Sundance Update: Wednesday, Jan. 30 | Buzz Blog

Sundance Update: Wednesday, Jan. 30

Big Time Adolescence, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Before You Know It and more

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Griffin Glick and Pete Davidson in Big Time Adolescence - SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
  • Sundance Institute
  • Griffin Glick and Pete Davidson in Big Time Adolescence
Big Time Adolescence (U.S. Dramatic) ***
Hypotheticallly speaking, if this movie consisted solely of 90 minutes of Pete Davidson smiling goofily at the world and describing everything as “sick,” it might still be hella-fun to watch. It turns out to be more than that, following the friendship between 16-year-old high-school student Mo (Griffin Glick) and his unlikely best friend: 23-year-old Zeke, the pot-smoking, layabout ex-boyfriend of Mo's sister. The esteem in which Mo holds Zeke frustrates Mo's dad (Jon Cryer), and it's interesting to see paternal concern played as something more akin to jealousy. The real pleasures here, though, are in the relationship between Zeke and Mo, which allows both to get something they desperately need—for Mo, the attention of someone he thinks is cool, and for Zeke, that feeling of someone thinking he's cool. Writer/director Jason Orley breezes a bit past the loneliness at the heart of Zeke's character, though we get a glimpse of the future awaiting him when Zeke's own mentor shows up. Mostly, Davidson just gives a hilarious performance as a guy who wants all the benefits of being admired without any of the responsibilities, accentuated by Orley's sharp editing rhythms. It's a movie that understands how adults who refuse to grow up are hilarious, until they're more than a little sad. (Scott Renshaw)

Before You Know It (U.S. Dramatic) **1/2
A blandly generic title does no favors for a highly specific comedy-drama starring director and co-writer Hannah Pearl Utt and her longtime collaborator Jen Tullock as sisters in a dysfunctional New York theater family in Greenwich Village. The sisters’ lives revolve around the uncelebrated, possibly unremarkable plays of Mandy Patinkin’s cantankerous paterfamilias Mel, once an actor of note. Responsible Rachel (Utt) acts as stage manager while flighty Jackie (Tullock) joins Mel onstage—though in fact both sisters are playing parts scripted for them by their father, a reality that has begun to chafe for Rachel. This drama abruptly takes a soapy turn when the sisters lose their father, only to discover that the mother they thought was dead is alive and starring in a daytime network serial. Sherrell (Judith Light) is an extraordinary creation, as confounding as Mel but in wholly different ways, and what Rachel and Jackie hope or fear she may bring to their lives brings out new layers in themselves and their relationship. The filmmakers treat their quirky characters with great empathy and affection despite their weaknesses and failings, which helps carry the film past some of its own weakness, including an extraneous subplot with Alec Baldwin as a worthless child therapist and an underutilized Mike Colter as the film’s one reliable male. (Steven D. Greydanus)

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Love, Antosha (Documentary Premieres) ***
This is a biopic documentary of the late actor Anton Yelchin, composed of old clips, talking heads, personal materials, etc.—cue “same-old” yawns. But Love, Antosha is valuable and moving, transcending its premise. Born 1989, Yelchin's entire life coincided with high-quality video cameras as ordinary consumer goods. That means this film, thanks to parents Viktor and Irina Yelchin, can show him as a budding actor and “director,” while comparable little-boy moments of, say, Cary Grant, are lost. Yelchin’s career also overlaps the era of social media and selfies, providing another motherlode of material. That “social media biography” is what’s valuable here; what’s moving is the title’s other word. Colleagues speak well of him, unsurprisingly, but they’re clearly not going through the motions; people far above Yelchin in the stardom pecking order (K-Stew and J-Law, say) took time for a no-budget film about him. Then there are his letters: From boyhood, Yelchin wrote birthday cards, greetings, emails, etc. to his parents, especially his mother, with a frequency and effusiveness that can’t be faked and can win over even the hardest cynic. The title comes from how he signed off everything (“Antosha” always calls his parents “mamoola” and “papoola”). This isn’t the most-rigorous critical claim in the world, but after seeing the film, I wrote a short IM to my mother telling her I love her. (Victor Morton)

The Souvenir (World Dramatic) ***1/2
It's a testament to Joanna Hogg's skills as a director that she manages to take a mundane set-up—inexperienced young artist gets first lessons in life and love—and make it top-to-bottom fascinating. The 1980s-set story follows Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda), a 20-something British film school student who begins an affair with Anthony (Tom Burke), who turns out to have some secrets. From the outset, we see Julie struggling to find her creative voice distinct from her upper-class upbringing, which would have made it easy for the narrative to fall back on “now I've had the difficult experiences that make for a real artist” clichés. But Byrne brings an open, vulnerable screen presence utterly distinct from that of her mother; that sensibility combines with Burke's portrayal of Anthony's practiced deception to complicate their intimate scenes, like the two almost-lovers playfully arguing over who's taking up more of the bed. Mostly, there's Hogg's keen sense for using everything from period songs to slow-motion at just the right time, leading up to a pair of final shots displaying a breathtaking confidence. To the extent that there's an autobiographical component to Hogg's story, it's clear that whatever Julie needed to learn to give her artistry depth, she certainly found it. (SR)

