Dispatches From The 2016 Sundance Film Festival: Part 1

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Sundance was just opening and rubbing its eyes Friday morning before it was already dabbing them with tissue.

The festival’s opener, writer-director Chris Kelly’s “Other People,” begins with a family on a bed sniffling and sobbing, shaping their bodies along the contours of a mother that has just died. In the middle of this morbidity, a relative rings and leaves a voicemail on the speakerphone, unaware of the current situation, which only gets more painful and painfully funny as she  gabs on above the moaning in the room. The line between comedy and tragedy is finite here, and Kelly, a writer for “Saturday Night Live,” gains your confidence that the two genres are better as neighbors than strangers.

The movie rewinds to the previous year – and follows the same family month by month – to meet David Mulcahy, played by Jesse Plemons, a struggling television writer in New York City, who has returned home to Sacramento to take care of his mother (Molly Shannon, going all out), who has a rare, hard to treat form of cancer. David’s in a rut. He lost out on a pilot, is approaching 30, and recently broke up with his boyfriend Paul, though he’s keeping that from his family, for now, especially dad (Bradley Whitford), who struggles with his son’s sexuality.

His father scoffs at David’s orientation – he refuses to see his son’s shared apartment with Paul, for example – while the movie treats it with particular, almost casual, care. It’s something that defines him, but not the movie, which spends most of its time concentrating on mom’s condition, which worsens and undergoes more complexity with each passing month. There are several trajectories a movie about cancer can take, and it seems as though Kelly is going to spiral us into David’s self-pity, a lens that would only keep Shannon in the periphery. But as the seasons change so does the focus. Kelly has opted for something honest and wrenching, and more importantly, something that evolves.

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This is largely because of Shannon, revisiting the genre after her role in last year’s Sundance hit “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” She’s got her silly side here, but complements it with some profound moments of quiet, anger and sadness, learning her vulnerabilities in public – there’s the vomiting from chemo, the whispering as her body shuts down – and relying on David as a chauffeur and emotional crutch. This is a heavy burden for any son, especially one floundering personally, and David’s two younger sisters (Maude Apatow and Madison Beaty) offer some temporary relief in between school. There’s also parts for June Squibb and Paul Dooley, who steals a scene cracking jokes before breaking down about his daughter’s disease, as well as one for 14-year old J.J. Totah, an enigmatic gay friend that puts on a drag show.

Kelly’s strength is finding that balance, pairing laughs that turn into sobs, circling back to familiar settings and interactions (some of them trite, others powerful) that take on new meaning. He’s wrestling with lots of ideas here – what it means to return home, to be lonely, to repair a fractured family, to find comfort in pain – and it all seems so easy. He’s even made you start bawling to Train’s “Drops of Jupiter.” Kelly got a standing ovation when he came out on stage, and the Q&A that followed the premiere felt like more of a therapy session, with audience members choking up over how real and resonant this representation was to them. They didn’t want to ask questions, they just wanted to share. I’ve met an older woman and a guy spending the festival in his car, and both willingly admitted they shed tears, too. Kleenex would have made a fortune by the exits.

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There’s a simple way to initiate a conversation with someone at Sundance: “What have you seen so far?” A lot of people are saying “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” and are glad they did. There’s also a lot of waiting at Sundance — waiting for screenings, waiting for buses, waiting for bus drivers to stop talking to passengers, waiting for a table on the town’s Main Street, waiting for an audience member to get through a question — but “Wilderpeople” is worth all of that waiting. At its base level, it’s a buddy comedy between a preteen troublemaker and a weathered old farmer that’s set in the New Zealand bush. It’s directed by Taika Waititi, his second film in as many years, and it’s full of spunky comedy that you’d only find down under (anyone mind watching a grown woman slice open a wild boar out of nowhere?)

Ricky (Julin Dennison) is a foster child with a bad history of vandalism. The country’s child service agency — its slogan is “no child left behind” — dumps him off with a married couple out in the jungle. Every character is so unique — Ricky wears a leopard print cap and an extra-large sweatshirt to fit his physique, which becomes a joke to Bella (Rima Te Wiata), happy to be called “Auntie,” and provides a jolt of humor to begin the proceedings. When she abruptly dies, that means some fraternizing with her husband, Hec (Sam Neill), a grumpy recluse who wants nothing to do with him. Eventually, Ricky and Hec settle differences and trek into the bush to keep Ricky from getting taken back to the city, and a comically misguided, larger than necessary manhunt for them begins.

