Sundance 2014 Part Three, by Matt Warren
Well, another Sundance has been entered into the record books—a gold-leafed journal bound in human skin and dusted with the rich spice fragrance of a 16th-century tobacco freighter—and filed away in Robert Redford’s private underground library on a shelf between a souvenir bottle of limed-edition of Newman’s Own honey-oat salad dressing and the 1980 Academy Award for Best Director.
Overall, this was an exceptionally good year for the Sundance, confirming that independent cinema is alive and well and pushing the medium of film ever forward with inventiveness and inspiration. Sure, it’s easy to be cynical in an entertainment landscape too-frequently dominated by explode-y superheroes, borderline-autistic rom-com dum-dums, and endlessly recycled-and-rebooted IP. But there’s no need to despair about the future of movies. ‘Cause just like life, independent film will always find a way.
Now—let’s read about some movies!
Director Richard Linklater has famously been working on his “new” movie Boyhood for the last twelve years, intermittently gathering his cast and crew to shoot a few small scenes each year and stashing the footage away until there was enough material for a completed feature film. Well, it’s finally here. And get used to hearing what I’m about to say, because you’re gonna be hearing it a lot this year: Boyhood is Linklater’s masterpiece. It’s also—fittingly, given the length of production—one of the best American movies in a decade, destined to be watched, discussed, and admired by film fans for generations to come.
Taking the deceptive form of small-scale, slice-of-life domestic dramedy, Boyhood follows the growth and development of one young Texan (the wonderful Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to—spoiler alert—his freshman year of college. But the gimmick here is that as the in-story time unfolds between 2002 and 2014, the audience watches the characters (and actors) age in real time. Or, would you call it real-time? Maybe it’s time-lapse. Or maybe there’s no word for what this is yet. Whatever it is, it’s amazing to behold—that’s “Amazing” in the capital “A” dictionary definition of the word.
Of course, Linklater has played with similar temporal-textual narrative gadgetry before in the Before trilogy. But Boyhood takes things to a whole new level. Sure, we’ve seen movies attempting to chronicle characters’ entire lives before, but there’s an enormous cognitive difference between merely smash cutting to a slightly older actor with the same haircut as our protagonist (or whatever) and actually seeing a real human person grow up into an adult. Only Michael Apted’s Up documentary comes close in matching the poignancy of looking into a young man’s face and seeing the ghost of the child inside.
But this formalist trickery wouldn’t mean a damn thing if the film itself wasn’t good. But Boyhood is beyond good. Only Terrence Mallick’s similarly Texas-set The Tree of Life comes close in representing, with as much truth and breadth of experience, the mystery and magic of growing up. Only Linklater’s film is more accessible than ToL by a factor of about 10 billion.
It’s impossible to predict if Boyhood will win awards or be a hit or win, but it’s not impossible to forecast that this will be a movie people will still be marveling at when Ellar Coltrane is 30-years-old. And when he’s 42. And 54. And beyond.
Instituted in 2010, the NEXT competition category is a relatively recent addition to Sundance’s programming strategy, but it’s already become an integral part of SFF, as well as one of the parts of the Festival I most look forward to each year. As Sundance proper drifted toward bigger movies featuring name talent and high production values, NEXT was launched as a way of re-establishing Sundance’s indie roots, showcasing low-budget films from largely first-time filmmakers starring nobody-you’ve-eve-hear-of.
As you might guess, films in the NEXT category can be a bit little bit of a crapshoot quality-wise, but some—like Mark Vitthal’s NEXT Audience Award-winner Imperial Dreams—are fresh and exciting proof that the spirit of independent film isn’t just alive at Sundance, it’s thriving. And all things being equal, I much preferred Imperial Dreams to last year’s similarly themed Fruitvale Station, which won both the Sundance Grand Jury and Audience Award for Drama.
Following in the long tradition of L.A. “hood movies”—inexplicably, a favorite genre of mine—dating back to Boyz n the Hood (and arguably as far back as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep), Imperial Dreams follows the chaotic life of Bambi (the excellent John Boyega), a recently-sprung ex-con and single father trying to piece his life back together and pursue his dream of becoming a McSweeney’s-published writer, all while navigating the fraught gang culture of the Imperial Courts housing project in Watts, CA.
The great Glenn Plummer plays the movie’s ostensible villain: Bambi’s thug-lifer uncle, who leans on him hard to resume his old life of crime. But as you might expect, the real bad guy here is the freakin’ system, man. Luckily, Imperial Dreams isn’t heavy-handed or overtly political. It’s merely a truthful, humanistic portrait of an area of American life that—while perhaps not as omnipresent a part of the national conversation as it was two decades ago, during Compton’s gangsta-rap “heyday”—is still a relevant social issue and compelling cinematic subject matter.
My Prairie Home
Multi-talented Canadian singer-songwriter Rae Spoon definitely has an interesting backstory: born female in 1982 in cowboy-town Calgary, Spoon grew up in a conservative Evangelical home with an abusive paranoid-schizophrenic father and eventually realized she was transgender. After a few years of identifying as male, Spoon realized he wasn’t entirely comfortable with his gender identity, and instead adopted a more androgynous personae, preferring—with no small amount of complication, especially with regard to public restrooms—the gender-neutral pronoun “they.”
That’s a lot of material already, but director Chelsea McMullen’s amiable tour documentary My Prairie Home is much less interested in Spoon’s past than their present. So mostly what we get is an extended look at the life of a working, touring musician: Spoon crisscrosses the sparse Canadian heartland for the umpteenth time, staring soulfully out the window of a Greyhound bus, playing laptop-aided solo sets of quite-good electro-indie folk (reminiscent to my ears of another pair of queer Canuck artists, Tegan & Sara) to small-but-appreciative crowds in a never-ending procession of Unitarian Church auditoriums and Elks lodges. All this, interspersed with a handful of low budget music videos artfully illustrating the autobiographical themes running through Spoon’s lyrics.
It’s all very nice and interesting and just a little bit twee, but as a documentarian McMullan seems far too polite to really get into it with Rae. She is Canadian, after all. The overall product—clocking in at barely 76 minutes—feels a bit slight. It’s not bad, but compared to the depth and breadth of the best artist-profile docs, My Prairie Home feels as wispy and lightweight as an upper-register Moog keyboard fill.
Well, that’s it for Sundance 2014! I’ll be on Monday’s podcast with Tyler and David to wrap up the Festival and regurgitate, probably verbatim, many of the thoughts and opinions I’ve shared in these recaps. So be sure to listen.
Let the Sundance 2015 countdown clock begin!