Sundance 2015 Part Two, by Matt Warren
Welcome to the second installment of my 2015 Sundance diary. Full disclosure: I’m actually writing this on Day Three, which means that by this point in the festival my brain has already been turned into combustible fuchsia blasting jelly by a debilitating cocktail of sleep depravation, starvation, sensory overload, and prolonged exposure to Utah’s oxygen-deprived atmospheric conditions. But on the plus side, it snowed yesterday. Snow always makes Park City feel a bit more festive and on-brand. The town feels lewd without a shielding blanket of wet ivory snowfall painted across every exposed surface; like seeing LL Cool J without his trademark Kangol—profoundly upsetting. I also drank an entire case of Capri Suns while sitting in the hot tub at my brother’s condo. That was fun. But enough of these tales of wretched decadence! Who wants to hear about how much Capri Sun I drank (lots) when there’s tinsel town to discuss? So let’s do it! Go, go, go!
I Am Michael
Programmed as part of Sundance’s Premieres category, I Am Michael is consistent with the festival’s perennial emphasis on queer issues. But what’s unique about director Justin Kelly’s thoughtful, well-nuanced character study is that the story being told here is, in many ways, the exact opposite of the typical indie film coming out narrative. Shot in an impressive 19 days and based on a true story, Michael chronicles the unlikely spiritual journey of gay-activist-turned-evangelical-minister Michael Glatze, played in a career-best performance by James Franco. We first meet Glatze in late 1990s San Francisco as a proud, outspoken gay rights activist living with his long-term boyfriend (Zachary Quinto, also one of the film’s producers.) Events send the couple to Nova Scotia, where the spiritually curious Glatze gradually finds himself called to Christianity. After much soul-searching, Glatze becomes born again, giving himself over to his newfound faith and renouncing homosexuality altogether. Eventually, Glatze’s restless spiritual questing takes him to a Buddhist meditation center in Colorado, and, ultimately, to a Wyoming Bible college where he studies to become a preacher. It’s a remarkable, well-paced character study anchored by an Oscar-worthy performance from an earnest, fully committed Franco—Glatze’s sincerity feels completely natural and believably motivated at every point along the long metamorphosis. Thankfully, Kelly (who is gay, as is Quinto, as is executive producer Gus Van Sant) refrains from editorializing, keeping the film’s perspective on the subject of homosexual rehabilitation refreshingly neutral. Michael could be interpreted by advocates on either side of the issue as a validation of their viewpoint, and while I often feel that political even-handedness can be a cop-out in indie movies, the film’s impartiality feels both wise and fair. I was pleasantly surprised by how mature and thoughtful the movie was. Highly recommended.
Michael J. Larnell’s Cronies is the exact kind of programmatic, good-not-great Sundance entry I always find hard to talk about. Like, I’ve been seeing movies at this goddamn festival for nearly two decades, which means I’ve probably seen roughly 20,000 slice-of-life dramedies about urban youths and their picaresque misadventures through ghetto life. Some are good, and some are bad. The specific locales and demographics may move around a bit, but the stories, characters, and insights are always fairly similar. But as far as this sort of thing goes, Cronies is a perfectly adequate version of the template. Set in the lower-class black suburbs of St. Louis, MO, the film is essentially a bromantic love triangle between two childhood besties—laid-back stoner Louis (George Sample III) and wannabe gang-banger Jack (Zurich Buckner)—and an interloper, Louis’s new coworker Andy (Brian Kowalski), a sweet-natured white boy with a sideline in some low-level drug dealing. A jealous Jack invites himself along on Louis and Andy’s dude date to buy a birthday present for Louis’s young daughter, much to the duo’s chagrin. Taking place over the course of one long day and night, what unfolds is a funny, bittersweet coming-of-age story with clear traces of American Graffiti, Clerks, and Dazed and Confused. Stories like these always rely heavily on the cast, which is a big part of why Cronies fails to transcend its familiar core elements. Sample and Buckner are both very good, but Kowalski is an obvious and cringe-worthy weak link. Thankfully, Larnell includes some nice stylistic touches, ranging from the film’s crisp black-and-white cinematography, to the inclusion of some fourth-wall-breaking first-person interview footage. This director clearly has a lot of talent, but file Cronies under “pretty good first movie, nothing more.”
Remember yesterday when I raved about how The Witch was the scariest horror movie I’d seen since Kill List? Well, It Follows is the scariest horror movie I’ve seen since The Witch. I’ve actually been going back and forth in my brain all day, trying to decide which one I prefer. The closest I’ve gotten to an answer is this: The Witch is a greater cinematic achievement, but It Follows feels more like an instant classic. With the film, director David Robert Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover) introduces an entirely new monster to the taxonomy of supernatural villains, as fully developed in its rules and conceptualization as any ghost or vampire lore. Set in a rundown Michigan suburb outside Detroit, the story follows (!) 20-something college student Jay—Maika Monroe, who last appeared in another Park City at Midnight selection from 2014, The Guest—who suddenly finds herself the bearer of a terrifying sexually transmitted curse. The gist of the curse is this: there’s a malevolent shape-shifting entity out there slowly moving toward her at all times, no matter where she is. It’s unclear what, exactly, said entity will do if it ever actually catches up to her, but Jay is certain she doesn’t want to find out. Eventually, she convinces a handful of friends that this unusual threat is real, and the group goes on the run, attempting (with varying degrees of success) to thwart the unnamed “it.” Like George Romero’s slow-moving zombies, “it” is easy to outrun, but impossible to escape. It’s always there, somewhere, near or far, following. Making the most of a smart script and talented cast, Mitchell sustains a level of dread and paranoia that’s almost unbearable to endure. And like The Witch, it’s an incredibly well executed piece of horror movie filmmaking. An enthusiastic festival crowd can always goose a film’s impact by a couple of notches, but my gut tells me It Follows is going to be a huge hit. My advice? Don’t look back—“it” might be gaining on you.
We’re halfway there, so come back tomorrow for more crackerjack reviews, including a discussion of the only film at Sundance that’s ever made me cry—and why. See you then!