It seemed odd for Sundance programmers to separate by five days the premieres of the festival’s two Sebastían Silva/Michael Cera joints: the loopy drug odyssey Crystal Fairy, which screened on opening night, and Magic Magic (B), in which Juno Temple has a schizophrenic episode amid some of the most self-centered and incapable people on earth. But giving each film breathing room turned out to be a wise decision, since Magic Magic is less the Smoke to Crystal Fairy’s Blue In The Face than its dark, warped mirror image. Very nearly the inverse of Gaby Hoffmann’s nature sprite, Temple’s anxious Californian has been dispatched to Chile to spend some time with cousin Emily Browning, presumably as part of some ill-thought scheme to give her mind a rest. Along with Browning’s Chilean boyfriend and short-tempered Catalina Sandino Moreno, who finds Temple an instant drag, the cousins set off for a trip to a remote island where the hairline cracks in Temple’s sanity widen to yawning chasms.
As the group’s abrasive fifth wheel, Michael Cera plays an even creepier, more obnoxious character than the one in Crystal Fairy: He might as well cut to the chase and take a role as a combination child molester-slash-serial killer. In Magic Magic, he laughs at Temple’s discomfort when she’s dry-humped by a randy, snarling dog; later, when he slips on a handy fur coat and hat and chases after her in the same fashion, it feels like he’s a hairsbreadth away from sexual assault. (Kicking him in the nose is one of the saner things she does.) For a long time, the movie feels as if it’s meandering, but once Temple’s mind truly starts to unravel, it quickly snaps into horrifying focus. Temple slides from awkward discomfort to panicked disorientation so seamlessly there’s no way to pinpoint when the break begins; we, like she, are left out in the cold.
Robin Weigert’s suburban decorator, a married lesbian with two school-age children, suffers a similar if less abrupt break in Stacie Passon’s Concussion (B), which begins with her character bleeding from head trauma inflicted by her ball-throwing son. The physical effects of the blow pass quickly, but something has shifted. She’s no longer satisfied with her cozy but sexless marriage, and so seeks out the company of a prostitute, meeting in a half-finished apartment she’s in the process of flipping. The encounter goes well enough that the prostitute recommends Weigert to her boss—The Walking Dead’s Emily Kinney, playing an entrepreneurial-minded pre-law student known only as “The Girl”—and suddenly Weigert’s the one getting paid, servicing female clients whose desires from the gamut from deflowering to rough trade. Although she tries to keep her double life separate, she ends up meeting her outwardly straight neighbor Maggie Siff for a pre-date coffee. “I’m on the P.T.A.,” Weigert says incredulously. Siff replies, “I’m class parent. For the second year.”
Passon really sweats the details in her first feature, right down to the Guerrilla Girls and Louise Bourgeois posters in Weigert’s one-woman brothel. In fact, she sweats them a little too much; there are moments when you can almost hear the carefully planted plot points and half-hidden symbols clicking into place. There’s a tidiness to the film that’s at odds with Weigert’s self-destructive path, a flaw compounded by its unconvincingly pat resolution. Fortunately Weigert, almost unrecognizable as Deadwood’s Calamity Jane, is terrific in what one hopes is the first of more leading roles to come.
Blue Caprice (C+) is a beautifully shot, sensitively acted drama about the relationship between an abandoned young man and the twisted father figure who takes him in. It’s also, more or less, drivel. The problem is that the young man is Lee Malvo and the father figure is John Muhammad, who together were responsible for the Beltway Sniper killings in 2002. Although Alexandre Moors’ first feature is dressed in indie-film finery, with a cool blue palette and meandering score, it too often succumbs to the allure of a true crime telepic, cranking up the subwoofer when Lee (Tequan Richmond) takes his first shots with a Bushmaster rifle, pointing the way to what the audience already knows is coming. Richmond gives a nuanced, soulful performance as the taciturn Lee, who utters only a handful of sentences in the entire film, and Isaiah Washington does as much as he can with the increasingly demonic John, even as his sociopathic monologues turn cartoonish. What’s moving about the scene where John hauls Lee into the woods and ties him to a tree, either to punish him for getting caught shoplifting or to toughen him up for the ordeal ahead, isn’t Washington’s maniac fervor but the way Richmond protests with increasingly desperate variations on a single word: “Dad.” Moments like those verge on genuine heartbreak, but they’re stuck inside a trite drama that slaps a neat explanation on an unfathomable horror.
Next: A day of music, with documentaries on imprisoned Russian punks Pussy Riot, the legendary soul of Muscle Shoals, and Dave Grohl’s tribute to Sound City.