Day Two at Sundance brings Joseph Gordon-Levitt's risible directorial debut and a triumphant follow-up to Smashed 

Day Two at Sundance brings Joseph Gordon-Levitt's risible directorial debut and a triumphant follow-up to Smashed 

Sundance's second day got off to a rousing start with Twenty Feet From Stardom (B+), Morgan Neville’s documentary about the plight of the backing singer. The names of his subjects may not be familiar, but their voices are: Darlene Love sang uncredited lead on some of the girl-group era’s biggest hits, and Merry Clayton provided the chilling wail of the Rolling Stones' “Gimme Shelter.” Rather than simply bemoan the vicissitudes of stardom, the movie gets specific about the forces at work, from personality conflicts to sexism to the fact that singing lead requires a level of obsession that some can't, or choose not to, muster. Love was delayed by a family emergency, but Clayton rocked the post-screening Q&A with a personality big enough to hold any stage. When she was asked if sleeping your way to the top was a requirement for stardom, she quipped, "There used to be a saying: You couldn't be a Raelette unless you let Ray." The crowd greeted Clayton, Tata Vega and Judith Hill with a standing ovation, and she thanked them "from the basement of my heart to the balcony of my mind," underlining the sentiment as only she could.

Back at the Temple Theatre later that day, the mood was decidedly more somber for After Tiller (B+), a documentary about the four doctors in the entire U.S. who perform late-term abortions. The film takes its name from Dr. George Tiller, who was murdered by an anti-abortion zealot, so it wasn’t surprising that the audience had to pass through a metal detector on their way in, and that instead of a security guard watching for contraband iPhones, the screening was monitored by a uniformed policeman.

Given that the third-term procedure is a difficult one for even staunch pro-choice advocates to stomach—the heart is stopped with digoxin, and the baby delivered as an intact stillbirth—the movie wisely devotes much of its time to the counseling sessions between doctors and patients (the latter’s faces are never seen). Faced in some cases with the prospect of giving birth to children whose prenatal conditions guarantee a short and painful life, the women struggle painfully and articulately with their choices. In a few cases where the women are simply too far into their pregnancies, the doctors turn them down, but as one said after the screening, they know that they are, for these women, “the court of last resort.” They share a sense of resolve, even though their professions literally endanger their lives, but exhibit a fascinating range of moral and emotional rationales, voicing complex sentiments too rarely heard on either side of such a polarizing issue.

According to Scott Renshaw’s overview of pre-Sundance hype pieces, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don John's Addiction (D) was the second-most anticipated movie of this year's festival. Those hopes were dashed almost instantly as the sound of Gordon-Levitt’s cornball bridge-and-tunnel accent filled the Eccles. After pumping up the crowd, Gordon-Levitt predicted that the audience’s reaction would be polarized—he also suggested viewers hashtag questions on Twitter for the post-film Q&A, a suggestion Sundance president John Cooper gently but firmly shut down—apparently convinced he’d made an edgy, controversial debut. But though his character’s titular addiction is to online pornography, and the film features many clips of simulated porn, carefully framed to maintain a potential R rating, it’s entirely without teeth. As a North Jersey d-bag who pulls plenty of prime tail but still spanks it to porn several times a day, Gordon-Levitt incarnates a lazy cartoon of an Italian-American player: Call it Saturday Night Feeble. Although he lives on his own, he still comes home regularly for family dinners with dad Tony Danza, invariably stripped down to a tight wifebeater. (I wondered: Does his character arrive dressed only in an undershirt, or does he remove his outer garments upon entering the family domicile?) As the woman who introduces him to the pleasures of delayed gratification and steady relationships, Scarlett Johansson does her own off-the-shelf accent, but more painful than Don Jon’s cookie-cutter ethnic caricature is its lazy, and deeply misogynist, view of the gulf between men and women. Men, you see, like pornography, with its easy pleasures and no strings attached; women like Hollywood romances, with their chaste kissing and rapid emotional bonding. (There's one brief, flickering bright spot, a montage from a cheesy faux romance called Something Special, starring a game Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway.) Evidently time-warped in from the mid-1950s, Johansson insists on meeting Gordon-Levitt’s friends and parents before she’ll let him get to second base, and recoils in horror when he goes shopping for Swiffers, since real men apparently don’t mop. (Because if there’s anything women hate, it’s a man who does housework—right, ladies?) In his acting career, Gordon-Levitt has proved himself as a bold and versatile talent, but his first film as a director is a damp squib, a movie about obsession that’s utterly hollow and entirely impersonal.

In the Q&A following James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now (A-), a questioner asked the director about the “thematic similarities” with his previous feature, Smashed. Ponsoldt leaned into the mic and deadpanned, “You mean alcohol?” Like Smashed, The Spectacular Now’s protagonist drifts through the world in a boozy cloud, but this time, it’s Miles Teller’s high school senior, who’s rarely seen without a king-sized soda cup spiked with whiskey in his hand. Teller’s the self-styled life of every party, but he’s terrified about the imminent end of his high school career and has no idea where to go next. But when he wakes up hungover on fellow senior Shailene Woodley’s lawn, his life starts to take a turn, one he both desires and fears. The scars from a real-life car accident unaltered by makeup, Teller seems like he’s been through the wringer, although most of his wounds are self-inflicted. At first, Woodley can’t believe he even deigns to talk to her, and for a while, the movie leaves open the question of whether he’s using her, consciously or no, as a weapon against recent ex- Brie Larson. But Teller and Woodley, as characters and as actors, have a natural ease with each other, and an unforced naturalism that belies their extensive experience. (They’ve both escaped the curse of child-actor precocity.) Speaking of naturalism, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an American movie so matter-of-fact about teenage drinking, which I can’t help but fear may occasion blowback once the film finds its way to less bohemian audiences.

Closing out the day, Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are (B-) worms its way into a rural farmhouse where a family keeps a gruesome secret they’ve held for generations: a tradition, going back to pioneer times, of eating human flesh as part of an annual ritual they call “Lamb’s Day.” More accomplished but less provocative than Lucky McKee’s The Woman, it’s notably mainly for great performances from Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner.

Next: Steve Coogan as a British porn magnate, Rosemarie DeWitt as a contact-averse masseuse, and a movie shot guerilla-style inside the Magic Kingdom.