Sundance16: Day 6

January 27, 2016

By Piers Marchant
for blood, dirt & angels

Number of Films: 4
General Vibe: The Kids Aren’t So Alright

Little Men: Ira Sachs has made a simple film with just enough emotional complexity and richness to make it hum. Two adolescent boys – one, Jake (Theo Taplitz), dreamy and artistic; the other, Tony (Michael Barbieri), bombastic and street smart – become friends, even as their respective parents come to odds over the increased rent Tony’s mother (Paulina García) is being asked to pay by Jake’s father (Greg Kinnear) for the little dress shop she’s been running for almost a decade. Because of their parents’ contretemps, the boys’ relationship suffers until things come to an emotional head. Sachs, as always, is a gifted observer, able to conjure scenes between his characters that feel both true and emotionally vibrant. It helps that he understands the relatively slender stakes of the film, and keeps everything well within its somewhat limited scope so it doesn’t overreach. He also gets very strong performances from his two young leads, especially Taplitz, whose emotional states more or less set the tone for everything.

Captain Fantastic: At first, Matt Ross’ film, about a counter-culture father named Ben (Viggo Mortensen) who raises his six children (George Mckay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, and Charlie Shotwell) deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, living off the land, and training them in both wilderness survival and Noam Chomsky, is entertaining and winsome, but the center cannot hold. When their manic depressive mother commits suicide back in New Mexico at her parents’ house, the clan uproot their basecamp and travel south in a modified trailways bus in order to attend her funeral, to the utter consternation of their maternal grandfather (Frank Langella), who wants nothing to do with Ben. The film’s charms  – the young cast plays brilliantly off of old-head Mortensen, and the early scenes of the family doing combat training and playing music together offer a sort of familial succor – outweigh its indie conventionality (yet another road movie with a wacky family at odds with standard society) in the early going, but by the third act, Ross turns the film too cute by half, and the ending, which smooths over any last remaining bit of friction largely without explanation, just plays to crowd pandering.

Kate Plays Christine: A peculiar combination of quasi-doc and reality-based narrative, the film follows the actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she goes into deep preparation to play Christine Chubbuck, a Florida newscaster who, in 1974, took her own life in front of a live camera. We watch as Sheil works to get into the role, traveling down to Sarasota, and doing whatever she can to help her research. She speaks with a host of other people, including local TV broadcasters, psychologists, a gun-store clerk, and some of Chubbuck’s former colleagues. She buys a long, dark wig; dons brown contact lenses; gets a spray tan; and reads as many books about suicide as she can, all the while musing about the difficulties she’s facing trying to piece together the life of the troubled broadcaster. Throughout these documentary-type sections, director Robert Greene intersperses short created scenes with Sheil in character, arguing with her mother (Marty Stonerock), battling with her news director (Michael Ray Davis), and being betrayed by her friend at the station (Stephanie Coatney). Those scenes, shot broadly with a soap opera level of production value, at first just seem jarring, but by the end, as the film builds up to the final, climactic moment with Chubbuck in the studio on that fateful day, the entire somewhat peculiar contraption finally comes into focus. Greene is indicting his audience for their own morbid curiosity, drawing out the last scene through multiple takes with Sheil alternately digging into her character and abruptly pulling out again before she can squeeze the trigger. The result is both searing and deeply thought-provoking, challenging our need to gawk at such tragedy, our empathy blown past by insatiable desire to watch horror as it happens before us.

Audrie & Daisy: The film takes a “60 Minutes” like approach to what has become an increasingly far-reaching and distressing issue: More and more teen girls are victims of rape, and then a subsequent social media frenzy of shaming that makes their lives completely intolerable. We are given two stories from different parts of the country. In Saratoga, CA, a young woman named Audrie endures a sexual assault while completely passed out from alcohol consumption, and suffers the added indignity of having pictures of her ordeal posted to a yahoo user group for her classmates to see. Traumatized and wracked with shame, she almost immediately takes her own life. Several thousands of miles to the Midwest, in a small town in Missouri, Daisy, a high-school freshman, gets blazingly drunk with a girlfriend one night and ends up in someone’s basement, with a group of older boys. She is raped and videotaped, even as her friend is suffering a similar fate in another room. Despite her age and the evidence against them, all charges against the boys are eventually dropped, prompting a national protest, that brings in even more attention and shaming. The film offers these victims at least a modicum of hope in the form of a survivor group that allows them to connect with other girls who have suffered a similar fate, but one can’t help but feel, in the Internet age, this all-encompassing power to shame and torment, put into the hands of callous and vengeful teenagers, has become all too overwhelming.

Tomorrow: On my last full day of the festival, I’m going to cram in as many things as possible, including Miles Joris-Peyrafitte’s As You Are; Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits; Andrew Neel’s Goat; and festival fave Morris From America from Chad Hartigan. 

Photo: From Captain Fantastic, courtesy Electric City Entertainment.

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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