Telluride 2017 Diary 1: 'Battle of the Sexes,' 'Downsizing,' 'Lady Bird'

ScreenerBlog

Friday evening at Chuck Jones, the Mountain Village, Colorado theatre that serves as the home of the 44th annual Telluride Film Festival, saw the premiere of Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan. To introduce this sweet, smartly crafted female-centric coming-of-age film (a rare and very welcome breed), Moonlight writer/director Barry Jenkins (Telluride’s very own pride and joy) took the stage. Jenkins, still the proud programmer of the festival’s Shorts program, was met with enthusiastic cheers by a crowd that surely discovered Oscar champ Moonlight at Telluride just a year before. In his genuinely heartfelt intro, Jenkins remembered meeting Greta Gerwig for the first time years ago at a film festival in Buenos Aires, when he had just made Medicine for Melancholy and was completely broke. Given a decent stipend by the festival, Gerwig ended up inviting Jenkins out to dinner, with kicked off a long-standing filmmaker friendship.

Gerwig, along with stars Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts (Ronan, shooting Mary, Queen of Scots, was the notable absentee), joined Jenkins onstage in tears and subsequently presented her deeply personal film about growing up and coming of age in Sacramento. The astonishingly detailed Lady Bird, sure to go down as one of this year’s best Telluride offerings (in a lineup that notably has 9 woman-directed films out of 30, a rarity), is not strictly based on Gerwig’s life. She notes that the events in the film are largely fictional. But her familial relationships, her love-hate attachment to Sacramento and her once-upon-a-time teenage mindset very much power this delightful film. Set in 2002 amid perhaps the last generation that came of age without smartphones and social media, Gerwig constructs a thoughtful portrayal of a teenage girl and fills her film with grace notes around a profound mother-daughter story. The ensemble cast, with roots in stage acting, is stellar. Just looking at the young actors in Lady Bird, it’s truly astounding that Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name) and the inimitable Saoirse Ronan somehow take part in the same film. 

Saturday kicked off with Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father, another intensely personal film from a female filmmaker. Adapting Loung Ung’s memoir on her survival through the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in post-Vietnam War-era Cambodia, Jolie delivers a sweeping, quiet and harrowing wartime drama seen and experienced almost entirely from the POV of a group of young siblings. Veteran DP Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is beautiful, almost lyrical (and at its best when he stays close to the expressive faces of the film’s exceptional child actors Sreymoch Sareum and Kimhak Mun), but occasionally pulls the viewer out of the drama with busy, dizzying moves. The overall powerful First They Killed My Father leaves one craving a leaner film that doesn’t drag as much: A heart-stopping sequence towards the end, when young Ung makes her way through an explosive-filled field, proves Jolie’s big-scale filmmaking chops, which she also put forward in the uneven Unbroken. This is certainly a tidier, more compact effort—one she called a deeply personal film during the intro. Having adopted a son from Cambodia, Jolie said she was largely ignorant about this slice of Cambodian history and wanted her son to know about his countrymen. “It’s my son’s country,” said Jolie. “It’s my family.”

Co-directed by Little Miss Sunshine duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Battle of the Sexes, which had its world premiere on Saturday afternoon, shouldn’t really be considered a timely movie with its feminist and LGBTQ themes. Common sense wishes that these battles, gorgeously depicted in this winning film, were ancient history in year 2017. But sadly, after an election year where a highly qualified woman was beaten by a chauvinistic man, everything in Battle of the Sexes rings true for today’s America. A through-and-through crowd-pleaser, Battle of the Sexes chronicles the life of the famed tennis player Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), focusing on the time period that led to the historic 1973 match between her and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). The film does right by King’s sexuality, putting her love affair with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) front and center. Recalling the likes of Rocky and A League of Their Own, Battle of the Sexes is a feminist film of the sort we need the most this year. Expect to hear its name throughout awards season.

Among my first-time views thus far, the only letdown was Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, a frustratingly unfocused science-fiction-meets-satirical-comedy film that takes on humankind’s existential crisis in the face of a deteriorating, environmentally doomed world. Credit should be given where credit’s due: Payne imagines a wild and vast universe where human beings, after a breakthrough discovery by a Norwegian doctor, can choose to go through a medical process that shrinks them down to a miniature size in order to reduce their carbon footprint on Earth. And of course, once downsized, their assets grow greater in value: They can live in giant palace-like estates and enjoy a life of luxury in a place called Leisureland. Tempted by the promise of an easy lifestyle, the financially struggling Safraneks, played by Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig, sign up to downsize. Let’s just say, to avoid spoilers, that not everything goes according to plan. After its promising setup, Downsizing falls apart, abandoning many potentially interesting ideas to which it pays mere lip service. (In that, the film itself can use some downsizing too.) There comes a point where we inexplicably lose sight of the universe the downsized population lives in and instead find ourselves in weirder, pointless avenues. The film’s antiquated, problematic portrayal of a key Asian character (a thankless part wonderfully played by Hong Chau) doesn’t quite help Payne’s latest, either.