Judy and Punch (World Dramatic) *1/2
It’s saying something that Damon Herriman—Punch to Mia Wasikowska’s Judy in Mirrah Foulkes’ revisionist gloss on the traditional slapstick puppet show—does not play Sundance 2019’s most odious male antagonist in an Australian period feminist revenge drama about a mother brutalized and left for dead after suffering the horrific loss of her baby. That distinction goes to Sam Clafin’s monstrous British officer in Jennifer Kent’s relentlessly brutal The Nightingale—a film that posed for me some of the problems I have with many revenge movies, but which at least made no bones about the shattering psychic cost of extreme violence for both culprits and victims. Here the tone is macabre but mischievous fairy tale; even the baby’s death is couched as an outrageously sickening Punch line. I know, I know, it’s all rooted in puppet-show violence, but this Punch—an ambitious but unsuccessful puppeteer—is more venal and pathetic than violently anarchic; he has at least some remorse for his failings and affection for Judy, his wife and performing partner. The film does cross-examine revenge with some conviction, but of course cake can be had and eaten. Foulkes’ Australian sensibilities are particularly evident in the grotesque witch trials and utopian “heretic camp” hiding in the Black Forest, but the feel-good transformative denouement feels glib and unconvincing on any continent. (Steven D. Greydanus)

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Brittany Runs a Marathon (U.S. Dramatic) ***
Body image gets tangled up with self-worth in a way that's both funny and surprisingly emotional thanks to the script by Paul Downs Colaizzo and a terrific central performance by Jillian Bell. She plays Brittany Forgler, an under-employed, hard-partying New Yorker who gets a warning from her doctor to address her weight and overall health. So Brittany decides to start running—one reluctant block at first, then gradually becoming determined to run in the New York Marathon. Colaizzo puts together a winning cast of supporting charcters—including Michaela Watkins as Brittany's running buddy, and Utkarsh Ambudkar as an unmotivated pet-sitter—to build up the world around Brittany. But most of what works here revolves around Bell's work as a woman who's convinced she needs to be the “funny fat girl” to put other people at ease, and to look a different way in order to be deserving of other people's love. The thesis-point speeches are kept to a minimum, allowing the focus to remain on a self-loathing that thwarts Brittany's chances at happiness. Attempts to weave Brittany's family history into her psychology fall a bit short, and the climactic run starts to feel like a drag. It's all worth it, though, for a payoff that emphasizes Brittany's triumph as coming to believe she's a person worth cheering for. (SR)

Lapü (World Documentary) **1/2
Before Sundance released its films’ descriptions, I had never heard of Colombia’s Wayuu Indians. Between Lapü and Birds of Passage, I’ve now seen as many Wayuu films as I have seen from Colombia’s dominant Spanish culture. While Birds transposed a gang-warfare plot into Mayuu society, Lapü is a full-bore UNESCO-style ethnographic documentary. It’s visually striking and evocative, too, from the very first shot that might be black-and-white images of what might be hills, as drifting clouds might be smoke or mist as the wind (?) howls. I have no idea how this lengthy shot related to the rest of the film, but I was enthralled. Without voiceover and using only the indigenous language, the “plot” concerns a woman, Doris, who has dreamed a visit from a recently-deceased relative. According to custom, she now must dig up the relative’s body, cleanse the bones and then be cleansed hereself, and that’s basically the movie (some of this was also in Birds of Passage). The manual detachment of the skull for polishing and the method of cleansing—some of the water is first sloshed around in her grandmother’s mouth—are among the sparse film’s highlights, At 75 minutes, its languorous rhythms never exactly wear out their welcome, but I’d be lying if I said restlessness never stirred. I even started to hope a drug gang would appear and liven things up a bit. (VM)

Words from a Bear (Documentary Premieres) ***
Words are indeed at the center of this profile of author/poet/playwright/artist N. Scott Momaday—and perhaps the best thing it has going for it are that we get to hear those words in his own voice. Jeffrey Palmer’s PBS American Masters entry offers a respectful biography of the Native American writer, from his childhood in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, childhood challenges and eventual literary success (including a Pulitzer Prize in 1969). And we also get the obligatory laudatory words from colleagues and admirers—including Robert Redford and Jeff Bridges—to emphasize that yes, this is indeed a gifted creative mind. But that’s evident enough from listening to the snippets of Momaday’s writing read by the author himself, in a beautiful, rich voice that conveys the cultural power not just of a story, but of the oral tradition of storytelling. It’s a lovely touch that many of those narrated stories are rendered with animated characters set against real landscapes—a recognition of the link between legend and life that makes up for clunky devices like showing a dramatized stand-in for Momaday working diligently at his typewriter. It’s mostly enough simply to let the bear speak. (SR)

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