Sundance Dispatch 2: Manchester by the Sea, Tales of Debauchery, More Premieres...


The first weekend of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival has come to an end, with some noticeable trends starting to emerge and gel together. Remember the “inventive challengers” I was referring to in my first dispatch just a couple of days ago? Turns out that was only the tip of the iceberg. This year’s edition–with certain exceptions–is deliciously dark and fittingly demanding. For further proof, see the two movies about Christine Chubbuck–the Florida news anchor who committed suicide on live TV in 1974- programmed in the same year: Robert Greene’s documentary Kate Plays Christine and Antonio Campos’ Christine. Even the festival’s most popular title that undeniably won the weekend here in Park City–Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea–is neither an easy watch, nor meant for massive crowds. Yet, Lonergan’s newest sold to Amazon for nearly $10 million (the studio also bought Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown, Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship and Jeff Feuerzeig's Author: The JT Leroy Story) and that’s a massive figure for the recent years of Sundance. Plus, the audiences–despite what the distributors might be saying regarding (or against) the marketability of this year’s fare–are digging deep, and indulging in a slate full of emotional and physical terrors. To them (us), this is the Sundance that makes the long trip worthwhile for many cinephiles.

My viewings were plenty and varied over the weekend, and luckily included one of the festival’s hottest tickets: the premiere of Manchester by the Sea. After a protracted and strenuous distribution ordeal with The Weinstein Company on Margaret (which delayed the film’s theatrical release for several years over disagreement on the final cut/running time), Kenneth Lonergan unveiled his latest on Saturday before an emotionally shattered crowd which included me, sobbing next to Variety’s Justin Chang and New York Magazine/Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri. Manchester by the Sea is a grieving family’s story marked by tragedies, regrets and permanent wounds, the pains of which Lonergan transmits to his audience in skillfully calculated doses and increments. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a broken man who has to return home after his brother’s death to care for his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges). Efficient in his job (as a jack-of-all-trades handyman) but largely unpleasant in his personal encounters with everyone, he doesn’t necessarily draw our sympathies from the get-go. But Casey Affleck is so tremendous in the role (and Lonergan’s script is so expertly constructed) that soon enough we sense an approach to the source of his despair. And we do learn the details eventually, through Lonergan’s fluid sense of time that uses flashbacks organically (and never glaringly) to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. When the key piece falls into place, hearts sink and tears flow uncontrollably until the end. This is a quietly devastating film, which affirms Casey Affleck as one of the finest actors working today. Lucas Hedges also deserves a huge amount of the credit in navigating dread, anger and even humor alongside Affleck’s astonishing performance. Anchored by a well-considered soundtrack (that once again includes a movement from JS Bach’s St. Matthew Passion after You Can Count on Me,) Manchester by the Sea has permanently marked my soul. With the impressive Amazon deal, it is safe to assume this film will have legs outside of the festival circuit. During the film’s post-screening Q&A, in which Matt Damon also attended as one of the producers of the film, Damon said he and John Krasinski (an executive producer on it) went to Lonergan with the idea. Once the script was done, Damon would direct it. But as soon as he read Lonergan’s script, he begged him to direct it instead. Later on, Damon was supposed to star in it but already had a full slate. “I didn’t want to get in the way of a great movie getting made,” Damon said. “So in a bizarre and typical kind of fit of generosity, I gave it to Casey,” he said, noting that he had never been able to go through the script without crying. “It’s one of the most beautifully written things I’ve ever come across. I wish I was in it, but I’m just happy to be attached to it.”

Over at the U.S. Dramatic Competition, two titles I was able to see this weekend–both co-produced by Christine Vachon’s Killer Films–proved to live in a very similar conceptual universe of nihilist debauchery and toxic excess. Andrew Neel’s Goat portrays the over-the-top ridiculous and torture-filled routines of a fraternity house, as a new recruit with a past trauma struggles to “man up” and survive what the frat brothers call “hell week.” He endures unimaginable abuse and pain just to earn social acceptance, but things of course go terribly wrong from there. A critique of intimidating masculinity and disturbing macho pride, Neel’s Goat was one of the titles Sundance was buzzing with all weekend. Another kind of debauchery, displayed with sharp vision and unapologetic twists at every turn, can be seen in Elizabeth Wood’s directorial debut White Girl, which according to Wood was inspired by her true-life story. Following recent college graduate Leah (Morgan Saylor) with a magazine internship and a new apartment in Brooklyn, White Girl has but one aim: taking down white privilege. As the clueless Leah tries to get her new boyfriend out of jail (“I always figure it out,” she says to him), Wood dials up the amount of excess onscreen with plenty of sex and drugs, sometimes to purposefully unbearable effect (perhaps think of a very indie Wolf of Wall Street). With cast and crew present in the post screening Q&A, Wood and Saylor admitted to watching Scorsese movies as a reference.

