PARK CITY, Utah — While this year's crop of dramas at the Sundance Film Festival were enthusiastically received by audiences and distributors who paid record prices to secure those films with the most commercial potential, it remains to be seen if there is an Academy Award nominee such as Boyhood or Whiplash.
Two coming-of-age films were among the festival breakouts, garnering audience and critic's prizes with the potential to become mainstream hits. Also, Sarah Silverman proved she is a dramatic actress and an off-beat sex comedy featuring — gasp! frontal male nudity — spiced things up.
The hit of the festival has an odd title
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl did not get much attention the first few days of Sundance because of its title. Until a film has been shown and buzz develops, many in the media select movies from their description and a comedy that has the title "dying girl" in it can turn audiences away fast.
Once the film was screened, though, word traveled like wildfire that the film directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is a winner.
Once the film was screened, though, word traveled like wildfire that the film directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is a winner. High school senior Greg (Thomas Mann) wants to hang out with his only friend Earl (Ronald Cyler II), a black kid from the poor part of town, make parody films and graduate. Greg's mother forces him to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke) a classmate who has just been diagnosed with leukemia.
A friendship blossoms that, while not romantic, is intense, nuanced and leads Greg to discover more about himself and life. It is easy to think "been there, seen that," particularly with similarly-themed movies like The Fault In Our Stars already having been in theaters, but such sentiments do not do justice to the witty, sophisticated and heart tugging script. It is a magical film.
Although it is probably obvious how the film ends, there are numerous surprises and unexpected turns. Expect to laugh a lot and cry a little.
Me and Earl followed in the steps of Whiplash last year, claiming top prizes from the Sundance jury and the audience award winner, no doubt a good omen for its big screen prospects. Gomez-Rejon dedicated the audience award to all filmmakers and artists in his hometown of Laredo, Texas. In a frenzied bidding war, Fox Searchlight acquired the film for a record breaking $12 million and expects to premiere it later this year.
This movie's no dope
Dope also came out of nowhere to become the talk of Sundance. It won the Special Jury Award for Excellence in Editing and in one of the most frenzied bidding wars of the festival, Open Road Films and Sony Pictures acquired the Rick Famuyiwa-directed film for $7 million (consider that Whiplash was acquired for a comparatively paltry $3.3 million last year). The film was produced by Forest Whitaker who provides part of the film's narration.
Dope also came out of nowhere to become the talk of Sundance.
This coming-of age story centers on African-American teenager Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his two high school geek pals in a Los Angeles crime-ridden neighborhood. Obsessed with punk rock and 1990s hip-hop culture, they are outcasts who are often bullied.
But when an invitation to a party results in a shooting, they escape with a stash of Ecstasy that threatens to destroy their Ivy League aspirations.
I wanted to love the movie and indeed, there, is much to like. It is current and energetic, with talented actors who have a magnetic on-screen chemistry. And how could you not love a film with music by Pharrell? However, having grown up in the South, it is hard for me to hear the N-word used so casually, even if it is among blacks. And the joke of who can and cannot use the N-word is worn out in my opinion.
Although the film has a satisfying ending, it veered off to too much social commentary and seemed frenzied. I imagine when it hits theaters in mid-June, it will be tightened up a bit. And I think it will find a huge audience among teenagers and those who grew up in the 1990s.
Sarah Silverman surprises
I had heard I Smile Back was dark, but a movie with the word "smile" in its title and Sarah Silverman in the lead couldn't be that dark, could it? Wrong.
Silverman's performance is raw, vulnerable and tenacious, and will likely gain attention during the next awards season.
Silverman plays an affluent housewife with a seemingly perfect life but who can't seem to kick her depression and various addictions. Her performance as the drugged and depressed Laney is raw, vulnerable and tenacious, and will likely gain attention during the next awards season.
But Silverman can't overcome a script that throws every addictive behavior you can think of into the story whether it makes sense or not.
Drinking and snorting coke in the bathroom? Check. Having an affair with your best friend's husband? Check. Having your best friend get pregnant just as you are pondering the possibilities with her husband? Check. Rehab? Check. Getting beat up at a bar? Check.
There is also an attempted suicide, many cigarettes and possible anorexia. And, of course, her father's desertion prompted Silverman's addictive behavior, requiring a trip to find him which only leads her to fall off the wagon again. And let's not leave out her child who develops the shakes and another . . . oh well, you get the idea. Laney can't escape addiction. And Silverman can't save this badly written film.
Lightening it up
I wasn’t sure I would like The Overnight, an offbeat sexual comedy, having been warned “it’s pretty raunchy." But after the depressing I’ll Smile Back, I needed a good laugh no matter how inappropriate its source.
The movie includes a male strip scene with frontal nudity — Kurt is overly endowed and Alex isn't — that had our audience howling as even as they blushed.
House husband Alex (Parks and Recreation's Adam Scott) and his executive wife Emily (Orange is the New Black's Taylor Schilling) have just moved to Los Angeles with their young son and are seeking friends. They meet Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) a quintessential pretentious Californian, at the neighborhood park who is with his young son and invites them all to dinner. And the fun begins.
The hosts get their guests drunk and stoned and push the boundaries further, generating cringes, gasps and guffaws from the audience. We are never quite clear exactly what are the intentions of Kurt and his overly affectionate French wife (Judith Godreche). But Scott and Schilling are pitch perfect as they realize their hosts are swingers.]
The movie includes a male strip scene with frontal nudity — Kurt is overly endowed and Alex isn't — that had our audience howling as even as they blushed. In a question-and-answer session afterwards, Scott assured the audience that his tiny penis was a prosthetic body part.
This is the 2015 version of the 1969 film Bob, Carol Ted & Alice with today's sexuality spectrum and openness thrown in. It's a crazy, blushingly funny and clever film. It was picked up by The Orchard for $4 million and will be in theaters later this year.