Sundance: Sex, Science and the Comedy of Discomfort

Variety critics consider common -- and unlikely -- themes among top festival films including 'Whiplash,' 'I Origins' and 'The Raid 2'

Sundance Culture Wars

SCOTT FOUNDAS: They say dogs come to resemble their owners (or vice versa), but if you hang around a film festival long enough, do you start to resemble the movies? That thought crossed my mind on Sundance’s final Sunday, when, as I was leaving a screening at the Eccles Theater, a volunteer enthusiastically congratulated me on my lead performance in the festival’s big award winner, “Whiplash,” which took both the audience award and the grand jury prize in this year’s U.S. dramatic competition. Of course, it’s flattering to be mistaken for Miles Teller, who’s a very good actor (in addition to being nine years my junior), but I couldn’t help wondering if something more mysterious was afoot.

Maybe that’s because, just the day before, I had caught up with another of this year’s Sundance breakouts, “I Origins,” in which the writer-director Mike Cahill theorizes that our eyes may quite literally be windows into our souls — or, at least, into who we may have been in our past lives. It’s a terrifically involving, deeply romantic piece of science fiction that whips ideas about evolution, creationism, identity and spirituality into a very heady brew, with a strong central performance by Michael Pitt as a traumatized molecular biologist and sexy newcomer Astrid Berges-Frisbey as the woman of his dreams. In his own previous life, Cahill might have been a staff writer for “The Outer Limits” or “The Twilight Zone,” given his knack for concocting speculative sci-fi scenarios rooted in elementally human dreams and desires. He made a splash at Sundance two years ago with his micro-budget debut feature “Another Earth,” about the discovery of a duplicate green planet, and the much larger-scale “I Origins” more than makes good on that movie’s promise.

PETER DEBRUGE: Be glad no one mistook you for Zach Braff, whose “Wish I Was Here” clearly struck a sensitive nerve with you. Sundance is perhaps the festival where we all transform the most. I failed to pack a razor, and by the end of it, like so many of the other faces I saw around Park City, I had started to cultivate a patchy little festival beard. And then I saw Alex Ross Perry’s sharply satirical “Listen Up, Philip,” in which a scruffy Jason Schwartzman plays an insufferable under-35 novelist whose every impulse reveals still more layers of narcissism and insecurity, and I immediately wanted to shave it off. Perry, who can be an abrasive personality himself, offers a far sharper critique of such self-absorption than Braff (reportedly a swell guy), and yet both films had me squirming.

That’s become the new goal of American indie cinema, I’m afraid. I call it “the comedy of discomfort,” best exemplified by comics like Ricky Gervais and Lena Dunham, and some writer-directors do it better than others. Joe Swanberg had the (bad) idea to turn Anna Kendrick into a holiday-ruining party girl in “Happy Christmas,” while Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss took us into the uneasy world of couple’s therapy — with a twist — in “The One I Love.” But my favorite example has to be Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child,” which builds a jokey date movie around a young New Yorker’s decision to get an abortion on Valentine’s Day. And who better to exploit the awkwardness of that situation than comedian Jenny Slate, who aces her first starring role.

JUSTIN CHANG: Sadly, I wasn’t mistaken for anyone famous at Sundance this year, although after a few more CrossFit sessions I’m sure I’ll be a dead ringer for that Betawi badass Iko Uwais in “The Raid 2” — which, incidentally, belongs to a cinematic genre that I like to call the comedy of ultra-discomfort. Honestly, I didn’t think I was the type of viewer who’d laugh at a low-level thug getting his mouth clawed open with a hammer, or burst into nervous giggles at the sight of an assassin stalking his prey with (I kid you not) a baseball and bat. But director Gareth Evans, who has the wickedest action chops this side of Tarantino and a sense of comic violence worthy of Chuck Jones, has proven me wrong.

Scott, I’m with you on “I Origins,” an unapologetically cerebral, romantic, witty, silly and altogether entrancing experience that intersects with one of the more relevant themes of this year’s festival: the consequences of ever-growing technology on our lives and relationships. It was there in two Asia-centric documentaries, “Love Child” and “Web Junkie,” which explored the dire ramifications of Internet addiction in parts of the world that are surpassing even the U.S. in terms of broadband access and data overload. It was there in comedies as disparate as “Dear White People” and “Frank,” where tweets and text messages serve as crucial gag-delivery mechanisms. (Without Twitter, of course, the crowd-funded “Dear White People” might never have gotten made.) And it was there, perhaps most wisely and touchingly, in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” when Mason (Ellar Coltrane) gently reprimands his girlfriend for constantly being on her phone rather than living in the moment. I watched that scene and heaved a little sigh of relief: This kid’s gonna be just fine.