Two female-directed films made less noise in comparison perhaps, yet won me over completely. In Anna Rose Holmer’s awe-inspiring The Fits (NEXT), breakout actress Royalty Hightower plays the tomboy Toni, who decides to join her school’s dance team in Cincinnati. This coincides with a strange outbreak that plagues the squad: a mysterious disease or virus that manifests itself in seizure-like syndromes, or fits. Holmer competently directs The Fits with a unique sense of rhythm and pulsation throughout, and the credit doesn’t just belong to the music. Directed by Sian Heder (writer/producer of Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black”), the Allison Janney and Ellen Page-starrer Tallulah (U.S. Dramatic Competition) proved to be a thoroughly earnest film about a homeless woman who steals a toddler from an abusive mother. Intersecting three women from different walks of life within a New York City story, Tallulah is a small, modest domestic drama with apt observations on loneliness and isolation of females. It could use a slight trim, especially during the film’s more stagey-feeling parts, with the face-off at the ending being an example. If nothing else, it is worth seeing for Janney’s performance alone.

At the end of the Saturday screenings came parties on Main Street. I stopped by the Christine party, and mainly caught up with Morris from America executive producer Michael B. Clark, who was excited about almost closing a distribution deal with an unnamed buyer (announced today, it is A24.) Second stop of the night was the White Girl party, where the enthusiastic group of cast and crew members (including director Elizabeth Wood) danced the night away in celebration of the premiere of their film.

After joining the DAILY BUZZ radio recording to discuss the hot topics of Sundance with Amy Nicholson (MTV), Anne Thompson (Thompson on Hollywood), Justin Chang (Variety) and Ula Sniegovska (American Film Festival in Poland)–which you can listen to here–I headed to see Goat (above) on Sunday, followed by Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (Premieres). With movies like Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt has established herself as a quiet, poetic filmmaker who can dig up truth in intimate settings. And Certain Women is no exception to her brand. Leading us through an anthology of three separate stories (which she adapted from Maile Meloy’s short stories), Reichardt lyrically shines a light on (and visually admires) the unique female expressiveness and sense of negotiation (is it a coincidence that all three of the main characters are lawyers?) The details of each story range from “routine” to “intense,” but each meet on the common ground of the sublime. Landscapes are expansive and the performances of Laura Dern and Michelle Williams are stunning, but the real reward of the film is the third, aching storyline between Kristen Stewart (who is now officially in the ranks of great, serious actresses) and Lily Gladstone.

My next stop was independent-film veteran James Schamus’ eagerly anticipated directorial debut Indignation, which he wrote as an adaptation of the Philip Roth novel with the same title. Indignation follows a Jewish boy from New Jersey in the early 1950s as he attends an Ohio college and falls in love with a mysterious girl. Despite great performances by Sarah Gadon and Tracy Letts, Indignation didn’t quite work for me. The production design felt “created” instead of “lived in,” which posed a distraction alongside the overwrought dialogue that seemed more suited to live theatre than a movie. There is much to digest and admire in terms of political and philosophical discourse here, but I found the overall package distancing.

My Sunday came to an end with a true delight that brought the Eccles audience to its feet: Once director John Carney’s new musical love letter Sing Street (Premieres). With already a home at The Weinstein Company (Harvey Weinstein was present during the screening), Sing Street will surely continue to charm audiences with its '80s rock music (many fantastic original songs) as well as its irresistible group of actors. As it usually goes for young band members, this story starts with a girl too. Desperately hoping to impress a cool girl, Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) forms a rock band in 1980s Dublin and rebels against his life’s ordeals through his tunes. The vibe is electric and the energy exuberant throughout Carney’s newest adventure, with a soundtrack I can’t wait to own.

Heading into the week, there will be more screenings (both premieres and catch-ups), parties and events to report on. Stay tuned for the new Ira Sachs (Little Men), Anne Fontaine (Agnus Dei) and both Christine Chubbuck movies.