I'm finally home from Sundancin', so this will be my last dispatch for 2012. I saw a great many wondrous things, like stars in the sky, a frigging blizzard, Ice-T and Coco being politely asked to move because they were on a couch being used for interviews, Eric Snider in his infamous Sundance hat, and as many movies as I could cram into my head. Here are the highlights.
I'm not a fan of happythankyoumoreplease. Some of it has a certain charm, but I couldn't get past the way that many of the main characters were merely props for Sam (writer/director Josh Radnor) to learn and grow. Thankfully, Liberal Arts is a far more mature meditation on growing up, growing old, and letting go. Although Jesse (Radnor) is an older, slightly more functional version of Sam, the other characters he encounters aren't just oracles for him in his journey.
As Jesse returns to his college for a retirement party for his former professor, Peter (Richard Jenkins), he's overtaken by nostalgia for those good old days of just reading books and bs-ing with other students. He also hits it off with a precocious and pretty 19-year-old named Zibby. The cast is stacked in Liberal Arts' favor. Jenkins is typically wonderful as a rebellious old prof who's torn between wanting a fresh start and fear of leaving what he knows. A particularly tenderhearted talk between Peter and Jesse about the age you feel inside resonated deeply.
Elizabeth Olsen's portrayal of Zibby, in addition to Radnor's more nuanced script, elevates the character from a gal teetering on the edge of Manic Pixiedom to a precocious, curious young woman who is bored with guys her own age and hungry for experience. Allison Janney puts in a small but biting performance as a professor who has a rather dim view of her male students and their gooey hearts, and John Magaro has a lovely part as a young student grappling with depression and loneliness. Zac Efron shows up as a hippie-dippie dude who hangs out on campus dispensing stoner Yoda advice.
Liberal Arts has a limited audience appeal; it's about white people who are well off enough to attend a private college and read David Foster Wallace. Radnor's writing chops have improved, but there are still some twee "go get yourself loved!" type aphorisms. That said, I found it warm-hearted and intensely likeable, and I look forward to Radnor's future projects.
Shut Up and Play the Hits
Oh, Sundance goggles. Right after I saw Shut Up and Play the Hits, I tweeted, "Shut Up and Play the Hits was lovely and smart, beautifully shot. got a little antsy with the performances but overall great. homesick now!" The cushion of time, sleep, and food has me rethinking that initial reaction, which is part of the wonder and danger of social media gut reactions mixed with the sensory overload of a film festival.
Shut Up is a carefully controlled portrayal of the week before LCD Soundsystem's last performance ever, at Madison Square Garden, and some of the aftermath. It is beautifully shot, whether we're watching LCD's front man James Murphy snuggle with his adorable French bulldog in his snowy-white bedroom or blast through songs with the band at MSG. Live footage from the concert is interspersed with scenes of the band backstage, an ongoing interview with Chuck Klosterman and Murphy that sort of acts as a narrative thread, and shots of Murphy looking pensive and going about his day. As promised, it is a "funeral" for this eclectic band, but what about its life?
There is almost nothing about the other band members and a little about the roots of the band, but it's basically all about James Murphy. Even as a fan of the band, the performance footage seemed to drag on in places so I am not sure how non-fans will appreciate the film. Then again, is that even the point? If it's not accessible to other filmgoers, possibly on purpose, what does that say about the intentions of the filmmakers? As a tribute to the last days of LCD Soundsystem, it mostly satisfies, but as a documentary, it felt fairly shallow with a false sense of intimacy.
The Surrogate is one of the few movies I've seen at Sundance that I didn't just enjoy or admire, but which moved me to tears with the depth of its execution on every level. Inspired by the short doc Breathing Lessons about journalist and poet Mark O'Brien, The Surrogate takes on the rarely discussed topic of sex and the disabled. O'Brien, who spent the majority of his life in an iron lung, wrote about losing his virginity to a sex surrogate in the article "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate" for The Sun; this article and the short doc was the basis for writer/director Ben Lewin's screenplay.
John Hawkes stars as O'Brien, a vibrant, intelligent, hilarious man who isn't painted as an angel or a victim. It feels like a cliché to mention Hawkes' substantial transformation for this role, but when your protagonist is confined to a gurney, iron lung, or bed, his legs atrophied from disuse, it would be ridiculous not to discuss it. Helen Hunt is fantastic as Cheryl, the surrogate who helps Mark explore his sexuality and eventually lose his virginity. William H. Macy is also great as Father Brendan, a priest who receives Mark's frank confessions as a friend.
It seems entirely apropos that Fox Searchlight bought The Surrogate (for six million bucks!) in light of its support of Shame, NC-17 rating and all. While The Surrogate's sexual content is obviously quite different than Shame, it's a film that sheds light on a facet of human sexuality that is too often ignored. I am no expert on the topic of sex surrogacy, so I welcome the discussion that The Surrogate brings. To my naïve eye, the film offers a nuanced, although dramatized, look at a complicated professional relationship. After all, anyone who's been through psychotherapy can attest to how hard it is to "break up" with one's therapist; how much more complicated it must be to enter into such a relationship knowing it must end, especially given the type of emotional and physical breakthroughs it entails. Even the real-life patients and therapist portrayed in Kirby Dirk's doc Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate exhibit the same emotional and occasionally painful emotional bonding portrayed in The Surrogate. (Private Practices is currently streaming on Netflix.)