FOUNDAS: Justin’s mentions of “The Raid 2” and “Frank” reminds me that it’s worth noting how much, in recent years, Sundance has become a stage not just for world premieres of American independent films, but for high-profile films from all over the world. The year I really felt that sea change was 2009, when Sebastian Silva’s “The Maid,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson” and Lone Scherfig’s “An Education” (which went on to garner a best picture Oscar nomination) all made their world or international premieres here, whereas only a few years earlier the Berlin or Rotterdam festivals would have seemed more desirable launching pads for such fare. (The fact that Sundance made its international section competitive beginning in 2005 has certainly helped in this regard — everyone loves prizes.) This year, in addition to the aforementioned titles, Sundance hosted the world premieres of new films by the Austrian documentarian Hubert Sauper (“We Come as Friends”), the indefatigable British director Michael Winterbottom (“The Trip to Italy”) and Ireland’s John Michael McDonagh, whose “Calvary” was certainly one of the hottest tickets in town.

But as nice as it is to see Sundance’s stock going up in the world, I was even more pleased to see the number of Americans in this year’s festivals who cast their own gazes far beyond their own borders. It’s long been one of the not-undeserved stereotypes of American indie cinema that its filmmakers stare too intently at their own navels, and while Sundance 2014 was hardly immune to this, for every Zach Braff there was a David Zellner, whose wonderful “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” takes place half in Japan and half in Minnesota; a Mark Jackson, whose “War Story” follows a traumatized war photographer (Catherine Keener) on an odyssey through Sicily; and a Cutter Hodierne, whose “Fishing Without Nets” is acted almost entirely in Somali and French (languages Hodierne himself doesn’t speak).

“Fishing” is the third movie in as many years, after “A Hijacking” and “Captain Phillips,” to tell of a band of Somali pirates taking control of an international shipping vessel, but it’s the first of them to be told from the pirates’ point of view, and Hodierne (who also co-wrote the script) manages to pull off the tricky feat of humanizing his gun-toting characters without sentimentalizing them. It’s a gripping film, directed by Hodierne (who won the directing prize from the U.S. dramatic jury) with real scope and vision — and a relieved mix of the de rigueur handheld camerawork with more formal tracking and steadicam shots.

DEBRUGE: I applaud filmmakers like the Zellners who go out seeking stories beyond their immediate sphere of experience, but would argue there’s equal — if not greater — value in so-called navel gazing, at least when it results in deeply personal and potentially profound work like out-and-proud Ira Sachs’ “Love Is Strange” and multi-racial multi-talent Maya Forbes’ beautiful “Infinitely Polar Bear.” While I welcome Sundance’s international expansion (which included such gems as “Frank” and “Locke”), I remain a staunch advocate of the festival’s roots as a platform for regional American cinema, showcasing stories from parts of the country that Hollywood ignores (beyond their spending potential, at least). This year, Kat Candler captured the restless agitation of South Texas life in “Hellion,” while the deeply felt documentary “Rich Hill” treated three otherwise-invisible Missouri teens as the most important people on earth.

As that most magnanimous of critics, Roger Ebert, puts it in Steve James’ socko doc “Life Itself,” cinema works “like a machine that generates empathy.” Of course, we benefit from glimpses into all corners of the globe, but there’s wisdom still to be gained in our own backyards as well. (I’ll take the regionally grounded “Beasts of the Southern Wild” over head-in-the-clouds malarkey like “I Origins” any day.)

So, aspiring Sundance directors, show us your navels! This year, the programmers extended their strong track record of welcoming diverse voices into the lineup, resulting in a multitude of fresh female directors, including Forbes and Candler, as well as such feisty surprises as Justin Simien, whose articulate (to the point of strident) “Dear White People” shakes up our complacent worldview.

FOUNDAS: Don’t get me wrong, Peter: I’m all for filmmakers sticking to their own backyards, provided what they find there feels insightful and universally resonant rather than agonizingly solipsistic. The Dardenne brothers of Belgium are masters at this, having risen to the top ranks of the world’s greatest directors without ever straying very far from their native Liege. And certainly, there are always movies at Sundance that make you wish their makers hadn’t been quite so curious about the outside world, like this year’s “Camp X-Ray,” in which Kristen Stewart’s newly arrived Guantanamo Bay prison guard ends up becoming BFFs with a longtime inmate (superbly played by “A Separation” star Peyman Moaadi). The movie, a first feature for director Peter Sattler, certainly has its heart in the right place, but coming after the meticulously researched likes of Michael Winterbottom’s “The Road to Guantanamo” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” it feels distractingly trite, capped by a ridiculous, button-pushing coda that might as well have been called “The Bridges of Guantanamo County.”

