By Anthony Breznican
January 17, 2013 at 05:00 PM EST

Awkward.

If there’s one word that unites many of the movies making their debuts at the Sundance Film Festival this year, that’s probably the best: Hilariously, beautifully, tragically awkward.

Imagine you’re a teenage kid in the merciless grip of puberty and your “new dad” turns to you one day and — by way of trying to help you manage your expectations with girls — informed you that, sorry … you’re kind of ugly.

Awkward.

Or picture a 30-something, book-loving lonelyheart who ventures to a British resort where people are hired to reenact Jane Austen’s novels, and all you really, really, really want is to convince one of the Mr. Darcys to have sex with you.

Awkward.

And frankly, “awkward” doesn’t quite cover it for the movie about two moms who are longtime friends … and who each start having an affair with the other one’s son.

These are three of the roughly 120 feature films at the festival, which starts today and runs through Jan. 27.

It’s hard to tell from the outset which movies might break through to become the next Beasts of the Southern Wild, but here are 13 worth a look:

The Way, Way Back

Austenland

Breathe In

Blue Caprice

The Spectacular Now

Upstream Color

Before Midnight

Lovelace

Prince Avalanche

Don Jon’s Addiction

In a World …

Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes

Two Mothers

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THE WAY, WAY BACK

Station wagons are a relic of the past, but anyone who grew up with one in their family remembers that backward facing seat in the rear. You know the one. Sitting there was a kind of banishment. It’s not the back seat. It’s the way, way back seat.

That’s where this Sundance coming-of-age story gets its name, tapping one of those minor childhood traumas that accumulate into major adult neuroses. The film follows the summertime experiences of 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) who spends the season with his mother (Toni Collette) and her irritating new boyfriend (Steve Carell.)

How irritating? At the start of the movie, he thinks he’s doing the kid a favor by telling him that now that he’s getting interested in girls, it would be useful to remember that on a scale of 1 to 10 — with 10 being the most handsome — he is, like … a 3.

What makes this story all the more painful is that it really happened to Jim Rash (best known as Dean Pelton on NBC’s Community) who co-wrote and directed The Way, Way Back with Nat Faxon. The two shared the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar last year for The Descendants, and this is their directorial debut.

“In his mind he thought he was telling me something that was a great lesson, minus the tact it took to do it,” says Rash. “In my adult life, I’ve climbed a bit — I hope. Maybe I’m a 4 or a 5 now. But I survived.”

In the film, young Liam finds a more useful surrogate father-type in Sam Rockwell, playing an older worker at the waterpark where the boy takes a job for the summer, who helps him find his place in a world that can be cruel to No. 3s.

“Jim and I share a love of waterparks and thought it would be a fun and unique setting to create a world around, and with these amazing true stories of Jim’s, they just kind of melded together,” says Faxon. “The waterpark idea was just going to be big and broad, but the more we introduced the family element to the script, it became less about that and more about the relationship between this kid and his mom.”

Channeling those hard times into a comedy helps the psyche, although Rash admits that kind of thing never leaves you. (His Twitter handle, by the way, is @RashIsTVUgly.)

But at least he didn’t become a serial killer.

“Oh, you haven’t met me,” Rash says.

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AUSTENLAND

Keri Russell plays a single woman in her mid-3os who is deeply in love with Colin Firth. Not even Colin Firth so much as Colin Firth in the 1995 mini-series Pride and Prejudice.

But really, she’s in love with his Mr. Darcy character from the Jane Austen novel. Since Darcy is a fictional character from 1813, Firth is a tolerable substitute.

When she discovers there is a resort in the U.K. where fans like her can go live for a time and recreate the Regency era of Austen’s classic novels, with handsome suitors willing to participate in a fanciful bit of romantic role-play, she ventures forth looking for love in all the wrong places.

Basically, she’s delusional.

“These lonely, sad ladies save all their money and go to this giant castle. They are ridding themselves of all low-slung jeans and eyeliner and trading them in for petticoats and corsets and bad bun hairstyles to be fake-romanced by the accented Austen heroes,” Russell says. “They’re going knowing it’s all a lie and still falling in love with these guys. They’re paying for it, which is amazing, and kind of what’s beautiful and so great and funny and sad about it all.”

Do these types of resorts actually exist?

“I don’t know if they get to go and have sex with the guys, but there are versions of it,” Russell says. “That’s what keeps getting hinted at. In the end, he’s going to say he loves me.”

