A Snapshot of American Independent Cinema in 2016
A report back from Sundance London, where the best of American indie film was on the menu
After taking a year off in 2015, the team behind Sundance London returned this year to give UK audiences a snapshot of what's cooking on the American indie scene, with the lavish Picturehouse Central acting as the festival's new hub for UK or European premieres of some of the buzziest titles to have emerged from Sundance in January. Here's an unranked top five of our highlights of what we did manage to catch, some of which will be arriving in UK cinemas soon.
Dir: Todd Solondz
Due to its following of a forlorn-looking animal through various human owners and their own tales of misfortune, the arthouse-inclined might be tempted to label Wiener-Dog (★★★) as Todd Solondz’s take on Au Hasard Balthazar, except with a dog instead of a donkey and little comparison when it comes to the actual quality of the piece. Among the band of misanthropes and miserably treated are Danny DeVito as a film studies professor, Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts as a married couple with little in the way of internal censors, and Greta Gerwig as a grown-up version of the lead character from Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse.
At this point in his career, now in its fourth decade, you either know what you’re going to get from the man behind Happiness and Dollhouse, or you’re probably going to get quite a nasty shock. That said, a couple of the tales here are more palatable than others, but these can’t quite transcend the film's overall feeling of mean-spirited pettiness – props, though, for the 'Ballad of Wiener-Dog' musical intermission.
Wiener-Dog is released 12 Aug by Picturehouse Entertainment
Morris from America
dir: Chad Hartigan
In 2013, Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner was a small-scale festival hit, particularly notable for how its story of two older men trying to find a fresh start in life felt filtered through their POV, rather than detached and commenting on their aspirations and interests from a distance.
A similar quality is carried over to his follow-up film, Morris from America (★★★★), though the POV is different in focusing on two Americans, 13-year-old teenager Morris (Markees Christmas) and his widowed father (Craig Robinson), adjusting to a new life in Heidelberg, Germany after the patriarch is hired to coach professional football.
As a coming-of-age tale, one refreshing aspect is how Morris flirts with some stock notes of more hedonistic youth stories (e.g. ecstasy at a party), but takes the route less trodden. Hartigan pulls off the difficult task of finding compelling drama in a basically good kid just trying to find new bearings. And while Christmas is great, it’s especially enjoyable to see comic stalwart Robinson get his own sort of 'Punch-Drunk Love moment'. He doesn't exactly deviate from his usual on-screen strengths but gets to use them for a considerably different tonal register.
Author: The JT LeRoy Story
Dir: Jeff Feuerzeig
A decade on from The Devil and Daniel Johnston, documentarian Jeff Feuerzeig returns to the well of artists whose creativity flirts with oft-extreme forms of depression. With Author: The JT LeRoy Story (★★★★), though, the story’s one that had ripples beyond just the comparatively niche world of one arts scene.
JT LeRoy was a gender-fluid wunderkind who became a literary success seemingly overnight in the late 90s. Celebrity fans and eventual confidants included the likes of Billy Corgan, Gus Van Sant, Courtney Love and Tom Waits, while ‘his’ second novel was adapted to film by Asia Argento in 2004. In 2005, a newspaper broke the news that LeRoy wasn’t real, but the creation of Brooklyn mother Laura Albert, who’d been posing as LeRoy’s manager under an additional fake identity; the avatar of LeRoy people thought they’d known was Albert’s sister-in-law in disguise.
Archive footage and borderline libellous recordings are peppered around a centrepiece of candid to-camera monologues from Albert, and she’s an unsurprisingly compelling storyteller, granting a tongue-in-cheek quality to support the documentary’s rollercoaster journey concerning very real emotional traumas.
Author: The JT LeRoy Story is released 29 Jul by Dogwoof
Dir: Clea DuVall
Put photos of the ensemble cast of The Intervention (★★★) on a board and throw a dart, and you’re likely to land on at least one of your favourite character actors from a certain age group: Melanie Lynskey, Natasha Lyonne, Ben Schwartz, Cobie Smulders and Alia Shawkat to name just a few. Clea DuVall, making an assured writing and directing debut with the film, would likely also be one of those actors, and The Intervention is very much an actors’ showcase first and foremost, including one for DuVall herself.
As the title indicates, the film sees a weekend getaway/overdue catch-up between four couples take a turn for the sour when one (Smulders and Boardwalk Empire’s Vincent Piazza) discovers the whole trip was orchestrated to host an intervention on their marriage. Of course, it’s made abundantly clear that no one else in the house is exactly a paragon of emotional or commitment stability themselves. Cue a series of funny and touching set-pieces that hardly feel particularly new, but are largely winning thanks to the strong cast.
Dir: James Schamus
With Philip Roth adaptation Indignation (★★★★), long-time producer and former Focus Feature CEO James Schamus makes the jump to directing with impressive results, and a classical feel reminiscent of some of the acclaimed dramas he helped shepherd to the screen (Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, for one).
The finest performance yet from Logan Lerman anchors the 1951-set film, which sees his character, Newark-bred Jewish teen Marcus Messner, enrol in a Lutheran college across the country in Ohio. In doing so, Marcus successfully avoids the draft for the Korean War, which is but one of a trio of issues provoking emotional implosions from this otherwise straight-laced, morally sound young man.
The two others are his grappling with new notions of sexuality in his romance with troubled classmate Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) and distinct indignation provoked by the college's frustrating Dean (Tracy Letts). The latter conflict forms the basis of the film’s thrilling conversational set-pieces, which cover all sorts of moral and ethical dilemmas in a nuanced fashion that never quite lead where you may be expecting.
Sundance London ran 2-5 Jun http://sundance.org