Sex surrogates, happy drunks, not-so-happy drunks, teenagers in love, a little boy on a gangland odyssey, and a trio of time-travel investigators are just a few of the movies in the competition lineup for the Sundance Film Festival this year.
There are also lots and lots of stories of people hooking up, trying to hook up, feeling bad about not hooking up, and all sorts of variations on that theme. (The picture at the left, from The First Time, is among them.)
Click through for the newly announced slate of U.S. dramatic competition titles, with festival director John Cooper and chief programmer Trevor Groth as your guides.
If you went to the Park City festival Jan. 19-29, what would be on your must-see list?
Beasts of the Southern Wild— The official description of this film, set in a Louisiana town known as the Bathtub, is enigmatic to say the least: “Waters gonna rise up, wild animals gonna rerun from the grave, and everything south of the levee is goin’ under, in this tale of a six year old named Hushpuppy, who lives with her daddy at the edge of the world.” Make of that what you will. “Sometimes when filmmakers get more into the poetry it might not be as accessible, but this manages to do both. It’s a fairytale,” says Groth. Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. (Directed by Benh Zeitlin; Screenwriters: Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar.)
The Comedy — “This is not a comedy,” says Cooper. It stars Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of Adult Swim’s comedy weird-fest Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Good Job! but despite those guys and the movie’s title, it’s more of a sardonic drama than a laugh-fest. Heidecker (pictured) plays Swanson, a man inheriting a massive estate who is nonetheless bored with life. “It’s a provocation, a critique of a culture based at its core around irony and sarcasm and about ultimately how hollow that is,” Groth says. Cooper adds: “It’s dry and ironic, even from the title.” (Director: Rick Alverson; Screenwriters: Rick Alverson, Robert Donne, Colm O’Leary)
The End of Love — Writer, director and star Mark Webber plays a young father whose life starts to fall apart after the death of his spouse, leaving behind an infant child (played by his real-life son). The film does a lot of blending real life with fiction, with Webber playing a character with his own name and costars Shannyn Sossamon, Michael Cera, Jason Ritter, Amanda Seyfried, and Frankie Shaw turning up as fictional versions of themselves. “It’s inspired by elements of his life. He does have loss in his life, and it’s about how you deal with it, but also how you process it while having someone to take care of,” Groth says. “It’s very intimate.”
Filly Brown — A Mexican girl rises through the ranks of hip-hop while struggling with family issues, including the imprisonment of her mother. “It’s an L.A. story with a really good performance by Gina Rodriguez, who’s in almost every frame of this movie,” Cooper says. “She’s a girl with ambition trying to break into the music business.” Cast: Lou Diamond Phillips, Gina Rodriguez, Jenni Rivera, Edward James Olmos. (Directors: Youssef Delara, Michael D. Olmos, son of Edward James; Screenwriter: Youssef Delara)
The First Time — Loaded with young stars, it’s a bittersweet coming-of-age story about high school kids in love and lust. “Over the weekend, the two leads decide to have sex for the first time,” Cooper says. Hers or his first time? “Both,” Cooper clarifies. “Her boyfriend is older, one of those guys who’s kind of immature and she knows it, but she can’t get out of it.” Cheating on him is one way. Cast: Brittany Robertson (The CW’s The Secret Circle), Craig Roberts (Submarine), James Frecheville (Animal Kingdom), and Victoria Justice (Nickelodeon’s Victorious) and Dylan O’Brien (MTV’s Teen Wolf), pictured in the photo at the top of this story. (Director and screenwriter: Jonathan Kasdan, brother of Bad Teacher filmmaker Jake Kasdan and son of The Big Chill‘s Lawrence Kasdan.)
For Ellen — No, not Degeneres. (Will everyone think of that with this title?) The eponymous Ellen is the daughter of a struggling musician (There Will Be Blood‘s Paul Dano) who goes on an overnight road trip to get her back from his estranged wife. “He’s definitely interesting,” Cooper says. “He can play weird really well.” Cast: Paul Dano, Jon Heder, Jena Malone, Margarita Levieva, Shay Mandigo. (Director and screenwriter: So Yong Kim — known for In Between Days.)
