Everyone gets around Park City by shuttle. Outside each venue, cheerful volunteers in brightly colored vests usher masses of harried festivalgoers onto buses, where we all share free trips up and down the mountain roads, occasionally crammed in beside the stray snowboarder. It’s a convenient and efficient system, provided you leave enough time between screenings. And if you’re not in immediate danger of being late to something, these rides can be quite relaxing, even refreshing—a brief breath of mountain air, before ducking back into the darkness of a crowded auditorium.
At times, riding Park City transit feels like a journey between worlds, though that has more to do with the movies themselves than the route you take to the theater. Sundance, like most major film festivals, scatters its official selections across several programs, most competitive but a few not. And because there’s a definite identity to each of these programs, inevitably toggling among them is a bit like attending several different festivals in the same day. (There’s that multiple Sundance theory again.) The abrupt tonal shifts can give you whiplash.
Yesterday, for example, on my second day in Park City, I chased what may be the most crowd-pleasing movie I see at Sundance this year with what may be the least. The former was Morris From America (Grade: B-), a sweet if highly conventional addition to that most Sundance-approved of genres, the coming-of-age story. Set in Heidelberg, Germany, the film follows 13-year-old aspiring rapper Morris (Markees Christmas) as he tries to adapt to his new home, where his widowed American father (Craig Robinson, delivering his warmest performance to date) has relocated for a soccer coaching gig. Morris, a shy black kid in an overwhelmingly white city, has trouble fitting in. He also has it bad for 15-year-old Katrin (Lina Keller), the blond cool-girl who entertains his crush, even as she shows little sign of reciprocating it.
Chad Hartigan, who wrote and directed Morris From America, made a splash at Sundance a couple years ago with This Is Martin Bonner, a tender low-budget indie that picked up the audience award at NEXT, the festival’s competition for emerging talent. With the similarly minor-key Morris, he’s graduated to the U.S. Dramatic lineup, and it’s easy to see why: Directorially, this is a flashier, more confident movie, as Hartigan replaces the starker aesthetic of Martin Bonner with a new bag of tricks—zooms, steadicam shots, irises, fantasy sequences, slow-motion, fast-motion—without ever giving off the impression that he’s just showing off. Yet his last movie was much more distinctive. Morris From America seems interested in race, cultural dislocation, and musical aspiration only so much as they provide its underdog main character with some obstacles to overcome. And while there are moments of keen insight—especially those pertaining to the lopsided romance, or any of the tough-love father-son scenes—Hartigan doesn’t do enough to distinguish his low-key charmer from dozens of other movies just like it.
Careers are always on the rise at Sundance. There’s a definite hierarchy to the programming; get invited to compete in NEXT and there’s a decent possibility that your follow-up film will appear in the U.S. Dramatic lineup, especially—as in Hartigan’s case—when it inches your style a little closer to the mainstream. Exiting the premiere of Morris at the Eccles, Sundance’s biggest gala venue, I hop a bus over to the Library, where the NEXT competition kicked off with the feature debut by music-video director Nicolas Pesce. Theoretically, this the first step in a journey that will lead the first-time director straight to the Eccles, where his next film might premiere to a capacity crowd. Yet he’d have to make one hell of a sophomore pivot to earn the affectionate laughter and applause that greeted Morris. If that film was a bear hug, this one is a slap across the face—and exactly the wake up call I needed at this early stage of the festival.
Shot in crisp, gorgeous black-and-white, The Eyes Of My Mother (Grade: B/B+) is an extreme genre movie with the skin of an art film pulled tightly over its bones. The programmer who introduced it issued an ominous disclaimer, warning the unsuspecting audience that what they were about to see might disturb them. He wasn’t blowing smoke up our asses; by the final third, when the film takes the most shocking turn in a whole line of them, viewers began to flee the theater in droves. (An elderly woman in the row ahead of me seemed visibly scarred by the experience, though to her credit, she sat through the whole thing.) Eyes begins with a woman in shackles collapsing on the highway, before cutting immediately to a secluded farmhouse, where a little girl gets a crash course in anatomy from her mother, once a surgeon in Portugal. To say much more would be to spoil the nasty surprises to come, though I will note that fans of this millennium’s French horror offerings will find much to appreciate.