The film is based on the 2007 novel by Shannon Hale, and co-written and directed by Jerusha Hess, whose co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite. Given her credentials, expect a lot of skewed humor — especially in the chronological mishmash the resort becomes.

“It is absolutely an irreverent version of the Jane Austen stories, told in Jerusha’s way,” Russell says. “At the ball, everyone is dancing romantically to ‘The Lady in Red.”

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BREATHE IN

Two years ago at Sundance, the aching long-distance love story Like Crazy finished its debut screening and before the lights could come up, the theater was already aglow with teary-eyed viewers sending texts and emails to their significant others.

This year, director Drake Doremus and actress Felicity Jones are back with another love story — this one a bit more taboo. Maybe this time Sundance-goers will be sending messages to their significant others back home to make sure they’re not fooling around.

Breathe In stars Jones as a foreign-exchange student who moves in with a family in upstate New York and begins a hesitant, but passionate romance with the father in the household, played by Guy Pearce. The heart may want what it wants, but could also cause massive unhappiness for his wife (Amy Ryan) and daughter (Mackenzie Davis.)

“In some ways, it’s a darker cousin to Like Crazy,” says Doremus, who wrote the script with longtime collaborator Ben York-Jones. “It retains some of the aspects of love and relationships that I’m concerned with, but it also delves into a new genre, a more classical form of love story.”

And it is a love story, he insists, not merely a judgmental drama about an inappropriate relationship or scandal. “Its about an emotional affair between a younger woman and an older man, but she’s very much an older soul, and the older man is very much a younger soul,” Doremus says. “Somewhere in the middle, they meet. It’s bad timing, but it’s very much a passionate, emotional affair.”

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BLUE CAPRICE

With gun violence weighing heavily on America’s collective conscience after the devastatingly horrible Newtown massacre, this drama inspired by the 2002 Beltway sniper killings is sure to strike a provoke debate at Sundance.

Isaiah Washington, late of Grey’s Anatomy, takes on the John Allen Muhammad role, as he woos his young accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo (Everybody Hates Chris‘ Tequan Richmond), and prepares for the attacks that terrified a nation and left 10 innocent strangers dead.

“It’s a pure art film, which is what we were going for,” Washington told EW’s Jeff Labrecque in a recent interview.

The title, of course, refers to the car Muhammad and Malvo traveled in, and set up as their covert sniper station. Washington says he went in search of whatever kernel of humanity he could find, even though he’s playing a character who slaughters people at long distance with no remorse.

“The hardest thing I think is getting Isaiah out of the way, getting myself out of the way, my own biases and my own judgements about who I thought the actual human being was and go about the business of conveying the humanity that I could find in the script,” Washington said.

Blue Caprice is likely to be a difficult movie, but sometimes the best movies of Sundance don’t make it easy on the audience.

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THE SPECTACULAR NOW

Not another teen movie.

But it’s okay. Director James Ponsoldt promises that this love story about a popular guy (Project X‘s Miles Teller) who decides to rescue a wallflower (The Descendants‘ Shailene Woodley) from her own shyness is not another teen movie.

“You hear the phrase ‘teen film’ [and] you make a lot of assumptions – it’s going to be crass or cynical, or there’ll be a lot of potty humor. Or else it’ll be sentimental and schmaltzy,” says Ponsoldt, who was at the festival last year with the alcoholic romance Smashed. “They’re often bowdlerized versions of what actually happens to teenagers, but this is exactly what it’s like when teenagers fall in love for the first time, and have your heart broken, and figure out how to be a man. All those big iconic things.”

Based on the novel by Tim Tharp, the script is by Scott Neustadter and Michel H. Weber, whose previous Sundance collaboration was Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer.

“Their script was lovely, emotional, powerful, honest and for me it was the most honest depiction of adolescence that I’ve ever read,” Ponsoldt says.

Jennifer Jason Leigh, who made her own mark on classic teen cinema with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, plays Teller’s mother, while Friday Night Light‘s Kyle Chandler is his imposing father. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who starred in Smashed last year, plays Teller’s older sister.

“This kid, like a lot of 18-year-old guys, has a nice pop philosophy about living in the moment, and thinks he has it all figured out. But he knows nothing,” Ponsoldt says. “And then he meets this girl who’s a little socially awkward, but she’s so much more profoundly mature and soulful than he is.”

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UPSTREAM COLOR

Remember Shane Carruth?

The filmmaker is not really a household name, partly because he hasn’t made a film in eight years.