CHANG: After having seen David Wnendt’s World Cinema competition entry “Wetlands,” which is essentially a sustained contemplation of its heroine’s bodily orifices (with loving asides devoted to her hemorrhoids and vaginal secretions), I’d say navel gazing sounds like a fairly innocuous, even laudable activity. There is, of course, a distinction to be made between those filmmakers who find their belly-button lint endlessly fascinating, and those who tend to stick to roughly the same social/geographical sphere (like the Dardennes and Michael Haneke), but who nonetheless manage to uncover richer angles, insights and patterns of meaning with every film. You’ll find both types at home or abroad, in the indie world and in the studio system: Not every American independent filmmaker is a self-absorbed twit, just as not every movie that hails from abroad is a model of eye-opening worldliness and sophistication.

Peter, I’m glad you invoked “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which strikes me as both a uniquely American achievement and the work of someone open to all avenues of human experience — not unlike Lance Hammer’s 2008 Sundance-premiered “Ballast,” another example of a white filmmaker sensitively giving voice to black stories and black concerns from the American South. This year’s dramatic competition entry “Infinitely Polar Bear” may not be anywhere near as rich or expansive as those two films (its mixed reception suggests it may well have been titled “Infinitely Polarizing”), but I was refreshed by the way Forbes, in telling her own personal story, achieved a distinct snapshot of gender expectations and class disparities at a time when a family with a black, breadwinning mother and a white, stay-at-home father was very far from the norm. If this is navel gazing, then Forbes can at least be said to have a more interesting navel than most.

In short, I’m glad that Sundance continues to be both a leading showcase for American independent cinema and a dynamic platform for international talent, finding the universal in the specific and vice versa. To wit, my two favorite films at the festival this year hail from separate corners of the world and could not have been more different in style, subject matter and tone: “Boyhood” is a sprawling, 12-years-in-the-making coming-of-age epic, American and independent to the bone; “Calvary,” by contrast, confines itself to seven days toward the end of one man’s life, and its brand of fatalistic dark comedy could scarcely be more Irish. Yet as different as their stories and tonal strategies may be, both Linklater and McDonagh are essentially asking the same hard questions: How do we live? How do we go on? Is this really all there is to life? These are also the questions raised by Jesse Moss’ prize-winning documentary “The Overnighters,” a devastating portrait of an oil-rich North Dakota community that suddenly finds itself on the frontlines of the ongoing war between locals and outsiders, poverty and privilege.

FOUNDAS: Along similar lines, I’m glad that Peter mentioned “Hellion” and “Rich Hill,” two artful explorations of small-town America’s working poor — one fiction, one documentary — that pack a real emotional punch. Both are likely too tough and unsentimental to get distributors excited about their box-office potential, but I’m certainly glad they exist. I was particularly intrigued when “Hellion” came on the screen after being introduced by the petite, soft-spoken Candler, and turned out to be set in this hyper-masculine world of angry, delinquent teenage boys, their distant or absent fathers, and the adrenaline-fueled sport of competitive motocross racing. It also has a great, thrashing heavy-metal soundtrack that includes cuts by Slayer and Metallica. I wonder what the BuzzFeed writer Kate Aurthur — who used her Twitter feed to accuse you, me and Justin of liking the equally hyper-masculine “Whiplash” because we’re men — made of that one. Or the fact that the U.S. dramatic competition jury, which awarded “Whiplash” its top prize, included two women: the critic Dana Stevens and the filmmaker Lone Scherfig.

I fully echo Aurthur’s sentiment that there should be more female critics, just as there should be more black, Latino, Asian-American and Arab-American critics, and also more critics who are religious and/or politically conservative in a field that overwhelmingly prides itself on its secular liberalism. The cause of diversity in filmmaking and film criticism is an important one — far more important, I would say, than having a chorus of voices to back up your assertion that “Whiplash” is some sort of sub-Oedipal sausage-fest. There’s a danger to viewing any particular film or an entire festival lineup exclusively through the prism of identity politics; assuming that all critics of a particular gender think a certain way is a pretty funny way of calling out sexism.

FOUNDAS: A lot of people come to Sundance with ideological axes to grind. Aurthur’s comments reminded me of those folks last year who ganged up on our own Geoff Berkshire for panning Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station.” I admired Coogler’s film enormously, but I don’t think disliking it makes you racist or privileged, any more than I think liking “Whiplash” makes you a male chauvinist pig. Likewise, the constant score-keeping of certain culture writers over how many filmmakers of this or that minority are represented in major festival lineups is exactly the sort of reductive thinking that a movie like “Dear White People” so cheerfully booby-traps.

I’m glad that, in my own years on the New York Film Festival selection committee, these questions of gender, ethnicity and nationality were rarely if ever raised, either by me or by the various female and minority members of the committee. Frequently, we didn’t even know who had made the films we were looking at, as most submissions arrived in rough-cut form, lacking full credits, and the same is true of Sundance, Cannes, et al. We all know that the movie business is alarmingly white and male — a top-down problem that festivals, which show movies rather than making them, have little power to affect. Their job, rather, is to choose the best movies available, regardless of who made them or where they come from.