Sundance Weekend Recap: The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Z for Zachariah, The End of the Tour...


Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and competing as a US Dramatic title, this is the movie everyone is talking about today at Sundance, at the end of the festival’s first weekend. It has taken the crowd in Park City by quite an emotional storm (many reports of wiped tears and broken hearts on Twitter) and following much speculation about what studio might grab its distribution rights, Fox Searchlight has only just landed a record-breaking 12 million deal just a few hours ago, even further raising the film's hot ticket status in the days ahead. Yesterday’s buzz on the other hand, was all about Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, which secured a stellar distribution deal at Open Road and Sony. According to Deadline, “the deal is worth $7 million in minimum guarantee, with a $15 million P&A.” I’m happy to report that I have already planned to see both titles later in the week, partly in response to the overwhelmingly positive word. In the meantime, I was busy tackling other titles, some with pre-buzz and other being complete discoveries. And not all of them proved to worth the time or effort.

On Saturday, I managed to fit five movies into my schedule. The day started early with a 9am screening of The Spectacular Now director James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, screening as part of this years Premieres program. Already grabbed by A24 (one of Sundance’s busiest and most tasteful buyers, that also distributed Ponsoldt’s earlier film), The End of the Tour is the story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (with real Lipsky being in attendance at the premiere) and highly acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace that took place in 1996. The dialogue driven, highly conversational The End of the Tour is written with tremendous honesty and originality. A bookish, brainy Almost Famous that romances journalism while patiently crafting a bond between the writer and the reporter, The End of the Tour reaches deep into the reluctant, and disarmingly sweet mind of David Foster Wallace, and celebrates the author’s authenticity and humanity. Jason Segel portrays Wallace with a hazy goofiness and emotional earnestness. Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Lipsky, significantly dials down his trademark neurotic act and instead, delivers an assured performance as a confident journalist. The road friendship of the two men is a joy and their conversations beam with the truth rarely found in movies, bringing Linklater to mind. Plus, it features a delightful performance by Joan Cusack, who drives the two men around as part of Wallace's book tour.
I was also lucky with my second movie of the day on Saturday, which will easily become one of my 2015 Sundance favorites along with Ponsoldt’s film. On paper, first time director Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl initially looks like the blueprint of a quirky coming-of-age Sundance film about an unusual teenager’s self discovery. And on screen, the elements we came to expect from this genre are surely there, but thankfully Heller –who is also the sole screenwriter on this- gives us a lot more. First off, the teenager in question –Minnie Goetze- is allowed an almost completely guilt free sexual empowerment, so much that in one scene, her lustful appetite scares off one of her casual flings of her own age. But Minnie apparently has no patience for boys her age anyway, as she is already buried deep into a messy affair with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (played by Alexander Skarsgard.) This may sound like Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank at first, but given the film’s humorous tone and the fact that it is set amid the sexual revolution of the 70s in San Francisco, the air is significantly lighter despite well-timed dramatic turns in the story that feel just dangerous enough. Kristen Wiig gives a superb performance as Minnie’s mother (she should be given dramatic roles more often) but this is undoubtedly the newcomer Bel Powley’s show, who knocks it out of the park with a secure and mature performance. We watch her attend school, master her comic drawing, fool around, have (lots of) sex, do drugs, lose control and find it again. In the film’s post-screening Q&A, Heller mentioned that Powley (who was also in attendance) sent in an audition tape from England and landed the part. Expect to hear her name frequently in the coming years. She is one of this year’s discoveries. 
Mississippi Grind, my third film of Saturday, was a true let down. Directed collaboratively by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck –whose previous works, such as Half Nelson, Sugar and It’s Kind Of A Funny Story I am a big fan of– the film didn’t connect with me on any level despite its strong performances by Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn. I walked out an hour into the film, and therefore am unable to offer a full-fledged opinion.
I had better luck with the rest of the day however. Competing in World Cinema Dramatic, Gerard Barrett’s Irish Glassland chillingly portrays an alcoholic (the always wonderful Toni Collette) with raw realism while keeping the focus on the love of a son (Jack Reynor) for his mother. Reynor might be known for Transformers: Age of Extinction primarily, yet his quiet and stirring performance in Glassland awards him a much higher status and makes one look forward to the advancement of his career in this new path.
Z for Zachariah, a consistently anticipated US Dramatic Competition title in many critics’ Sundance previews, premiered on Saturday night with director Craig Zobel (of Compliance), and stars Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Chris Pine in attendance for the screening. Set in a nuclear post-apocalyptic world during an undefined era, Ann Burden (Robbie) and a scientist named Loobis (Ejiofor) defiantly fight for survival and reluctantly fall in love, until their orderly life in Ann’s farm gets disturbed when suddenly another survivor named Caleb (Chris Pine) appears out of thin air and joins the duo. Zobel, true to his signature slow-burning style, craftily controls the tension in suggesting there might be something off about each and every one of these people, but loses credibility when Nissar Modi’s script pays too much attention to the ill-fated love triangle between the three. Still, Z for Zachariah is handsomely made and one of this year’s better offerings so far with an intriguing storyline packed with metaphors and led with top-rate performances. It also features an inherently strong female character. In the post screening Q&A, Robbie said she wanted her character to be capable and not always innocent, and still maintain a mental and emotional spirituality. The film also features a stellar score by Heather McIntosh who was supported by the Sundance Lab for composers.
Sunday started with one of this year’s biggest disappointments: Sleeping with Other People, a tired, unfunny and offensive romantic comedy written and directed by Leslye Headland. The filmmaker defines this film as a “When Harry Met Sally for assholes", and despite certain elements of the plot that feel like a rip off of the rom-com classic, it’s important to denounce this comparison from the get go. This is a film where successful, competent women obsess about men who don’t deserve them and could find nothing better to do with their time then to talk about them (note: the film only barely passes the Bechdel Test –where two women should talk about something other than a man- with only a couple of minor lines.) It is sad to watch a female filmmaker submit her could-have-been-interesting characters to the genre’s worst crimes. Even the hard-work of its cast can't save this otherwise charmless effort.
Thankfully, the next stop was Sean Baker’s Tangerine; a crass comedy with a big heart, set on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles. An alternative to family-friendly Christmas classics (being only for adults), Tangerine revolves around working girls of LA while they fight for money, love and friendship. Shot on an iPhone 5s (now we’ve heard it all in Sundance) and featuring trans actors playing trans characters as leads on screen, Tangerine, which is still waiting to land on a distribution deal, is beautifully original and exceptionally funny.
Sunday’s final film for me was writer/director Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter, starring Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder. Telling the true story of Stanley Milgram, the famous social psychologist that conducted a set of controversial behavioral experiments on obedience –trying to understand the mindset of people who obey authority even under extreme conditions (such as war time)- Experimenter is a tad repetitive and technical, yet it feels almost instantly dangerous with the right atmospheric choices and assured performances from Sarsgaard and Ryder. It’s tough to guess this highly technical film’s theatrical prospects –the storyline does get too academic at times- and it will be interesting to watch where it will find a home.
The weekend’s screenings might have wrapped (save for the Midnight titles at The Library), but the parties are just heating up, with the "National Lampoon Toga Party" starting shortly on Main Street. Film Journal International will be on the scene.