But there is a deep and abiding cult fandom surrounding his one previous project — the enigmatic time-travel drama Primer, which premiered at Sundance in 2004. Admirers have been watching and rewatching that film ever since, still puzzling over its meaning, still searching for answers.

His new film, Upstream Color, is likely to generate the same passionate curiosity.

Here’s the description from the official Sundance program guide:

A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.

The trailer, featured above, is elegant, enticing, and evocative — but doesn’t really make the story any clearer.

Carruth, who is not seeking distribution at the festival and intends to release the film himself in April, wasn’t available for an interview, and representatives of Upstream Color say it defies easy description in words.

There seems to be a kind of body snatcher element to the story, in which the “ageless organism” infects various people, who then begin to act out in ways that are outside their control. But even those affiliated with Sundance who have seen the film say it will require multiple viewings for fans to develop a clear idea of what’s happening — or at least a solid theory.

While that could alienate some moviegoers who don’t want to work so hard, it seems like Carruth is giving Primer fans more of the kind of inscrutable cinematic mystery they loved the first time.

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BEFORE MIDNIGHT

“Baby, you are gonna miss that plane…”

“I know.”

Roughly 18 years ago, July Delpy’s Celine and Ethan Hawke’s Jesse met on a train to Vienna in Before Sunrise, and nine years ago, Before Sunset faded to black on their relationship with those two lines, spoken in her apartment in Paris, which suggested the forces of fate would no longer be pulling them apart as easily.

Or did it? He was married with a child, and she was also in a relationship. Still, we don’t ever see those people in these two-person dramas, so it’s easy for moviegoers to root for Jesse and Celine to push past whatever obstacles are in their lives and finally be together. Or is there more beauty simply in the love story that never can be?

If there’s one film at Sundance that will be like revisiting old friends, it’s this one from director Richard Linklater. What has happened to Celine and Jesse over the past decade? We’ll soon find out, though everyone involved has kept the story strictly under wraps. Even the shoot was done in Greece on the sly.

All Linklater revealed in an interview with EW’s Solvej Schou is that he doesn’t expect to alienate any fans who have been asking him “what happens next?” for the past nine years. “I think people who really liked the first two will like this one,” he said. “They’ll appreciate it.”

There is a disconcerting finality to the title. We’ve had the “sunrise” and the “sunset,” and now we’re reaching the end of the day. Will there be a fourth movie nine years from now? You probably shouldn’t let anyone answer that question for you.

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LOVELACE
Dale Robinette

Linda Lovelace was the epitome of unbridled sexuality in the early 1970s, when her X-rated films such as Deep Throat took porn into the mainstream. Later, she recalled being abused and coerced into that life, and the glamor seemed to be tarnished by degradation.

This film, starring Amanda Seyfried in the title role, “changes as her view of her life changes,” says Jeffrey Friedman, who co-directed with Rob Epstein.

The pair have a fondness for figures who push back against the rigidness of society. Epstein made the Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, and the pair were at Sundance three years ago with Howl, about the obscenity trial surrounding the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s seminal poem.

Was Linda Lovelace — who later returned to her real name, Linda Boreman, when she became an anti-porn crusader — a willing participant or a victim? Was she sexy or tragic? “We tried to mirror her psychology at the different periods of her life,” Epstein said. “That gave us the opportunity to have a tone that really varies. There’s a lot of humor in the film, and it’s a somewhat harrowing drama — as is life. Not everything is all tragic or all rosy and peachy.”

James Franco co-stars as Hugh Hefner, Adam Brody plays porn actor Harry Reems, and Peter Sarsgaard plays the husband Lovelace says forced her into a life of porn. Some would argue the popularization of triple-X movies helped the culture get over repressive sexual attitudes, while others maintain it was only a destructive force.

“It’s about a really fascinating moment in our history where our sexuality as a culture really evolved, and in a way it was our adolescence and young adulthood, moving from the sexual revolution to feminism,” Friedman says.

The film will be R-rated, the directors said, which meant they had to figure out how to portray the sexuality within those restrictions. “We didn’t set out to make a porn film anyway. It’s the story of a time and a person,” Friedman says. “I think it’s sexy, but it’s tasteful.”

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PRINCE AVALANCHE

Image credit: Scott Gardner[/caption]

Think of this as The Odd Couple, but set in a burnt-out wasteland as the two combative main characters try to repair a remote road devastated by a wildfire.

Paul Rudd plays the uptight, quiet one, while Emile Hirsch is his girlfriend’s brother — needy and not-so-bright. They leave their lives behind for a slow-motion roadtrip — doing minor repairs along the expanse of the fried freeway. Often, the biggest obstacle is each other, although it would be a lot lonelier without the other guy, too.

