Sundance: Day 4

January 25, 2016

By Piers Marchant
for blood, dirt & angels

Number of Films: 3

General Vibe: Emotionally Pistol-Whipped (in the best possible way)

Photo: From Manchester on the Sea, courtesy Amazon Studios.

Photo: From Manchester on the Sea, courtesy Amazon Studios.

Manchester on the Sea: Kenneth Lonergan’s much-anticipated follow-up to the excellent Margaret is yet another example of how this supremely talented playwright and filmmaker creates emotionally indelible narratives. Casey Affleck plays Lee, a rough-hewn young man with a brutally tragic past who’s forced to come home to the North Shore of Massachusetts in order to care for his 16-year-old nephew (Lucas Hedges) when his older brother (Kyle Chandler) suddenly dies of a heart attack. Despite the classic Big Hollywood Drama sounding set-up, Lonergan isn’t interested in the least in played-out redemption stories. Instead, as he’s suggested in interviews, he was far more concerned with characters unable to “turn the corner” emotionally and solve all their problems with a dramatic breakdown scene and an emotive orchestral score. The result is a gritty film that feels resolutely lived in, which makes it all the more devastating as it unspools. Despite an elongated running time (the rough-cut shown at Sundance stands about 135 minutes), not a moment feels padded, and not a detail is wasted (including a brief but strangely poignant scene where characters do little more than open and close a car door). The critical response to this film has been nothing short of rapturous (which practically guarantees there will be some sort of idiotic backlash with subsequent screenings later in the week), which likely helped it get sold, to Amazon, late Saturday night. Perhaps the best news of all: Even after the litigious waterloo that dogged Margaret, it’s clear Lonergan’s star hasn’t been tarnished to the point where he can’t get funding for his subsequent work, which is a unmistakable boon to our cultural legacy.

Under the Shadow: One of those great Sundance finds that makes the whole festival seem worth all the thin air gasping and slogging snow-trudging, this psychological horror film from Iranian director Babak Anvari, set during tail end of the Iran-Iraq War, is sharp as a spike of broken glass. When Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a young mother whose dream of becoming a doctor is curtailed after the Islamic Revolution, and her young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), are left alone by her doctor husband, who has to report for active military duty, the luxury apartment they rent in Tehran begins to exhibit strange doings. Dorsa’s beloved doll vanishes, strange fleeting figures start lurking in the shadows, and Shideh becomes more and more tense. Under constant threat of Iraqi missiles, the apartment building – as well as most of Tehran – begins clearing out, leaving mother and daughter more and more isolated, and subject to more djinn-like activity. Taken as a metaphor for the oppressive nature of the Revolution, the ongoing threat of war, or as the emotional fall-out from Shideh’s dream deferred, Anvari’s taut script and superbly rendered atmospherics (so effective are they, one of the film’s biggest jump scares involves nothing more than a toaster) help to conjure one of the more chilling mother/child dynamics since The Babadook (which premiered at Sundance in 2014).

Certain Women: Based on the stories of Montana writer Malle Meloy, Kelly Reichardt’s film is a triptych of stories concerning three female protagonists with different trajectories, loosely connected, and orbiting around the same small city. On their own, the stories have a certain emotional tang, layered together they begin to create larger and more far-reaching reverberations. In the first, Laura Dern plays a lawyer, having an affair with a married man (James Le Gros), and beset by an unstable client (Jared Harris), who’s convinced he has an injury case against his old company, despite her repeated assertions to the contrary, until he takes matters into his own hands; in the second, a manipulative, type-A woman (Michelle Williams) pushes her husband (Le Gros) to ask an older man (Rene Auberjonois) for the stack of sandstone he’s had on his property since he built his house; in the third, and most emotionally engrossing piece, a lonely woman (Lily Gladstone) minding a stable of horses, develops an affection for an out of town lawyer (Kristen Stewart), who teaches a class locally, even though it’s clear the relationship is terminally one-sided. As the film progresses, the stories begin to darken like a sheet of contact paper in developer, revealing loneliness and the increased desperation of the characters to connect to anything outside of their own mitigated existence. It’s not the type of film you would expect to wrap things up, but each story is given a brief coda that brings everything into sharper focus. It’s the kind of film that likely won’t hit you all at once, but will reverberate for days after you see it.

Tomorrow: Something of a wide-open day, selections will be made from a generous list of possibilities, including the Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg-helmed political doc, Weiner; Antonio Campos’ bio-pic of Christine Chubbuck, Christine; David Farrier & Dylan Reeve’s fascinating-if-off-beat-sounding doc Tickled; the epic-sounding drama written, directed, and starring Nate Parker, Birth of a Nation; and Joshua Marston’s mysterious dinner party drama, Complete Unknown. 

Into the frigid climes and rarefied thin air of the spectacular Utah Mountains, I’ve arrived in order to document some of the sense and senselessness of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Over the next week, armed with little more than a heavy parka and a bevy of blank reporter’s notebooks, I’ll endeavor to watch as many movies as I can and report my findings. 

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