While Sundance patrons are eagerly awaiting this year's big sensation, "Stoker" and "Breathe In" and "Escape From Tomorrow" are unexpected adventures in craziness
With the opening weekend of Sundance 2013 concluded, festival-goers in Park City have been sounding a sad refrain: Where are all the great movies, the breakout hits, this year's "Precious" or "Beasts of the Southern Wild?"
The great movies may not have arrived yet, but the weird ones have.
Plenty of Sundance films have premiered to enthusiastic audiences and good notices, from the Jerusha Hess comedy "Austenland" to James Ponsoldt's "The Spectacular Now" to Liz Garcia's "The Lifeguard."
But there haven't been any major sales yet (terms for A24's acquisition of "The Spectacular Now" haven't been revealed), and the enthusiasm has been tempered by the fact that the year has yet to see a true Sundance Sensation.
People want one of those, badly. When the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan wrote admiringly of the mountain-climbing documentary "The Summit," dozens of passholders were turned away from a press-and-industry screening of the film the next morning. When "The Spectacular Now" had a splashy premiere on Friday, its Saturday morning P&I screening became similarly overbooked.
But over the first four days of Sundance '13, one thing that has become clear: If the next sensational, fresh, game-changing indie film isn't in Park City this year, it's not for lack on trying on the part of the directors who've brought their films here.
This has been a Sundance for bold, kinky subject matter, for lots of sex (onscreen), for indie directors ramping up the excess and melodrama in a way that would have seemed completely out of place back in the days when the phrase "a Sundance movie" usually meant something restrained and naturalistic like "Frozen River" or "In the Bedroom."
Case in point: Drake Doremus, whose low-key comedy "Douchebag" and romance "Like Crazy" debuted at Sundance in 2010 and 2011, respectively, returned to the festival with "Breathe In." The film has a far bigger budget than his previous films, with Guy Pearce and Amy Ryan playing a longtime married couple whose lives are disrupted by the arrival of a British exchange student, played by "Like Crazy" star Felicity Jones.
Doremus shot the film using his typical style — a script that outlines the action but allows the actors to improvise their dialogue — in the service of a story that veers into near-operatic melodrama and left the audience sharply divided.
Another Sundance vet known for quintessentially low-key dramas, Lynn Shelton, came back to Sundance with "Touchy Feely" a year after "Your Sister's Sister" debuted in Park City. Her new film isn't as overamped as Doremus', but it settles into such a quiet, moody, elliptical vibe that it almost qualifies as Shelton's take on Terrence Malick.
Meanwhile, one of the boldest and craziest Sundance entries came Sunday night at the Eccles, when Korean director Park Chan-wook ("Oldboy") unveiled his Mia Wasikowska-Nicole Kidman drama "Stoker," which already has U.S. distribution via Fox Searchlight.
"Just like any other movie I have made, the world where this story takes place is a world very much of its own," said Park (through a translator) when he introduced his film on Sunday.
He's right: "Stoker," which follows a young woman (Wasikowska) whose life changes dramatically when her father dies in a car accident and the uncle she didn't know she had arrives to stay, is an otherwordly, moody, stylized melodrama of sex, blood and family.
It hits something of a fever-dream peak around the time Wasikowska masturbates in the shower while thinking back on a murder, but things hardly calm down from there. The film is gorgeous and kinky and bold and silly; it's one of several films at this year's Sundance ("Breathe In" and "Two Mothers" among them) that have drawn chuckles during scenes that aren't necessarily supposed to be funny.
Then again, "Stoker" is a model of restraint when compared to "Escape From Tomorrow," which debuted on Friday night and had three other screenings over the weekend.
It may be the biggest WTF? movie at a festival that has showed more than a few of those, a surreal drama about a family man whose life unravels during a day spent at Disney World.
The feverish black-and-white film is part erotic drama — the dad fixates on a pair of French teenage girls and has an interlude with a witchy woman — and part hallucination; by the phony "intermission" that arrives after an hour or so of increasing strangeness, most viewers will have no idea what to believe, except that the Happiest Place on Earth often looks like a nightmare from which there is no escape.
One of the weirdest and boldest touches is that much of the film appears to have been shot without permission inside Disney World, using cameras that Disney security probably figured were shooting the family vacation.
Extensive footage from actual Disney World rides is used in the film, with the Disney music stripped out (no sense even asking for the rights) and faux-Disney music dropped in. A long sequence set on "It's a Small World" is particularly strange, since everybody knows exactly what song is being sung, regardless of what you hear on the soundtrack.
First-time director Randy Moore was also cautious with the use of the Disney name — the one time the film's lead character utters the word, it is bleeped out. But you have to wonder whether Disney's lawyers will try to throw some roadblocks in the way of a film that was to some degree filmed surreptitiously on its premises.