So, yesterday, not a couple hours after I filed my Sunday Hype Audit, a funny thing happened. I had a ticket for the premiere of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl but decided to skip it in order to finish writing; the teen leukemia dramedy was not particularly high priority for me, despite the presence of likable adults Connie Britton, Nick Offerman, and Molly Shannon. So I stayed typing at the Park City Marriott, and about two hours later, Sundance Twitter lost its mind.
Well, fuck. Why wasn't I crying too hard to type? I wanted to cry! Why did everyone else get to cry without me? A woman next to me looking at her phone sighed "shit, I think we have to see Me and Earl and the Dying Girl." She wasn't talking to me, but I did as she said. I quickly rearranged my schedule to accommodate an evening press screening and a 1.5 hour line encampment to ensure I'd get in. This ended up being not at all overkill, because word got out, and by 6 p.m. I was at the front of a huge line of journalists all waiting for the tear-stained cure for their FOMO.
I've obviously been thinking a lot about expectations at the festival, and I try to check mine thoroughly before every screening. I want to be open, I want to be curious, I want to be flexible. Honestly, I want to be a pushover. It would be so fun to like everything I saw! And then a film like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl comes along and makes me feel not only like a joyless hater, but a lonely joyless hater.
A film described as "The Fault In Our Stars meets Michel Gondry" is not something I should see without the aid of heavy sedatives
I should have known better, honestly. A film described as "The Fault In Our Stars meets Michel Gondry" is not something I should see without the aid of heavy sedatives. But director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon did some great technical filmmaking on the otherwise laughable American Horror Story: Coven, and I'm usually down for more teen movie angst than the average filmgoer. And while Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has some virtuosic visual moments, especially in its opening minutes, it gives way to empty, maudlin quirk and a barrage of film nerd references seemingly included just so a Sundance audience could chuckle to themselves self-congratulatingly.
I left the film before the credits rolled so that I could get back in line for a screening of Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which I had been booted out of at the overbooked madhouse of a premiere. I sat there in the tent for another hour, not so much stewing about Earl as feeling profoundly alienated from my fellow festivalgoers. (I hadn't even gotten the news that it was picked up by Fox Searchlight for a Sundance record of $12 million. So now I just give up.) It was Day 4 and I still hadn't found my movie. I'm still pretty positive my movie is Tangerine, a Los Angeles street fable shot entirely on an iPhone 5S, which I will not be able to see before I leave the festival. Such are the logistical cruelties of the festival.
Going Clear is strong, though it won't offer as many mind-blowing revelations for anyone who's spent any amount of time getting lost in Scientology YouTube rabbit holes, or anyone who has read Lawrence Wright's book on which the film is based. The one moment that made me audibly "wow" was the breakdown of the Church's finances, aided largely by its tax-exempt status as a religious organization and virtually free labor from its non-celebrity members. (The Church currently claims only 50,000 members, but has $1.5 billion in assets.) The Church's years-long war against the IRS in the early '90s is a particular focus of the film — members filed hundreds of lawsuits against individual IRS officials and eventually bullied their way out of a billion dollar tax bill. In one particularly insane piece of archival footage, leader David Miscavige addresses thousands of members at a rally to announce their victory against the government. Fireworks go off, and an arena full of Scientologists lose their collective shit. It's one of those great documentary moments where you realize that something absolutely insane is happening on the very same planet you live and breathe on right now.
Something absolutely insane is happening on the very same planet you live and breathe on right now
Stories from lapsed members, especially Spanky Taylor, a publicist and former friend of John Travolta, are all varying shades of horrifying — Taylor had her child taken away from her as part of a church disciplinary action. The child was left horribly neglected in the notorious children's Cadet Org for months. The church has naturally launched a smear campaign against the film, though non-believers are unlikely to be swayed by it.
I also checked out Hot Girls Wanted, an equally compelling documentary earlier in the day about the amateur porn business. I honestly wasn't sure what to make of this one going in — the press notes had me worried it would be a "what's happening to our daughters" handwringing concern-doc for the Lifetime set. But directors Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus are up to something far more humane and nuanced. They embed themselves in a house in Miami run by a self-made "talent agent" and his rotating roster of 18 and 19 year old girls driven toward porn with dreams of riches, fame, and excitement. The girls are painted neither as sluts or as victims; they are frequently funny and self-aware, if woefully undereducated about the industry they want to get into (and basic sexual health.)
A real-life Spring Breakers, if Spring Breakers was backed by the Kinsey Institute
In many ways Hot Girls Wanted, with its lurid Floridian backdrop and doofy male ringleader, is a real-life Spring Breakers, if Spring Breakers was directed by two women and backed by Kinsey Institute researchers. In the "where are they now" coda, it's revealed that most of the girls have dropped out of the business — their agent states earlier in the film that the average shelf life of an amateur porn star is about six months. In the post-film Q&A Bauer and Gradus said they had set out to make a Super Size Me of internet porn, and they are mostly successful. Hot Girls Wanted doesn't ask that we completely abstain from pornography as a society, but be more mindful of where our content is coming from.