The Eyes Of My Mother is too deliberately paced, and way too artfully constructed, to serve as red meat for the witching-hour crowd, which is why it’s not appearing as part of the Midnight slate. Pesce is the latest talent to emerge from the Borderline Films stable—following Antonio Campos (Afterschool), Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), and Josh Mond (James White)—and he shares with his creative collaborators a clear admiration for the highbrow horror of Michael Haneke and Roman Polanski, not to mention an expert eye and a formidable command of chilling sound design. Much of the film’s violence is implied, with shock cuts that either skip past the moment of bloodshed or offer just a lightning-quick glimpse. All the same, once Pesce had established exactly the kind of movie we were watching, I spent the rest of the relatively slim runtime in a state of near-constant anxiety, waiting on bated breath for the next nightmarish jolt. If I’m reluctant to call this brutal, accomplished film a truly great one, it’s only because Pesce doesn’t seem to be after much more than rattling our cages. At a certain point, all the unpleasantness began to feel… well, not pointless exactly, because filmmaking this good is never pointless, but you do start to wonder why you’re going through it. Then again, maybe a horror film, even one as artfully constructed as this, doesn’t need a highfalutin reason to put us through hell. The hell is the point.
Hellish in a very different kind of way, Andrew Neel’s Goat (Grade: B) is after more than just an assault on the nerves, though I’m not entirely sure it achieves anything deeper than a full-on immersion in the boot camp of college fraternity culture. That’s plenty gripping on its own, however, and Neel—adopting a project that David Gordon Green has been attached to for about a dozen years—exhibits a shrewd understanding of macho pathology, specifically the insecurities that inform it. Based on a true story and the novel it previously inspired, Goat begins with a suffocatingly suspenseful set piece, as high-school senior Brad (Ben Schnetzer) foolishly offers a ride to a couple of strangers and is brutally assaulted by these townie carjackers for his troubles.
Everything that happens next is linked to this traumatic event, in ways both subtle and not. Off to college after a summer of recovery, Brad pledges the same frat as his older brother, Brett (Nick Jonas—yes, that Nick Jonas), and soon finds himself consumed by not just the booze-and-sex lifestyle of his new “brothers,” but also the cruelty of their initiation rituals. Goat’s raison d’etre is probably just to plunge us into the queasy spectacle of frat-house hazing, with its abuses of power, dehumanizing cycles of humiliation, and military-like adherence to code—I thought, during these prolonged domination games, of last year’s Sundance selection The Stanford Prison Experiment, which similarly saw a wider spectrum of nauseating human nature in the violence inflicted by “upstanding” college kids. Goat builds and builds in intensity, before kind of deflating at a true-story climax less impactful than one might hope. Still, Neels (King Kelly) depicts this despicable world with clarity and at least some nuance. He wants us to hate these poisonous frat boys, to but understand them, too.
Between Eyes and Goat—two visions of insanity, one more socially accepted than the other—I shot back over to the Eccles for the world premiere of Wiener-Dog (Grade: C+), the latest from unwaveringly caustic Sundance royalty Todd Solondz, whose desire for us to understand his own miserable characters is usually eclipsed by the deadpan glee in which he drags them down, down, down. Billed as a belated sequel to Welcome To The Dollhouse, Solondz’s breakout feature that premiered at Sundance two decades ago, the film has an even more tenuous connection to its predecessor than Life During Wartime had to Happiness. In fact, Dawn Wiener (now empathetically portrayed by Greta Gerwig instead of Heather Matarazzo) appears in only a portion of the movie, which turns out to be a four-story anthology vaguely organized around the theme of how people cope with death and linked by the appearance of the title canines. If the idea of Todd Solondz tackling mortality sounds reliably dispiriting, then you’ve obviously seen a Todd Solondz movie before. Solondz gonna Solondz.
Wiener-Dog is as knee-jerk cruel as any of the writer-director’s projects, though it has scattered laughs bigger than anything he’s done since Storytelling, another multipart feature. The opening passage, about a family that adopts a new pet (uh-oh), is the funniest, with a prolonged scatological gag that gets funnier as it goes. Meanwhile, the closing episode features a moment of sublime surrealism and two memorable performances, by Zosia Mamet and Ellen Burstyn. But the Dollhouse reprise feels entirely undercooked, and the project reaches a nadir with the dire penultimate story, in which Danny DeVito plays a washed-up screenwriter teaching hacky fundamentals to students who despise him. It’s all of Solondz’s worst instincts in a 20-minute package, featuring a pathetic sadsack protagonist surrounded by shallow, despicable caricatures, with an extra layer of film-biz toxicity sprinkled on top. When DeVito’s character, who bears a probably not accidental resemblance to his director, responds to widespread complaints that he’s too negative, one can’t help but look for a meta commentary. But at Sundance, where you’re in the club for life, the director’s negativity is no impediment to success. Put another way: Would Wiener-Dog even be here if it weren’t for his byline?