Hello I Must Be Going — One of the festival’s three opening night movies, this comedy/drama stars Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures, Up in the Air) as a lonely divorcee who moves back to her parents’ home at the age of 35. “It’s a little bit of a romantic comedy, but oddball. Very independent in nature,” Cooper says. According to the official description, her “prospects look bleak – until the unexpected attention of a teenage boy changes everything.” Uh-oh. “He’s 19,” Groth assures. Costars: Blythe Danner, Christopher Abbott, John Rubinstein, Julie White. (Director: Todd Louiso, Screenwriter: Sarah Koskoff)
Keep the Lights On — Director and co-writer Ira Sachs tells an autobiographically inspired story of a long-running romance between two men, plagued by “addiction and secrets but bound by love and hopefulness,” as the Sundance description puts it. “It kind of explains itself, and has a good performance by Thure Lindhardt,” Cooper says. Costars: Zachary Booth, Julianne Nicholson, Souleymane Sy Savane, Paprika Steen. (Screenwriters: Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias)
LUV — An orphaned 11-year-old boy (Michael Rainey Jr.) spends the day traveling with his favorite uncle (Common), a recently released felon who is trying to finish up old debts in inner-city Baltimore. The title stands for “Learning Uncle Vincent.” “It takes a lot of tropes of the gangster inner-city world and twists it by having this kid enter into it and be a very strong presence among these more hardened characters,” Groth says. Costars:Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton. (Director: Sheldon Candis; Screenwriters: Sheldon Candis, Justin Wilson)
Middle Of Nowhere — Just because the person you love is gone — even temporarily — doesn’t mean you can let go, though maybe you want to. “It’s a drama about a woman who is very happily married, but her husband is in jail,” Cooper says. “He’s in for five years, and the movie spans that whole time and how she deals with it.” Cast: Emayatzy Corinealdi, David Oyelowo, Omari Hardwick, Lorraine Touissant, Edwina Findley. (Director and screenwriter: Ava DuVernay)
Nobody Walks — Olivia Thirlby (Juno) stars as a New York artist who comes to Los Angeles and upends the lives of a hipster family by triggering new attractions and old resentments. “They don’t even understand where these impulses are coming from. It just sends shock waves through their lives.” The title, of course, recalls the song Walking in L.A. by Missing Persons, which declares “nobody walks in L.A.” “A little bit,” Groth laughs, as Cooper adds: “It also means nobody gets out of this unscathed.” Costars: The Office‘s John Krasinski, Mad Men‘s Rosemarie DeWitt, India Ennenga, Justin Kirk. (Director: Ry Russo-Young; Screenwriters: Lena Dunham, Ry Russo-Young)
Safety Not Guaranteed — “This story was inspired by a real life ad, in the classified section of some magazine, where someone was looking for a partner in time travel,” Groth says. Now an Internet phenomenon, the ad read: “WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. … You’ll get paid when we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” Three magazine reporters try to figure out what’s really going on in this fictional story — OR IS IT?? Cast: Parks and Recreation‘s Aubrey Plaza, Humpday‘s Mark Duplass, New Girl‘s Jake Johnson, Karan Soni. (Director: Colin Trevorrow; Screenwriter: Derek Connolly)
Save the Date — “This is a story of young people trying to decide about relationships and marriage, told from two women’s points of view,” Cooper says. Party Down‘s Lizzy Caplan and Community‘s Alison Brie star as the sisters, one of whom is getting married while the other is suffering from a recent breakup. Costars: Martin Starr, Geoffrey Arend, Mark Webber. (Director: Michael Mohan; Screenwriters: Jeffrey Brown, Egan Reich, Michael Mohan)
Simon Killer — After breaking up with his girlfriend of 5 years, a young man moves to Paris and falls for a prostitute, though he is the one with deeper secrets. “He’s kind of a liar, basically,” Cooper says. “He’s a bit of a psychopath, though he is kind of lovable.” “He’s charming,” Groth interjects. “Yes, charming — not lovable,” Cooper amends. Cast: Brady Corbet, Mati Diop, Constance Rousseau, Michael Abiteboul, Solo. (Director and screenwriter: Antonio Campos)
Smashed — The Thing remake’s Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul play a young married couple whose freewheeling life of party and drink comes to a halt when she decides to sober up. The Help‘s Octavia Spencer costars as her AA sponsor while Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally play a teacher and principal at the school where she works. “It starts off very un-dangerous. It’s about how easy it is to be in life this way until you realize you have a problem,” Cooper says. “The drama’s not hyped up. You realize how close you could be to being her — well, I did.” (Director: James Ponsoldt; Screenwriters: Susan Burke, James Ponsoldt)
The Surrogate — Based on the true story of Mark O’Brien, a 36-year-old poet and journalist who lived most of his life in an iron lung after contracting polio at a young age. (His life was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, Breathing Lessons, in 1996.) In this film, O’Brien is played by Winter’s Bone Oscar-nominee John Hawkes, who decides he no longer wants to be a virgin, and seeks help from a sex surrogate therapist (Helen Hunt) and his priest (William H. Macy). (Director and screenwriter: Ben Lewin)
For the full list of U.S. competition documentaries and World Cinema dramas and docs, click over to the Sundance Film Festival Website.
On Twitter: @Breznican