2018 Sundance Film Festival: A Recap, plus Wildlife, Puzzle, Damsel and The Kindergarten Teacher

ScreenerBlog

It’s Day 10 of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Feature film awards will be handed out shortly, officially closing its 35th edition. Though ask anyone who has been in Park City, schlepping from The Eccles Center to The Library to Main Street, for longer than five days, and they will tell you it more accurately feels like Day 746. No wonder. In a festival as crowded and richly programmed as Sundance, the five- to six-film days take their toll on you fast. Late nights blend into early mornings, vision blurs and the total number of movies seen eventually exceeds the number of hours slept. Add rough weather, thin air and loneliness to all that, and you’ll get a sense of the experience. But would the attendees have it any other way? I know I wouldn’t. There is a certain pride that comes from surviving Sundance.

I have been extremely spoiled by this festival over the past few years, having seen the world premieres of a number of films (like Brooklyn, Manchester by the Sea and Call Me By Your Name) that ranked high or took the top spot in my year-end lists. Last year was especially an anomaly, with films like The Big Sick, Call Me By Your Name, Mudbound and Get Out having all launched out of this festival. I can’t say with confidence that this year’s lineup had that one movie (although The Tale, now sold to HBO Films, and Private Life, a Netflix original film, come close.) But what this year had is perhaps something more valuable altogether than massive acquisition deals (Indiewire has a handy list of the so-far modest sales) and early Oscar contenders: a generous number of significant, challenging films (some great, some admittedly not) that will be talked about and debated incessantly without stealing the spotlight and owning the buzz. For an independently spirited discovery festival, that’s a good thing. After all, launching the next Best Picture nominee isn’t quite the point or mission of Sundance.

Even though film festivals don’t really have predetermined themes, thematic threads inevitably form (a couple of which I explored in my first dispatch) within them. This year, I was especially moved by a number of female-driven films, anchored by women (both as complex heroes and questionable villains) going against norms and expectations of those around them. In Paul Dano’s mature, slow-burning directorial debut Wildlife (U.S. Dramatic Competition), we follow a 1960s American family in shambles. Adapted from Richard Ford’s novel of the same name (by co-screenwriters Dano and Zoe Kazan), Wildlife tells the tale of a small Montana family whose members gradually grow apart from each other, from the perspective of 14-year-old Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould). An angry Jake Gyllenhaal (in a typically formidable performance) plays his insecure father Jerry, a golf pro and struggling worker who loses his job yet again, after a series of other professional failures and much moving around. Once he decides to join the fight against wildfires near the Canadian border, Jerry’s disapproving wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan, in a career-best performance), already working as a swimming instructor, becomes the sole backbone of the story. Throughout Wildlife, our expectations from this devoted 1960s mother, who acts both in confident and vulnerable ways, are continually challenged and renewed. And to the credit of both the screenwriters and source material, the film never abandons its respect and sympathy for Jeanette, even when she starts a relationship with a rich man (Bill Camp) and engages with him in an openly sexual manner in front of her young son. In the end, the lavishly textured Wildlife grows into a studious photographic composition of a family that keeps the inner world of the mother in sharpest focus for a change, honoring both her strength and susceptibility.

In Marc Turtletaub’s Puzzle (Premieres, acquired by Sony Pictures Classics), as lovely and cozy as small familial movies come, the female "misbehaver" who shirks her perceived duties is Agnes (a soulful Kelly Macdonald). A religious woman, loving mother and loyal wife, Agnes spends her days fulfilling her mundane tasks in a Connecticut suburb until she discovers a new peculiar talent she possesses. Gifted a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle on her birthday, she rapidly puts the pieces together and welcomes a newfound obsession into her life. Slowly, she starts bailing on her daily obligations to prioritize puzzles, and befriends a fellow obsessive named Robert (Irrfan Khan). While practicing for an upcoming jigsaw puzzle competition (apparently, it’s a thing), the pair build a strong bond and fall in love. With a screenplay written by Oren Moverman, Puzzle compassionately charts a woman’s self-reinvention, freeing her from the norms she’s unknowingly surrounded herself with her entire life. Puzzle-making might be too obvious a metaphor for Anges’ uncertainties and midlife journey, but Turtletaub’s film wins you over with its casual, consistent sincerity. The disarming final shot of Puzzle especially packs an emotional punch.

The Zellner Brothers, David and Nathan, who premiered their idiosyncratic Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter at Sundance in 2014, return to the festival with a revisionist, madly fun western of sorts. The knowingly absurd frontier story Damsel (Premieres) isn’t quite possible to write about without certain spoilers, so beware! Our entry to the story is through a wide-eyed, hopeless romantic named Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson, like you’ve never seen him before). A rich, if not clueless, pioneer, Samuel is convinced that Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), the woman for whom he’s written a song and bought a miniature horse (Butterscotch, played by Daisy), has been kidnapped and is waiting to be rescued. On his way to save his future bride, Samuel crosses paths and is paired with men equally as unskilled as him. But we soon find out (to our absolute joy) that Penelope is no damsel in distress waiting to be rescued, nor she has any affection for the increasingly incompetent Samuel. As soon as she enters Zellners' tale, Penelope becomes a force of nature, hilariously subverting a familiar genre trope while proving her self-sufficiency and smarts that surpass all the men around her. Zellners’ film (which they directed, wrote, produced and star in) slightly runs out of steam towards the end, but it’s still a pure delight in its unapologetically feminist alteration of a beloved genre. Plus, there is the miniature horse, which singlehandedly makes the film a must-see.

Among the most complicated and debated films I have seen at Sundance is Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher (U.S. Dramatic Competition), in which Maggie Gyllenhaal (terrific in portraying an increasingly troubled and vaporous character) plays the heroine-turned-villain Lisa Spinelli. Similar to Puzzle’s Agnes, the 40-year-old Lisa spends her days mundanely, trapped in a boring marriage and the uneventful Staten Island, where she works as a kindergarten teacher. Her weekly poetry class is her only escape, except she doesn’t seem to be too original a poet. When Lisa discovers a prodigious kid in her pre-school (Parker Sevak, a breakthrough of this year’s festival), who walks around alone, muttering original verses of poetry he has made up, she embarks on a manipulative journey, stealing his poems for her class. Predictably, Lisa becomes the toast of the evening course (and the teacher’s favorite), and grows dangerously desperate in her attempts to exploit her young student at all costs, eventually going off the deep end. One of the most underutilized actors of her generation, Gyllenhaal delivers a subtly complicated performance in the role of Lisa, and nails the character’s escalating confusion. We follow Lisa in discomfort as she continues to make unethical choices and troubling decisions to alleviate her boredom and sense of uselessness: a fate she frantically wants to protect her talented student from. A remake of Nadav Lapid’s Israeli film with the same title, The Kindergarten Teacher explores the female experience from a unique angle, providing its lead an opportunity to play an unsympathetic female character who still manages to evoke understanding in the viewer.