Looking at the Comedy-ish Movies That Premiered at Sundance This Year
Sundance 2015, the unofficial film industry new year marker, has come and gone, leaving in its wake as usual a pile of must-see titles, underappreciated gems, and new talent. The quintessential “modern Sundance film” is a quirky indie comedy compiled from equal parts long, twee title, popular star doing something different, light laughs, and moments of dramatic resonance. Think Little Miss Sunshine or The Way Way Back. This is partially due to what historically sells big at Sundance, and partially due to the way films are presented up there in the mountains. Sundance audiences are very generous and love communal film watching experiences, they love to laugh or cry or feel something and then talk about it on the shuttle bus to their next stop. This year was no different, with a good portion of its US Competition slate and its Premiere section devoted to these same types of comedies. Four of the ten films I saw at the festival could be considered comedies or at least have comedic sensibilities in their filmmaking. Some quick thoughts on those below.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Definitely more in the latter designation, not a pure comedy, The Diary of a Teenage Girl begins as a playful coming-of-age story of 15-year-old Minnie Goetz (Bel Powley, in a classic movie star-to-be debut) in 1960s San Francisco but turns into a much darker, rawer, more harrowing tale of sexual awakening when Minnie’s relationship with her mother’s (Kristen Wiig, the most unrecognizable she has ever been) multiple-decades older boyfriend (Alexander Skaarsgaard) takes a turn.
However, Heller is an extremely stylishly confident first-time filmmaker and Powley’s performance is so wide-eyed and empathetic that even some of the darkest moments of the film are imbued with a lightness that makes it clear to the audience that despite the emotional weight of her mistakes at this moment, Minnie has a whole adult life ahead of her and will ultimately look back on her “mistakes” mostly without regret.
Powley appears in basically every scene and her youthful round face and big eyes are so often center frame and serve as a portal for the audience into Minnie’s experience, which we also hear narrated into her collection of under the bed cassette tapes. The intimacy of the performance and direction allows the viewer to both understand the emotional resonance of Minnie’s experiences as well as the naivety she brings to it all. It is the naivety that Heller plays most for laughs. From the opening moment, where Minnie announced “I had sex today” and walks confidently through San Francisco wondering aloud if people can notice the change in her, the casual narcissism that comes with experiencing universal sensations for the first time elicited many knowing laughs from the Sundance audience.
A Walk in the Woods
Veteran TV director Ken Kwapis’ adaptation of Bill Bryson’s Appalachian Trail travelogue, A Walk in The Woods, is a disappointing misstep from all involved. Originally meant to be a buddy comedy starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman before Newman’s death, the Sundance patron saint resurrected the project with Nick Nolte as his co-lead.
The result is a massively broad, tone-deaf, offensive, and slight comedy that frankly left me baffled to have experienced. The film is overlit and overscored, and mixes single-camera comedy television techniques with attempts at sweeping nature photography of the natural beauty of the trail that simply don’t add up to any sort of cohesive style. The film particularly derails in the second act where it relies on bunk bed collapse and obese women’s underwear sight gags that don’t add up to anything resembling resonance by the time the two old men give up and decide to go home.
Austin filmmaker Andrew Bujalski’s (Funny Haha, Computer Chess) most commercial attempt yet, Results feels like an attempt to fit an early Bujalski character in a more mainstream romantic comedy. The overlit (this time stylistically intentional and effective) Austin gym and comically empty McMansion in which the story unfolds works as a spatial representation of the two leads’ worldviews.
The cast, lead by Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, and Kevin Corrigan, is the comedic highlight of the film and carry an otherwise unfocused plot to affability. Pierce, charming in his intensity, and Corrigan, charming in his mellowness, each play off Smulders’ hard to please emotional coldness in specific and entertaining way. Both characters know exactly what they want but don’t quite know how to get it, whereas Smulders has an intense focus but no idea what she wants to achieve.
The film very efficiently establishes the characters and their worldviews early in the film, and the actors, for whom the roles were written specifically, slot in perfectly to their respective characters. From there, the Altman-esq comedy plays out as the characters play out their attempts to like and love themselves and each other in this screwball comedy with a mumblecore sensibility.
Speaking of screwball comedy, Mistress America is clearly Noah Baumbach’s formal attempt at such. The third installment in his unofficial artsy youth in New York trilogy (Francis Ha, While We’re Young), Mistress America lacks the resonance, specificity, and likability of Greta Gerwig’s performance in Francis Ha, but is probably a funnier film in terms of laughs per minute.
Lola Kirke stars opposite Gerwig as Tracy, a freshman a Barnard College looking for her place at her school and in her new city. Gerwig’s Brooke, who is Tracy’s stepsister-to-be, is a fascinating Hawksian ingenue who sweeps Tracy up in her fast-paced world of odd-jobs, foreign boyfriends, commercially-zoned apartments, and former friends and cats. Gerwig plays Brooke as a metacommentary on her persona — the quirky hipster it girl who stays in the game too long. When we meet her, she is descending the famous steps in the center of Times Square and extolling her love of the space often looked at snobbily and resentfully by New York locals. From there Tracy allows herself to get lost in Brooke’s chaos, while secretly documenting it in a story with hopes to get selected by Columbia’s elite literary society.
The film builds to a third act set-piece where Tracy, Brooke, and two of Tracy’s friends from Barnard travel to Connecticut to confront one of Brooke’s old friends who stole her company, fiance, and cats. All of the pieces Baumbach has been carefully setting up are bowled down in classically fast-paced screwball fashion that is equal parts funny and satisfying. Particularly in this scene, Baumbach frames the characters around the pristine white new mansion in a way that makes the tensions very clear. Particularly successful is the moment Brooke discovers Tracy’s writing and gathers everyone to read it. Without reading a word out loud, everyone’s reactions are so clear. It is a concise moment exemplary of carefully controlled style Baumbach establishes in Gerwig’s chaotic world.
* * *
All four of these films were picked up by distributors (Sony Pictures Classics, Broad Green Pictures, Magnolia Pictures, and Fox Searchlight respectively) so they will all be able to be seen down the mountain at various dates in 2015.