This ventures into somewhat standard odd-couple road trip material, but “Wilderpeople” stands out. That starts with their environment, thick layers of forest seen from inside and above, and continues with Ricky’s street vernacular (“shit just got real”) and random pop cultural allusions – there’s a killer “Lord of the Rings” reference. But it hinges on the dynamic between these two characters (and actors) that learn how to coexist as they zig-zag their way under trees and over streams. Dennison is the real breakthrough here and part of the film’s power is that you’re never ready for what’s going to come out of his mouth. There’s even room for a cameo from Rhys Darby, playing a conspiracy theorist named “Psycho Sam.” A large blowout ending turns this chase into a light farce, but it also re-affirms its underlying irony. The government is spending all of its resources – tanks and guns and men – to break up this makeshift family, but, by doing so, has turned them into a real one.

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Speaking of family, there might not be a stranger one than in “Rams,” directed by Grímur Hákonarsonan, an Icelandic movie that premiered at Cannes and is featured in the “Spotlight” section of Sundance. Just as New Zealand has its own brand of humor, so does Iceland: it’s dark. I think the audience in my screening was expecting something lighter – this is a movie about two estranged sheep farming brothers that live next to each other at the foot of a mountain – but the first reaction from someone behind me when the credits ran was a sound like “uhhhheewwwwww.” But don’t take her groan for it.

The brothers in question – Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) – have an unspoken rift between them that’s heightened when Kiddi’s ram wins first prize (this part of the country treats healthy sheep as a prosperous sign of life). But Gummi notices the winner has symptoms of scrapie, a disease that attacks the nervous system. His fears are confirmed when inspectors bring back positive tests and inform the entire community that every flock must be slaughtered, every barn cleaned, every bale of hay burned, just to stop the sickness from spreading. Kiddi blames Gummi for exposing this problem and wiping out their ancestral flock, which impacts the town’s entire way of life, and begins a series of drunken retaliation that often lands him passed out and frozen (Gummi dumps his brother’s body in front of a hospital using a backhoe. How’s that for black comedy?). In other words, they butt heads, which makes for a winning title.

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There’s a twist to “Rams,” which remains meditative and quiet and sometimes dull, relying on plenty of exterior shots of their land, which I won’t spoil. But let’s just say it throws a huge wrinkle into the brother’s contentious relationship and turns it into something nearly surreal. That’s the feeling you get watching another spotlight film, “Embrace of the Serpent,” Colombia’s first foreign language film up for an Oscar this year. Its ambition is stunning and takes place in another remote region of the world. Directed by Ciro Guerra, it follows two German ethnographers, some 50 years apart, exploring the Amazon, tethered by the same indigenous shaman named Karamakate (Nilbio Torres as the younger, Antonio Bolivar the older). It’s filmed in entirely black and white and can test your stamina as both groups paddle down the river.

The movie is based on the remaining written accounts of Amazonian people by these scientists, and the authenticity of this portrayal is profound. Both Germans are in search of the yakruna plant, a pursuit that tests the shaman’s trust of white men (they’ve already begun shredding the forest for rubber) and the eventual extinction of his people. The lasting image, and the scene Guerra said he couldn’t fictionalize if he tried takes place at a church, where natives praise a person that calls himself a messiah. The group barely escapes the fever dream ceremony at night, a commotion screamed in both the tribe’s native language and Spanish that doesn’t need any translation.

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There’s also room for romance, but buyer beware. I’ll start with the good. “Maggie’s Plan” stars Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore, sporting a weird Danish accent. They all get caught in a love triangle that grows funnier and more preposterous as the movie takes its Woody Allen-esque turns. Gerwig plans to get artificially inseminated from an acquaintance right before she falls in love with Hawke, an adjunct professor of ficto-critical anthropology (a real thing), who is married, with kids, to Moore. This prompts a hasty divorce. Then things get devious and playfully messy. People fall in and out of love – with each other and their work. “It all seems so unreal,” Hawke’s character says at one point, just a sample of the movie’s persistently jokey flavor, and the movie – already set for release in May — proceeds accordingly. Gerwig, a pro on the festival circuit, and Moore have such different wavelengths as performers but they find a chemistry that works for this kind of setup. It’s another movie about middle-upper class white people problems, but its charm is also coming from two female protagonists and a director in Rebecca Miller that want to examine these problems from a perspective that lacks a Y chromosome. It’s enough.

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The bad: “Ali and Nino,” director Asif Kapadia’s melodramatic romantic drama set during World War I. This is Kapadia’s first narrative feature after getting major acclaim with this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Amy.” But something is missing here. He’s created a love affair set in Azerbaijan between a soldier and princess (Mandy Patinkin plays her father). You can tell there’s a lot of money put into this production. It looks beautiful and has some gorgeous lighting. But it also has a self-importance issue and loses its way in the second half, utilizing slow motion for a climax that doesn’t earn its final shot. You hate to see so much effort wasted – but, as is the case in this particular festival, there remains merit in exploring new places and new stories. My first two days in Park City have reaffirmed that belief.

– Jake Kring-Schreifels

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