Prince Avalanche is directed by David Gordon Green, who made the indie films Snow Angels and All the Real Girls, but has lately devoted himself to more mainstream comedic fare with Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter.

This movie, adapted from the Icelandic film Either Way, marks a return to lower budget, scrappier filmaking for Green — a longtime favorite son of Sundance.

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DON JON’S ADDICTION

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is another one of Sundance’s favorite people, who has regularly turned up with his hitRECord.org moviemaking operation, and appeared in such festival hits as Mysterious Skin, Brick, and (500) Days of Summer.

Now he’s bringing his feature writing and directing debut, which takes its name from the classic literary womanizer Don Juan, but focuses on a contemporary guy who has access to pretty much any woman he wants, but still (like the song goes) can’t get no satisfaction.

In fact, he doesn’t even need another lover. Gordon-Levitt’s character is something of a porn addict, which is where we get the other part of the movie’s title. When writing the story, he said he wanted to explore ideas of how people objectify one another, even in intimacy, but felt the character “can’t be addicted to porn just because he can’t get laid. That’s a different story. This is a guy who gets laid all the time and he’s still addicted to porn.”

Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore co-star as two women who help Jon on the way to figuring out his life. Glenne Headly and Tony Danza play his troubled parents, who can’t understand why he doesn’t just settle down with a nice girl and start a family of his own.

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IN A WORLD …

Sometimes it’s tough to break into the family business.

If you’re a success, people assume it’s nepotism. And if you fail, well … it can be hard to escape the big shadows of powerful parents.

This comedy starring Lake Bell, who also wrote and directed, looks at this dynamic as it plays out in a unique business — the field of movie-trailer voice over actors. Even though the general public may not know their names, there are stars in that field. And where there are stars, there are divas. Comedians Demetri Martin, Michaela Watkins, Rob Corddry, Ken Marino, and Tig Notaro co-star.

Bell plays Carol, a woman who is struggling in life but finally decides to follow her father’s footsteps into the world of dramatic voice-overs. Fred Melamed (A Serious Man) plays her old man, who is known as “The King of Voice Overs.” Think of him as a fictionalized version of the late, great Don LaFontaine, who once estimated he did 5,000 movie trailers.

Soon Carol finds herself caught up in a serious of unexpected rivalries and backstabbing. In a world where all that matters is your voice, you’d better watch what you say.

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EMANUEL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FISHES

Sometimes when real life is too hard to accept, the best we can do is try to escape it

Kaya Scodelario plays a young woman who becomes bizarrely obsessed with a neighbor (Jessica Biel) who reminds her of her late mother, in this film from writer-director Francesca Gregorini (2009’s Tanner Hall). It may not be healthy, but it still could be necessary.

“We humans have gotten very creative in our powers of denial. It’s one of our most finely tuned instruments,” Gregorini says with a laugh. “When it comes to coping, we all find our crutches. I think it touches on our frailty.”

Is Emanuel projecting her longing and grief onto a total stranger, or is there something more otherworldly at work? Is it an innocent preoccupation or a sign of deeper disturbance in the mourning girl? Or is she simply losing her mind?

“I would say there is a Polanski-ness to it,” Gregorini jokes. “There’s an underbelly about it. It’s rooted in real human stories and connections, but it definitely spreads its wings into a little surrealism and magical realism.”

Like a lot of movies at the festival, it’s not one that is easily summarized. “In terms of genre, it’s kind of doing its own thing,” Gregorini says. “It has a little bit of everything — including some absurdity and humor, just for good measure.”

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TWO MOTHERS

Naomi Watts and Robin Wright are longtime friends. Roughly the same age, they each have sons who are about the same age, too.

And now that the boys are no longer, well, boys … each of the moms has developed a crush on the other one’s kid.

Two Mothers is directed by French filmmaker Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel) and is just one of several movies exploring themes of sex and love at the festival this year. Xavier Samuel and James Frechevile play the sons.

While the film might sound like it could veer into exceedingly grim territory, the festival organizers say it actually has a lively spirit with a lot of humor. There is disagreement among the characters to be sure, and hypocrisy and irony to spare, but ultimately the two women are friends. And each wants essentially the same thing as the other.

“It has the kind of performances that you don’t see come around very often. The chemistry between all four of them, it’s scintillating,” says festival programmer Trevor Groth. “It just really swept me away.”

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