Before Midnight, a Terrence Malick homage and Lake Bell's directorial debut top a great Day Four at Sundance

Before Midnight, a Terrence Malick homage and Lake Bell's directorial debut top a great Day Four at Sundance

The movies are full of great love stories, tales of all-consuming passion, of obstacles overcome and tragedies escaped, but few have tried to capture what happens to love over the long haul, how it’s sustained and challenged, eroded and enriched. Eighteen years ago, Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine were a beguiling not-quite-couple, colliding for a brief encounter whose magic was fueled by the almost certain knowledge that there would never be another. But in Before Midnight (A-), which follows Before Sunrise and 2004‘s Before Sunset, they’ve begun to grow old together, and the films have grown with them.

As prefigured by the plane Jesse missed at the end of Sunset, he and Celine are a couple now, unmarried but with angelic twin daughters. They’re nearing the end of a six-week stay in Greece, and for their final night, their friends have conspired to provide them with a romantic night alone. But first (and second and third), there’s talk: lots of it. A lengthy lunch becomes a graduate seminar on the nature of love in the modern age, finally expanding the films’ scope beyond its central couple to take on other perspectives, including young lovers who think lifelong commitment is fast becoming an anachronism and an elderly widower who posits mutual caretaking as the heart of an enduring marriage. In a group setting, Celine and Jesse banter playfully, but deeper issues are hinted at by an oversharp jibe or a fleeting silence. Rather than rekindling their romance, their evening alone allows quarrels usually masked by the hubbub of everyday life to make their way to the surface, reminding us that as relationships grow, so do their difficulties.

It’s hard to separate Before Midnight’s virtues as a stand-alone film from its place as the capstone on an extraordinary trilogy, but either way it’s an immensely satisfying and emotionally rich experience, so true to life that you nod and wince at the same time. (In regard to another recent, less successful exploration of midlife problems, it’s tempting to call it This Is 41.) It feels like a privilege drop in on Celine and Jesse again, and to see just how complicated “happily ever after” can be.

There’s no way to talk about David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (A-) without mentioning the movie’s own patron saint, Terrence Malick. But while for much of its length, the story of an escape Texas outlaw (Casey Affleck) and the woman (Rooney Mara) and child he left behind plays like an accomplished Badlands riff, the film’s powerful climax takes it into territory all its own. Beautifully shot by Bradford Young and scored by Daniel Hart, whose banjo and fiddle drone evokes Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ scores without simply copying them, it’s an entrancing mood piece, laconically intense and resonant in ways it may take more time, or at least a less crowded schedule, to process.

Although boasting nowhere near the pre-screening hype of Don Jon’s Addiction, Lake Bell’s In a World... (B+) turned out to be a far more appealing debut. Like Sleepwalk With Me, which premiered at Sundance last year in the same theater, In A World... is built around and embodies the immense likeability of its director, writer, and star. Bell, who first came to Los Angeles with plans to take the voiceover world by storm, plays the daughter of Fred Melamed’s legendary V.O. king, herself an aspiring but not especially successful voiceover artist. “The industry,” her father explains in a cavernous purr, “does not crave a female sound.” But as it turns out, they do, or at least the doors are finally open for a woman to break into the boys’ club of trailer narrators, personified by an opening that evokes the late, great Don LaFontaine. The movie can’t seem to decide if it’s a romantic comedy using the voiceover world as a backdrop or a Hollywood satire with a romantic throughline, but fortunately both are equally ingratiating. The cast is stuffed with great comedians, including Demetri Martin, Nick Offerman, Ken Marino, Rob Corddry, Michaela Watkins, and Tig Notaro, and Bell shows a flair for devising physical gags that express the emotional undercurrent of a scene. When she gets dragged into attending a party with her father and his much younger girlfriend, her discomfort is manifested by the way she crams her leggy frame into the back seat of his two-door coupe. The writing is equally keen, taking aim at the faux female empowerment of a Hunger Games-esque franchise but reserving its most pointed criticism for the scourge of vocal fry, which Bell calls the “sexy baby” voice. Not only has she made a confident and very funny debut, but she’s doing the lord’s work as well.

Tomorrow: The long-awaited return of Shane Carruth, Andrew Bujalski geeks out, and a 3D movie drawn from the black boxes of crashed planes.