There’s no such thing as the Sundance experience. There are instead thousands of individual Sundances, each running in tandem, no custom lineup quite like the other. America’s premier film festival, held every January in the mountains of Utah, is too big and diverse for attendees to see all the same movies, let alone at the same time. And yet for one moment, at the very beginning of this two-week cinematic binge, everyone—critics, industry professionals, the ticket-buying public—do see the same movies at the same time. Very briefly, we’re all on one page, before scattering to the wind as the options instantly expand.
Sundance, in other words, is a big room for one night only: its opening one. Every year, the programmers kick off their festival with just four movies—usually two documentaries and two narrative films, half from America and the other half from elsewhere—scheduled in such a way that it’s possible only to see two of them, with a two-hour break in between. This opening-night strategy of easing the early birds in with a few non-event films (Whiplash notwithstanding) creates something close to a unified conversation, if just for the evening: While many don’t arrive in Park City until Friday, those of us who are there from the start tend to begin our Sundance talking about the same movies.
The dialogue this year, my fourth on the ground in Park City, seems to have coalesced—as it often does—around the U.S. Dramatic Competition title granted the privilege/burden of commencing Sundance. And as is just as often the case, I find myself somewhere in the middle of the two polar reactions the film has already inspired—on Twitter, in the lobby of the Yarrow Hotel after the screening, and back at the roomy vacation condo I’m sharing with several other Chicago film critics, most of whom hated the movie only a little less than last year’s still-unreleased sacrificial lamb of an opener, The Bronze.
Other People (Grade: B-) is a better movie than The Bronze, though that isn’t saying too much. It’s very much what people tend to be describing when they call something a “Sundance movie,” in that it’s a sometimes comic, sometimes maudlin American indie with recognizable name actors and easily digested ideas. There’s also the fact that it arrives one year after a pair of high-profile Sundance premieres to which it bears an unmistakable resemblance. Those who complained that last year’s big winner in Park City, Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, was insufferably myopic will see more to dislike here, albeit in a less formally energetic package and with an older protagonist. Likewise, you could call Other People a sitcom James White and you wouldn’t be too off base.
Jesse Plemons, chasing his sweet dolt from Fargo with a different kind of introvert, plays David, an aspiring comedy writer who returns to his hometown of Sacramento to be with his family as his mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon), slowly succumbs to cancer. Like Amour, a film it most certainly does not resemble in any other capacity, Other People begins with a woman’s inevitable death, before flashing back to reveal the year leading up to it. Besides removing any doubt as to where the movie is headed—a strategy that puts the audience in the same position as the characters, who never nurse illusions that Joanne might pull through—this cold open establishes the film’s sometimes awkward blend of heart and humor, as the raw grief of the family is punctured by an oblivious answering-machine message from an acquaintance blithely unaware that the person she’s called has just croaked.
Writer-director Chris Kelly—who (full disclosure) used to write and direct for The Onion, before decamping for Saturday Night Live—has a weakness for sketch-comedy caricatures, who keep popping up on the margins of the movie. Not that this is a film where the center totally holds either. David is a bit exhausting in his self-pity. He’s recently split with his boyfriend back in New York—a breakup he can’t talk about with his mom, for fear that the information will compound her worry, and or his dad (Bradley Whitford), who still refuses to acknowledge his son’s homosexuality, a full decade after David came out. So Plemons’ main character spends most of the movie in a state of mopey paralysis, and if Other People is willing to acknowledge his general selfishness, it also adopts his tunnel vision so completely that few other characters (including David’s young sisters, one of them played by an Apatow daughter) ever gain much dimension. As with Me And Earl, it’s possible to mount the charitable defense that this is a movie about narcissism, though that doesn’t totally excuse the way Other People marginalizes the experiences of everyone but David.
And yet there’s a specificity to so much of the film that’s hard to dismiss, which helps account for why so many of the reactions on Twitter were much more ecstatic than the ones my Sundance roomies expressed. Other People has the familiar, sometimes affecting sting of memoir, or at least of quasi-autobiography: Kelly, whose own mother died in 2009 and whose two sisters were there last night for the big premiere in the Eccles Theater, sprinkles in moments that feel sharply authentic—not just the uncomfortably frank discussions of burial arrangements or a bathroom mother-son talk (another James White echo), but also such piercing details as the family serving as interpreter for a fading Joanne, repeating everything she manages to croak out in a hoarse whisper to those outside their immediate circle of preparation and preemptive grief. (There’s also a terrific scene with Zach Woods as David’s ex that demonstrates the indeterminate boundaries of defunct longterm relationships.) Other People starts offputtingly broad, and never quite affords its characters the same lived-in quality as their ordeal. But it also steadily improves as it progresses, almost in inverse to Joanne’s deterioration. If it’s the worse movie anyone sees here in Park City, they’ll have an unusually strong Sundance.
Before packing into a packed full house for Other People, and before making a very brief appearance at the equally crowded annual Indiewire party, I skipped a bio-documentary on Norman Lear (not my genre of choice) in favor of one of the festival’s World Dramatic contenders. Belgica (Grade: C+) is a much less divisive opening-night film, at least as far I could tell from the instant social-media reactions, though the widespread complaints about it—that it’s strong in detail but lacking in the character department—are basically the same as the best case against Other People.
Following up his Oscar-nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown, writer-director Felix Van Groeningen spins a tale of two siblings—even-keeled, one-eyed Jo (Stef Aerts) and his hot-headed, philandering older brother Frank (Tom Vermeir)—trying to renovate a trendy bar/music club, which they envision as some sort of inclusive nightlife utopia. Perhaps inevitably, their dream begins to get away from them, as the two get lost in the excesses of the bar-owner lifestyle and begin compromising their vision, for one by denying entry to certain ethnicities. As he proved in his last film, Van Groeningen has a passion for music, and the best moments here are the late-night performance montages—rapturous dance parties set to the thumping sounds of brass-band punk, rockabilly, and deafening techno. (Is the director’s true calling concert films?)
But while the performances are additionally strong, Belgica has a trajectory that’s obvious from the very start; that it takes more than two hours to downward spiral these characters to their final stations feels downright indulgent. If I knew more about Belgium as a country, I might argue that all of this is intended as some sort of national allegory, as everything from the film’s title (also the name of the bar) to the way the brothers’ beloved business mutates away from its ideals suggests a coded state-of-the-country address. But even if that were true—and again, I’m hardly qualified to confidently make the case—this would still be a dispiritingly schematic movie, albeit a formally energetic one. Many individual Sundances began last night with Belgica. There’s a good chance that things are going to get more exciting from here.