to a Hollywood conception of the same. But Zeitlin has no fresh take on the material—thematically, it’s the usual clichés about resisting the encroaching disillusionment of adult life, filtered through a “grounded” reboot that leeches all the actual excitement and adventure, the magic, out of the story. Even the Beasts faithful, no disrespect to you all, may be bored out of your gourds when the movie soars into theaters next month.