Most years at the Sundance Film Festival, there’s at least one title that qualifies, sight unseen, as a Very Big Deal. These are the highest-profile premieres, the new films from the major American directors, the marquee selections that could easily earn their place at any film festival in the world. Think of Richard Linklater’s dozen-years-in-the-making Boyhood, a late addition to the lineup in 2014. Or Manchester By The Sea, the third feature by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, which went on to win a couple Oscars last year. But when perusing the lineup of Sundance 2018, which began yesterday in an unseasonably warm and uncommonly snowless Park City, Utah, no major event movies leap out at you. Yes, there are big names, like Gus Van Sant and Debra Granik, the latter back at Sundance with her first narrative feature since Winter’s Bone. But this year’s official program is still missing that one, giant “get”—a Boyhood or a Manchester or some comparable object of feverish anticipation.
Maybe that’s a good thing. Sundance is supposed to be about the discovery and fostering of new talent. At the country’s premier independent film festival, the focus should be on breakthroughs, fresh voices, and unknown quantities. For this particular critic, now entering his sixth year attending the festival, there’s something kind of exciting about the more open-ended, less auteur-heavy makeup of the 2018 lineup. Without as many must-see anchors in my schedule, I can take more chances, see more documentaries and honest-to-God indies, and just generally chase the buzz wherever it might take me (though hopefully to a few of those out-of-nowhere triumphs that emerge from every Sundance).
On opening night, my first blind gamble of the festival doesn’t pay off. But that’s the nature of gambles, isn’t it? In the “magical-realist documentary” 306 Hollywood (Grade: C), sibling visual artists Elan and Jonathan Bogarín pay tribute to their deceased grandmother by turning the 11-month process of cleaning out her home into a meditation on how our spirit lives on in the belongings we accumulate and leave behind. It’s a fine if pretty familiar thesis; what rankles is the elaborately precious affectation of their formal devices. Trading voice-over conversation in their best NPR voices, the Bogaríns present the house-cleaning project as an amateur excavation, complete with a shot of the two in full archaeological gear, like kids playing dress up. They borrow freely from other filmmakers: arranging their grandmother’s bric-a-brac clutter into symmetrical piles, like Wes Anderson insert shots; swiping the central actors-lip-syncing-to-old-audio gimmick from The Arbor to bring the family’s tape-recorded conversations to life; incorporating Michel Gondry-esque intrusions of whimsical fantasy, like a giant telescope the two drag around the property in order to look into the place’s past.
So many documentaries are no more than functionally directed, to the point where it’s always tempting to celebrate one with some actual visual imagination. (Certainly, formal rigor is what earned this film a slot in the adventurous Next lineup, rather than the U.S. Documentary program.) But the at-times-literal dollhouse novelty of these wonder siblings’ conceit constantly threatens to eclipse their undoubtedly genuine love for their grandmother, whose often-delightful home-movie appearances are more enchanting—in a navel-gazing kind of way—than any of the duo’s art-project gestures. At the world premiere, the theater handed out cardboard cutouts of the woman’s smiling face—an apropos stunt, given how this brother and sister reduce their family history to kitsch. For all the old footage and photographs and personal belongings trotted out, 306 Hollywood is too fussily artificial in its framework to ever feel “personal,” exactly. It tells us more about the filmmakers’ cutesy-poo sensibilities than how they feel about the loved one they’ve lost.
Conversely, Private Life (Grade: B) is plainly, painfully personal. It’s the first film by writer-director Tamara Jenkins since she scored an Oscar nomination for The Savages a decade ago, and like that acclaimed drama, it’s at its best when getting into the nitty-gritty of a tough ordeal. Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, both tremendous, star as Rachel and Richard, married New York artists who have been trying to have a baby for as long as their relatives can remember, and whose increasingly desperate attempts have dragged them through one extended, exhausting process after another, from fertility treatments to adoption applications. A new blush of hope comes in the form of their twentysomething step-niece Sadie (Kayli Carter, in a vibrant breakthrough performance), who comes to stay with the struggling couple after dropping out of college, and who might have something Rachel doesn’t: fertilizable eggs. But what will the rest of the family think of this unconventional solution?
Jenkins doesn’t always excel at blending comedy and drama (it was the major flaw of The Savages, if memory serves), and there are moments in Private Life—like just about everything with Sadie’s parents, played by Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch—that flirt with sitcom farce. But the film’s dramatic core, its vision of what this kind of experience can do to a marriage, is rock solid, because Jenkins explores it with a high degree of specificity, precisely dramatizing her own difficult experiences. (The film has autobiographical roots, based as it is on the writer-director’s attempts to have a child with her own husband, the screenwriter Jim Taylor.) At more than two hours, Private Life has some narrative bloat; a subplot involving Sadie’s flirtation with one of Richard’s employees, played by Desmin Borges from You’re The Worst, probably could have been excised. But to ask this wounding character piece to shave off some running time would be to risk jeopardizing the detail that distinguishes it, like every scene depicting the only technically comforting bedside manner of the doctors, or a heart-wrenching anecdote involving a teenage girl who promises to let the couple adopt her unborn child, then ghosts them. An abbreviated version wouldn’t gel with the emotional rhythms of the material: It’s a long movie because the process it explores is long.
But back to those new voices. Reaction to another opening night movie, Blindspotting (Grade: B-), has been sharply divided, with its detractors arguing that it totally botches its final act, making an irreconcilable tonal shift from flavorful buddy comedy to didactic, contrived melodrama. There’s no doubt that director Carlos López Estrada bites off a little more than he can chew with his first feature, about an ex-felon (Daveed Diggs, from Black-ish and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) trying to stay out of trouble during his final three days of probation in a gentrifying Oakland, no thanks to his loud-mouthed, troublemaking childhood best friend (Rafael Casal, who’s like a hot-headed Garrett Hedlund). But the film’s messy mix of flavorful, sometimes over-the-top character comedy and sincere racial politics benefits from the voice of its stars, who also wrote the script—especially Diggs, who redeems the film’s overwrought climax with the conviction of his outrage (and flow). It’s messy, ambitious, occasionally grating: the kind of debut that belongs at Sundance, where big swings should matter as much, if not more, than big names.