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Sundance 2016 Day 1: Belgica, Other People, and the search for the first cry

We're all just emotional vampires

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

If you have aspirations to be an international spy, the Sundance Film Festival would be a great place to hone your eavesdropping skills. You can overhear a lot here, ranging from the banal to the indecipherable but vaguely juicy-sounding. Mostly, eavesdropping is just a good way to get a feel for what's going on in the ten thousand alternate timelines occurring during the festival — what films and performances people are responding to the most strongly; when Uber's surging.

The most mystifying conversations I overhear tend to be from festivalgoers who are here just for ... fun? What's that? Believe it or not, there are some people who just come up to Park City not because they have a film in the program, not because they work for a distributor or a studio, not because they are being paid to write content about the festival, but because it's a good time. Many are local to the Salt Lake area — there were big cheers for Park City during the introduction to Thursday's opening night film, Other People. These people are the most fun to be in a theater with, and to listen to on the shuttle back to Main Street, because they don't care who's listening to them.

The wave of sniffles washed over the theater

But Other People exposed a distinct divide between the fun-having fans and the film bloggers. The wave of sniffles started descending on the packed house about the time Molly Shannon's character went off chemo, and I started bracing myself for the flood of all-caps hyperbolic praise that would not cease until the film got its inevitable multi-million dollar distribution deal. I wouldn't have been mad at it: Other People, the debut feature from SNL and Broad City writer Chris Kelly, is a moving and extremely realistically rendered family drama — sometimes to its own detriment, but never in a way that doesn't feel well-intentioned. I wasn't bonkers for it, but I saw its appeal; I didn't begrudge anyone for letting it make them cry.

I was watching it in the Eccles Theater, the largest venue at the festival, which is more or less a super-souped-up high school auditorium. This was the screening the filmmakers and stars were at, as well as the general admission audience who managed to snag tickets. But meanwhile, over at one of the many humble strip malls of Park City, there was a separate Other People screening happening for the press. And from what I could eavesdrop (i.e. read on Twitter,) the vibe in that house was somewhat different.

Last year at my first Sundance I remember getting anxious by day four or five, wondering when a movie was going to make me cry. I'm not feeling that desperation yet; nor did I particularly expect Other People to be the film to do the trick. It's not the sort of movie I would normally pay to see in the real world, so the fact that I found it moving and amusing at all was a pleasant surprise. But it's quickly becoming apparent to me how much getting your first cry in makes this job easier — having an emotion is such a motivator to put words down that sometimes it's easy to see how people might subconsciously trick themselves into having one. It's an interesting fix to find yourself chasing.

A day of waiting for protagonists to die already

A decent substitution for the first cry is the first goosebumps, which I was lucky enough to get in the otherwise deeply flawed World Dramatic Competition film Belgica. Here is a film I'd be much more likely to seek out back on earth; a live-performance driven story about two brothers who set out to create a utopic dance club and music venue. Directed by Belgian filmmaker Felix van Groeningen (Broken Circle Breakdown) it features protagonists ranging from empty to despicable, a series of predictable "downfall via drugs and music" plot points, and a runtime at least 30 minutes too long. The female characters are given particularly terrible material to work with; it's the kind of film where the weakness of the writing for women isn't just unfeminist; it's unrealistic enough to take one out of the film.

But those performances! Using an incredibly diverse array of artists that I can only assume are working Belgian musicians, van Groeningen makes the titular club feel more vital and alive than the characters. He captures what it's like to lose yourself to dance, for better or for worse. And I lost track of how many times I got chills, even as I found myself wishing for one or both of the brothers to just OD already.

Other People was a better, more competent movie; but I'll remember more of Belgica, with its higher highs and lower lows. And at Sundance, where people of all badge colors are running around chasing that next high and/or cry, competency is sometimes a luxury we can do without.