There’s a right time and several wrong ones to arrive at the Sundance Film Festival. Fly in the night before, as I did two years ago, and you find yourself killing time in a sleepy ski community, waiting for Park City to come alive with the first flood of industry interlopers. As I discovered yesterday, however, being unfashionably early is much preferable to navigating the shitshow of a late arrival: Three hours in a shuttle, weaving in and out of heavy mountainside traffic, was all it took for me to miss both of the fest’s competing kickoff selections—a well-received documentary about Nina Simone, and a drama that members of the press have been affectionately dubbing “that Lithuanian lesbian movie.” Those seeking thoughts on Sundance 2015’s official first films will have to consult a less tardy correspondent.
Thing is, Sundance almost always opens soft, easing attendees in with non-event movies and saving the higher-profile fare for the days that follow. So maybe it’s okay that my third year covering the event began with a brief breather, a chance to take in some sights and sounds—and share some good company—before leaping headlong into a week of nonstop screenings. Of the major international film festivals, Sundance is the one that feels most like a party; Cannes may have the quality and Toronto may have the quantity, but the best mingling happens here in Park City, where the walls separating critics, filmmakers, publicists, and general film buffs seem to briefly collapse. It’s a great time, even when the films aren’t.
To that end, I think it’s fair to say that much of the press in attendance last night had a better time scarfing down chili at the annual Indiewire party—“hosted” this year by Jason Schwartzman, though I never spotted the guy—than they did watching the first U.S. Dramatic Competition selection, The Bronze (Grade: C+). Whiplash, which essentially opened the fest last year, is a hard act to follow, but that doesn’t quite explain the toxic vitriol critics immediately spewed at this formulaic, very uneven comedy. Firing off constant obscenities in a nasally midwestern lilt, Melissa Rauch (The Big Bang Theory) stars as Hope Greggory, a foul-mouthed gymnast whose teenage glory years are a good decade behind her. (She’s introduced feverishly masturbating to footage of her own Olympic victory, an ancient triumph she now exploits for free meals and other local-celebrity perks.) Having burned through every dime she made from endorsements, Hope reluctantly agrees to train a chipper, wholesome teenager (Haley Lu Richardson) poised to replace her as hometown hero; the payout is a half-million inheritance, provided Hope gets the girl to Olympic qualifiers.
So neatly does The Bronze fit into the established template of a grossly irresponsible role model softened by the innocence of a protégé that I half expect it to be retitled Bad Gymnast by the time it reaches U.S. theaters. Early scenes are pretty dire, with the filmmakers leaning heavily on the supposed outrageousness of their wholesome-looking heroine stealing from the mailbag of her postal-worker father (Gary Cole) or snorting crushed allergy medicine. Furthermore, there’s nothing remotely surprising about Hope’s flip from salty to sweet; like most yukfests built around a deplorable main character, The Bronze insists on redeeming its protagonist, in this case by providing her with an aww-shucks love interest (Thomas Middleditch, from Silicon Valley) and a sympathetic backstory.
What almost saves the movie—or, at the very least, prevents me from despising it as deeply as many of my fellow Sundancers do—is Rauch’s expertly abrasive performance. The actress, who co-wrote the screenplay, delivers her barrage of vulgar insults with impeccable comedic timing. More impressively, she manages to make Hope’s burgeoning decency feel faintly credible; the character softens without seeming to become a different person. If The Bronze flops as hard with audiences as it did with last night’s press, I somehow still suspect that Rauch will emerge unscathed. She’s too good to go down with this ship.
A much better choice for opening night, at least from the perspective of immediate critical reaction, would have been The Witch (Grade: B), an intense (if problematic) 17th-century horror film about a family of New England pilgrims banished from their community and forced to rough it in a woodland farmhouse, where strange forces begin to tear their fragile union asunder. First-time feature director Robert Eggers amps up the unholy menace from the first frames, setting a protracted long take of the characters trudging into the woods to an ambient swell of there-will-be-blood strings. The tension only rises from here, and if The Witch’s hints of serious spiritual inquiry are mostly just a prelude to the horrors awaiting its characters, it’s still bracing to see familiar genre tropes explored in the context of a studiously researched period piece. (The film’s vision of a treacherous, primitive America is never less than, uh, bewitching.)
What’s troubling about this sharply acted and beautifully shot film is the historical implications it courts. A subtitle announces The Witch as “a New England folktale,” and Eggers seems intent on positioning it as an origin story of American fanaticism. But since the early scenes make it abundantly clear that the supernatural threat is very real, and not in the minds of its characters, it follows that any subsequent witch hunts—like, say, the one that really happened a few decades later in Salem—might be at least partially justified. In a way, The Witch plays like a horror-movie answer to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, presenting an alternate American history in which true evil exists and religious hysteria is the proper response to it. That might seem like a lot of freight to put on a movie featuring a possessed ram, but not since Frailty, perhaps, has a horror film made a better (and perhaps inadvertent) case for zealotry.
Another genre movie too arty (or unclassifiable) to get filed under Park City At Midnight, the Hungarian-made White God (Grade: C+) comes to Sundance from Cannes, where it rather inexplicably trounced Force Majeure for the top prize in Un Certain Regard. Opening with a striking, out-of-sequence scene of a teenager (Zsófia Psotta) fleeing on a bicycle from an enormous pack of stray dogs, the film never quite commits to a particular tone or thematic agenda. What starts as the sentimental, kitchen-sink story of a girl forced to give up her adorable pet pooch quickly evolves into a kind of gritty Homeward Bound, with said pooch encountering several mean, dog-hating humans in his adventures across the city. From there, the film takes a sharp left turn into nature-run-amok horror, before settling on what may be a revolution parable. (Possible alternate title: Rise Of The Planet Of The Mutts.) All of this is audacious enough to earn White God—whose title must be a nod to Sam Fuller’s White Dog, right?—a few creativity points, as does the use of what looks like hundreds of real rescue dogs. But the film is also consistently and enormously silly, in a way I’m fairly sure director Kornél Mundruczó didn’t intend.
Like White God, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe (Grade: B) is a novel curiosity that was recognized at Cannes (it basically swept the sidebar festival Director’s Fortnight). The film, about a teenager drafted into a boarding-school gang, stars only deaf actors, who communicate entirely through un-subtitled sign language. It’s a nervy stunt, and there’s something thrilling about trying to suss out the details of the narrative through nothing but body language and context. Thing is, that would be true of basically any story told in this unique way—and the story they are telling here mostly just seems calibrated to shock (see: an unpleasant medical procedure, one of the most grisly of its kind to ever get stuck in a movie) and to shatter prejudices about the deaf (they can be horrible, amoral people, too). When not admiring the film’s impressive Steadicam shots, viewers may just find themselves mulling the nature of its fictional world. Like, it makes sense that all the students can’t hear, because they attend a school for the deaf. But why does everyone else, including local doctors and truck drivers, use sign language? Is this an entire city of the deaf? An entire world?