The excitement of Sundance is really all about discovery. Sure, there’s the typical film festival rigmarole around celebrities and new work by our favorite indie directors. Yet the biggest stories are always the surprises, the brilliant work that we didn’t see coming and that will ripple through the movie conversation for the rest of the year. That can create the impression that people like Sean Durkin and Cary Fukunaga extemporaneously materialized in Park City one morning, in a puff of smoke. Admittedly that kind of story can help films get seen; the legend of a magical discovery can really push a marketing (or awards campaign) narrative forward. It just isn’t usually true. Filmmakers don’t simply apparate in Utah. Both Durkin and Fukunaga (along with recent success stories Paddy Considine, Dee Rees and Maryam Keshavarz) honed their craft with short films well before taking their first features to Sundance.
As is sadly the case for most shorts, not many people have seen their earlier work. But the lucky audiences who caught these films were given a privileged inkling of the future success these directors scored in Park City. Don’t you want to be like them? When everyone is going gaga over a new and exciting feature filmmaker, don’t you want to put on a slightly superior face and point out how marvelous their shorts are and how quite surprised you are that no one else noticed? Here are six innovative and promising films from directors taking their first feature-length Sundance bow this week. Take note.
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The Saddest Boy in the World, by Jamie Travis
Jamie Travis has made some exceedingly disturbing short films. Yet he also has a knack for very strange and borderline emotionally inappropriate comedy. The Saddest Boy in the World, the second film in a similarly titled trilogy, is a fascinating and oddly delightful portrait of a nine-year-old boy on the verge of suicide. Bright candy colors and a warm sense of style turn the thematic darkness on its head, leaving you somewhere between laughter, tears and a strange sense of guilt for not knowing which emotion to choose. It’s the inspired descendant of Harold and Maude that Gus Van Sant’s Restless could have been and wasn’t.
It also makes me terribly eager to see the feature, For a Good Time Call… Sundance’s website promises a movie “that will leave you screaming in surprise and delight,” which is exactly Travis’s strength.
Dog Days¸ by Rodney Ascher
Rodney Ascher made it onto Christopher Campbell’s list of 10 docs to look out for at this year’s festival, and I couldn’t agree more. His unique sense of humor and stylized parody is his greatest strength, a gift that will undoubtedly make Room 237 the weird documentary everyone is hoping for. His odd mockumentary The S from Hell seems like the obvious choice for this feature, the closest thing to a doc he’s done so far. Yet the dark comedy of The Saddest Boy in the World should really be followed by something almost impossibly light. Dog Days is off beat and probably funnier than it should be. Two dudes pretending to be dogs would probably be just a little too creepy if directed by anyone else, but somehow Ascher pulls it off.
Dennis, by Mads Matthiesen
Like Sean Durkin and Paddy Considine, Mads Matthiesen is coming to Sundance with a feature adaptation of a short film he’s already made. The story is simple, the life of an introverted bodybuilder named Dennis trying to balance his earnest desire for love and an overbearing mother. Yet there are no caricatures here, no Hitchcockian crone wielding terrifying power over her child. There’s Dogme 95-esque quality to the short, presenting actor Kim Kold’s impressive bulk while simultaneously letting us into his gentle and awkward spirit. Both Kold and Elsebeth Steentoft (mother) return for Teddy Bear, a feature adaptation that promises to be one of the more genuinely human films at the festival.
Viernes Girl, by Aurora Guerrero
From the quiet poetry of Danish bodybuilding to the sexy steps of the merengue, here’s a fun low-budget short from writer/director Aurora Guerrero. Chila’s bedroom is right next to her brother’s, and the walls are thin. He’s got a different girl every day of the week, which the split screen turns into a bit of visual comedy. Yet it isn’t until the end of the week when the viernes girl shows up that the balance between the two siblings takes a turn. There’s a quick energy to the wit of this short, deserving winner of the 2005 HBO short script competition. Let’s hope it carries over to Mosquita y Mari, Guerrero’s Sundance feature and another look at youth in Los Angeles.
Blokes, by Marialy Rivas
Adolescent sexuality and totalitarian dictatorships totally make perfect sense together on film, I swear. It sounds weird, but at least since Federico Fellini’s Amarcord and Milos Forman’s Love of a Blonde the two have made for intriguingly astute cinema. Blokes is no different. The story is of Luchito, a young boy in the midst of hormonal turmoil and surrounded by the Pinochoet-controlled Chile of 1986. Marialy Rivas uses the kid’s innocence to paint a picture of the tense atmosphere in the country at the height of the military government’s power. Finding himself drawn to a neighbor, Manuel, Luchito stares from his window into the older boy’s bedroom with voyeuristic teenage desire. Yet in the atmosphere of 1980s Santiago, nothing is that simple or safe.
Young and Wild, Rivas’s Sundance feature, appears to be contemporary and far from the dark political content of Blokes. Yet it also promises to be a filled with the “burning fires of religious fervor and youthful sexual energy.” If this short tells us anything, it’s that this talented writer/director should be able to pull that off.
Glory at Sea, by Benh Zeitlin
I’ve saved the grandest and most ambitious film for last. Inspired by the resilience of the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Benh Zeitlin and Court 13 brought their own extraordinary dedication to the Crescent City in the making of this film. They cast Glory at Sea with local non-actors and built the junk raft at the film’s narrative center with refuse found all over the city. Glory at Sea is a work of hope and strength, a surprising and folkloric work that sits at the intersection of Neorealism (Visconti’s La Terra Trema comes to mind) and Magical Realism.
At this year’s festival Zeitlin will return to the Delta with a cast of non-actors for Beasts of the Southern Wild, and if we’re lucky it will share Glory at Sea’s unflagging spirit.