2014 Sundance Diary, Day 2: New Filmmakers Lead the Way

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Average: 4.7 (3 votes)

Sundance has always been an interesting blend of new and old; domestic and international; star power and new faces. In the last 24 hours, the two movies that struck the loudest chord with me come from young filmmakers, and that couldn’t make me happier. Kat Candler’s “Hellion” and Jeremy Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin” are spectacular films, movies that you’ll be talking about for months to come — the best of the fest so far. At the same time, a Sundance fave took a stumble last night with the premiere of Lynn Shelton’s “Laggies” while the Netflix-debuting doc “Mitt” disappoints and competition film “Fishing without Nets” strains under the weight of its melodrama. And then there’s “The Guest.” Well, we’ll get there. Strap in.

Let’s start with the best of the fest to date. Kat Candler’s raw, honest “Hellion”, a film about a father and his two sons dealing with horrendous loss. Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad” stars as a former athlete named Hollis Wilson, who now spends his days in an alcoholic haze. His wife has died, leaving him in charge of two young men, 10-year-old Wes (Deke Garner) and 13-year-old Jacob (Josh Wiggins). Wes is still young enough to dance to pop songs at the kitchen table and look up to his big brother but Jacob is rebelling against the pain in the way that pre-teens do. He’s committing acts of vandalism, getting into fights, sneaking out at night, and pushing the envelope. Motorcross racing seems to give him some focus but he’s losing it, in no small part because his father disappears for weeks at a time. He’s in no position to take care of his younger brother, something Aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis) notices.

Photo credit: Sundance

“Hellion” is like an open wound that we watch heal. Both Jacob and Hollis are striking out at the world, the former through youthful aggression and the latter through drinking and hiding from those who try to help. These are issues that have been handled before, often melodramatically, but they feel pure here. Words like truthful, honest, raw ably describe “Hellion,” in large part due to the fantastic performances from Paul and Wiggins. We watch their pain and long for them to heal as if we know them. There’s a final act contrivance to create a climax that is truly disappointing in that, well, I don’t buy it but it’s not a horrendous enough sin to derail everything that came before or the two breathtaking character beats that end the film. “Hellion” is special.

Blue Ruin
Blue Ruin
Photo credit: Sundance

And so is “Blue Ruin”, Jeremy Saulnier’s thriller that has worked its way through the Toronto and Chicago festivals to Sundance and will be released in March. You want to see it. Trust me. This dark gem reminds me of what it must have been like to see “Blood Simple” when it first came out. Saulnier, who writes, directs, and edits, has crafted a lean, mean thriller that wastes no time and builds remarkably in tension to its final showdown.

A fantastic performance from Macon Blair carries the film (he’s in nearly every frame) as the relatively non-descript actor plays a vagrant named Dwight. This bedraggled gentleman who lives in his car learns that the man who murdered his parents is being released from prison. He finds him. He kills him. And then the man’s family comes after him. It’s a driven, remarkable thriller, punctuated by extreme Coen-esque violence but always genuine and believable within its extremity. It’s such a stunningly confident work visually as Dwight is the kind of guy who doesn’t do much talking. Saulnier bucks against the trend to have thriller characters who over-explain everything, crafting a narrative through imagery. Really powerful imagery.

Someone who knows about the power of the image is Adam Wingard, who has become a festival darling after his work on the “V/H/S” films and “You’re Next,” and brings “The Guest” to this year’s Midnight segment. If “You’re Next” is the director’s take Wes Craven, this is his vibrant take on John Carpenter. The incredibly charismatic Dan Stevens plays a soldier who comes to the home of a family who have lost their son to tell them that he served with their deceased loved one. They take him in. He befriends their son (Brendan Meyer) to the point that he protects him from bullies. He goes to parties with their daughter (Maika Monroe). And he’s clearly totally insane. Wingard has such a visceral energy that it drives the film in ways that will almost certainly make this another cult hit for a horror director who has risen to the forefront of his genre.

Photo credit: Sundance

Wingard has been here three years and he’s probably run into Lynn Shelton, who has become a Sundance staple and returns this year with the world premiere of “Laggies”, starring Keira Knightley, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Sam Rockwell. This crowd-pleasing comedy features Knightley as the girl stuck in a quarter-life crisis while her high school friends keep moving on into standard adulthood. They’re getting married and having kids; she’s twirling a sign in front of her father’s (Jeff Garlin) business. While her friends are encouraging, they’re starting to get tired of this woman-child, who runs off and bumps into the life of a teen named Annika (Moretz). She hangs with Annika and her friends, crossing paths with the girl’s single dad, Craig (Rockwell), and, well, you can probably guess the rest.

“Laggies” is the first film that Shelton has directed and not written, and I wish she had. The film lacks her realism of dialogue, as so many of the dynamics within it come off as incredibly forced. Knightley pushes through the cliche to find some truth and Rockwell is ALWAYS good but the rest of the characters fall into so many rom-com and 1/4-life crisis movie traps that the film sinks under the weight of them. And as much as I love Moretz, she’s miscast here, never coming off as believable, although it’s more the fault of the script than the actress. It will probably sell and probably do well but it’s ground that has been covered just too many times for this viewer. And funnier and more believably.

Fishing without Nets
Fishing without Nets
Photo credit: Sundance

Speaking of believability, I didn’t buy most of “Fishing without Nets”, the third film about Somali pirates (after “A Hijacking” and “Captain Phillips”) in the last year and the least effective of the bunch. The film tells the story of the Somali pirate situation from the viewpoint of a young man stuck with no other options to feed his wife and child but still hesitant to commit evil acts. Telling the story from the viewpoint of the only cautious pirate with a conscience in the film feels disengenuous. It’s manipulative and melodramatic, resulting in a film that hits its beats like a blunt instrument, allowing for no subtlety of situation, and therefore no believability.

What’s more believable than a political doc? We end today’s diary with “Mitt”, the chronicle of both Romney campaigns (for the nod in ‘08 and the office in ‘12), which will debut on Netflix on the 24th. “Mitt” tries to humanize its subject but is just too remarkably thin to have serious relevance. Political junkies will gain no insight at all other than those on the left who may have believed that Romney was an actual demon. He loves his kids, his wife is supportive, and he means well but there’s almost nothing else here. That Romney didn’t have a concession speech in mind is interesting (which is in the first scene) and his son has a great bit where he gives the “prepared answer” and the real one, but that’s literally it. “Mitt” just lacks the depth to matter in the world of political docs.

Back tomorrow with “Infinitely Polar Bear,” “Cooties,” “The Skeleton Twins,” and more!

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

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