I'm getting acquainted with Sundance Hype, and now, on the morning of my fourth day at my first ever Sundance Film Festival, I think I'm ready to explain how it works.
Sundance Hype is like a game of telephone. We all arrive knowing nothing, but in an environment full of self-described insiders and reporters and Park City moms and other types of know-it-alls, having information becomes Goal #1 as soon as we hit main street. So you hear something — you read a tweet, you overhear a conversation on the shuttle — and the next time you find yourself making small talk in line or at a party and someone brings up a film you can say "Oh, that's supposed to be amazing."
With any luck, it is amazing, and the game of telephone helped motivate you to get on the waitlist for something you otherwise would have missed. But a lot of times you are met with disappointment. And then, unlike a game of telephone, you never get a chance to look around at everyone and laugh about how garbled the message got, because most people are still obediently repeating it even as they leave the theater.
THE FESTIVAL IS ITS OWN CONTEXTUAL MICROUNIVERSE
It's kind of alienating, to be totally honest. In my first diary entry I expressed my excitement about seeing things free of context, but — surprise, surprise — the festival itself is its own contextual microuniverse, with its own buzz currency (if you're reading tweets from the festival and feeling that FOMO, trust me, everyone here on the ground feels it too). I've seen seven films here so far and none so far has given me that "Ah! How I love the cinema!" feeling. (Moments in Girlhood, a Spotlight film which premiered at Cannes last year, did, but the film as a whole never really gelled as a fully cohesive organism.) But when I peruse reviews and tweets coming from the festival, I feel like I must be missing something.
I'll give you the rundown of the last couple days. Friday was a disaster, and I apologize to anyone who was subject to my stream of tweets as I sat alone at Bandits Bar and Grill eating a BBQ chicken salad and charging my phone. (Especially Skrillex. Sorry I didn't make it to your show, the flock of girls outside the venue wearing sleeveless dresses and stilettos in 20 degree weather made me tired just looking at them.) After seeing a midday press screening of Girlhood, I proceeded to miss waitlists for Tangerine and The D Train, which left me wandering up and down Main Street.
It was pretty cold that evening, and there's something incredibly demoralizing about searching for a café or bookstore or something where you can sit down and warm up and realizing that every single storefront is guarded by a PA with an iPad that your name is not on. I finally finagled my way into a party for The Overnight, a film I still have not seen (but which is supposed to be amazing) and drank free wine ten feet from Jason Schwartzman, so it was a productive hour, in that I'd finally have something to text my mom about. I woke up on Saturday determined to do better. I set my alarm for 6:30, sent some perturbed emails to the ticketing office (an email account that I'm pretty sure reroutes to the black hole in Interstellar), did some planking exercises, then joined the waitlist for The End of the Tour at 7AM on the dot and grabbed spot number six. I showed up at the Eccles absurdly early, was first in line there, and with God as my witness, I saw that David Foster Wallace movie. I was fully in command of my experience and feeling great.
CHARMING, ICKY, AND STRESSFUL, JUST LIKE SAN FRANCISCO
The Diary of a Teenage Girl was next. I've heavily tipped my priorities toward female filmmakers and female driven stories this year, and you have no idea how much my ambivalence toward many of them is bugging me? Diary has its charming moments, but it is also icky and stressful, much how I imagine the 1976 San Francisco in which it is set really was. It's also a little bit of an inside job; writer/director Marielle Heller is a Sundance lab alum, and aside from its provocative premise (its 15-year old heroine, played by newcomer Bel Powley, is having an affair with Alex Skarsgard) it plays out pretty true to the Sundance film template. Powley's breakout is one of the primary narratives being pushed this year; someone somewhere has decided that she will be the Next Jennifer Lawrence, thus making this year's festival, and the Sundance star system in general, a success.
Film no. 3 was Noah Baumbach's Mistress America, the biggest disappointment of the festival for me thus far. Man, oh man, how I wanted to like this one — Frances Ha was one of my favorite films of 2013, and I am one of those people who just falls for anything Greta Gerwig does hook, line, and sinker. Gerwig plays Brooke, a flighty would-be renaissance woman who takes college freshman Tracey (Lola Kirke) under her wing upon her arrival in New York City. Mistress America is almost about many things — what it means to be young, what it means to be successful, what it means to write fiction — but much like Brooke, never really commits to any of them. And the neo-screwball vibe it's going for is an awkwardly fitting put-on for Baumbach: his rapid-fire, stagey direction left me frequently distracted, imagining what the lines looked like in screenplay format, which is never a good thing.
WANTING SO BADLY TO SEE SOMETHING GREAT THAT YOU BELIEVE YOU HAVE IN FACT SEEN SOMETHING GREAT
Are you keeping count? That's three movies in a day. I was crushing it. My final film of the day was The Amina Profile, a documentary that can more or less be summed up as "Catfish meets The Arab Spring." This is one of those festival films that is incredibly frustrating to write about: it has at least one truly surprising turn that should not be spoiled, but unlike the splashier, celebrity-starring or -backed films, it's not a given that it will get any play beyond the festival circuit. Suffice to say it is a truly weird story about social that takes place in the middle of what is considered the first social media revolutionary movement.
I want to champion The Amina Profile despite its somewhat repetitive, laggy editing, because it's small and unexpected and the kind of film I came here wanting to see. And after a couple days here, you want to see something great so badly that you begin to believe that you have in fact seen something great. So yeah, if anyone asks, you heard it from me: The Amina Profile is supposed to be amazing.