Sundance ends like it begins: quietly. Technically, the festival runs until this Sunday, with new films premiering until at least the second weekend. But after the first weekend, attendance begins to steadily decline; by today, the sleepy ski community of Park City has started to look like itself again, its streets less clogged with foot and automobile traffic, its handy shuttles less crowded. The big movies have been seen. The big sales have been made. The excitement seems to drain out the place like helium escaping a balloon. I can only imagine how tranquil, how relaxed, it must get from here.
About those big movies and big sales. Manchester By The Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s magnificent Massachusetts family drama, got snatched up by Amazon for a whopping $10 million—money well spent, to this smitten critic’s eyes. In even bigger acquisition news, Fox Searchlight secured the distribution rights for Nat Turner biopic The Birth Of A Nation, spending a record-breaking $17.5 million for the buzzed-about debut (and probable Sundance winner). As of this writing, Farty Boner Corpse does not have a U.S. distribution deal. It’s just right there for the taking, Drafthouse.
So how were the films themselves? As friend and fellow critic Brian Tallerico put it early in the festival, there’s no such thing as a good or bad Sundance, because that implies that any of us are able to get a full portrait of the festival—to see more than a small percentage of the 100-plus official selections. Me, I only saw one movie I flat out loved and that was Manchester By The Sea. (I’m tremendously excited not just to see it again, but for all of you to see it.) But I also saw a lot of movies I liked—including, for the most part, the three dramas I caught up with on Tuesday, my final day at the festival. One of them was not, by the way, the inspirational sports drama Eddie The Eagle, a pretty underwhelming choice for this year’s now-annual Tuesday-night “secret” screening.
Easily one of the most troubling films I saw in Park City—and further proof that nothing beats the NEXT program for challenging cinema at Sundance—Dark Night (Grade: B) follows several unnamed characters as they go about their daily routines in Aurora, Colorado, in what mostly appears to be the hours leading up to that town’s 2012 movie-theater shooting. I say appears because the film is so oblique and glancing, with no real plot connecting its quietly observational vignettes, that it’s not always easy to ascertain when these events are taking place; though the structure of the movie suggests a steady build to the dark night (and Dark Knight) in question, a couple of scenes feature television sets or radios blaring news reports about the shooting, which implies that we may sometimes be seeing the aftermath. Equally baffling are the real or staged interviews with one teenage character—a device the film never explains, though it feels too purposeful to be without meaning.
Strikingly shot and elliptically constructed by director Tim Sutton (Memphis), Dark Night owes a clear debt of influence to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, another movie released about four years after the mass shooting that inspired it. This is the kind of film that provokes debates about representation, exploitation, and how soon is too soon. Is it obscene to turn the lives of gun-violence victims into fodder for an enigmatic art movie? Do the false-alarm moments, like a group of girls screaming playfully in a parking lot, come a little too close to suspense-thriller jump scares? Dark Night is rife for conversation, even as its oddly hypnotic, even soothing lazy-summer fragments resist easy analysis. It’s a mysterious elegy of a film, pregnant with both the beauty of the everyday and the menace of impending violence. And in its identification of several possible “suspects,” all with access to firearms, the film makes a powerful (if sidelong) case for stricter gun-control: In a culture where anyone can get their hands on a weapon, everyone could be the shooter. (Side note: Watching this movie at a multiplex was a little unnerving, to say the least.)
While Dark Night remains fascinatingly ambiguous throughout, Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown (Grade: B-) only starts that way: Early scenes deliberately disorient, the film making speedy leaps in time and geography, with Rachel Weisz popping up in what looks like a series of disguises. Is she a spy? An Orphan Black-style group of doubles? Showing up as a date to a birthday party, this mystery woman catches the eyes of the guest of honor (Michael Shannon), and a jolt of recognition passes between them. Complete Unknown is engrossing so long as it’s keeping us in the dark about its relationships and the strange tension between its characters. But while the actual premise, once it’s belatedly revealed, is also plenty fascinating (if contingent on an enormous suspension of disbelief), the movie doesn’t seem entirely sure what to do with it. Though evidently an original story, the film feels more like a stage adaptation that got lost in translation, especially when the two main characters wander off into the night together. Shannon and Weisz are both quite good in their roles, and Marston, who won the Audience Award at Sundance for Maria Full Of Grace a dozen years ago, gives the material an atmosphere of mystery and discovery. But the results still feel like a missed opportunity, especially given the gripping misdirection of the opening act.
A very different kind of two-hander, Southside With You (Grade: B) dramatizes one fateful day in the summer of 1989, when a young community activist and Harvard law associate named Barack Obama convinced a colleague, Michelle Robinson, to spend the day with him. Writer-director Richard Tanne, in his first turn behind the camera, takes a popular anecdote about how the president wooed his first lady and turns it into a sweetly speculative Richard Linklater imitation, following his two before-they-were-great icons on a walk and talk excursion across Chicago, as they chat about their lives, their ambitions, and their responsibility to the city. The two actors, Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter, are impeccably cast: They nail the mannerisms of these very famous people without ever lapsing into imitation; it really feels as though we’re seeing the Obamas as twentysomethings, still growing into the leaders we regularly watch on our televisions. When the young Mr. Obama drops by a community meeting, Sawyers walks a fine line between replicating some of the public-speaking tics of our POTUS—a “listen” here, a familiar hand gesture there—and just delivering the pep talk naturalistically.
There’s a certain clunkiness to the screenplay, which keeps stuffing its characters’ mouths with details and factoids from their respective biographies. Then again, we are watching a first date, so some formal exposition—the whos and whats and wheres of lives not yet famous—makes sense. Less permissible are the moments when Tanne winks at a future his protagonists can’t possibly predict, as when Barack thoughtfully remarks, “I just feel like something else is pulling at me.” Some have tried to argue that Southside With You could just be any romantic comedy about any smart, impassioned African-American couple, but that’s bunk: Like a lighter Motorcycle Diaries, this a movie that draws almost all of its interest from where its characters will eventually arrive, years down the line. It’s a valentine to the country’s love affair with the first family—and given its release in an election year, a memorial for the same. It’s also a pretty affectionate portrait of Chicago itself; what a fitting final festival screening to send this critic out of the bubble of Sundance and back to the Windy City where he belongs.