BOY TO MAN: Director Richard Linklater filmed actor Ellar Coltrane over the course of 12 years for the ambitious Boyhood.
Director Lenny Abrahamson's Frank hit Park City like a bolt from the blue.
Sundance doesn’t live up to its reputation for launching exciting new talents into the world every year, but in the span of five hours on the festival’s first Friday, it did it twice.
Frank isn’t director Lenny Abrahamson’s first feature, but the story of a struggling musician (Domhnall Gleeson) who falls in with an underground rock band fronted by a singer in a giant papier-mâché head hit Park City like a bolt from the blue. Introducing the world premiere, Sundance Festival director John Cooper said the festival had never tracked a film through a development process as long as the one that brought Frank to the screen, and it’s not hard to imagine why. It’s a fantastically weird story about artistic isolation, made concrete by the fact that the singer never removes his mask, even showering with it on and taking meals through a tube. Underlining the film’s delightful perversity is the fact that the head sits on the shoulders of Michael Fassbender, one of the world’s most beautiful men, who manages to give a brilliant comic performance without ever showing his face.
Fassbender’s name and Frank’s loopy premise was enough to fill Sundance’s massive Eccles Theatre, but Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook was unveiled at the festival’s iconic but tiny Egyptian Theatre, which meant that fewer than 200 people saw the first public screening of a full-blown masterpiece by a hitherto unknown auteur. Pitched somewhere between a Roald Dahl yarn and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, it’s the story of a widowed mother (Essie Davis) and her 6-year-old son (Noah Wiseman), who are still reeling from the death of the boy’s father, who was killed driving a pregnant Davis to the hospital. For six years, Davis has contrived to divorce her son’s birthday from the day of her husband’s death, but with his seventh approaching, the walls that have kept her grief at bay are beginning to crumble. At first, she imagines the creature haunting her worn-down house to be a figment of her son’s imagination, but the arrival of a mysterious children’s book gives it form and power, and shifts The Babadook from being the story of a mother driven nearly mad by her son’s obsessions to one of a woman possessed and nearly destroyed by loss. Drawing on the cutout animation of Lotte Reininger and the surrealist stop-motion of Jan Svankmajer, Frank realized her specter through fantastically terrifying in-camera effects, soliciting the audience's complicity and engaging its imagination in a way more superficially seamless digital tricks can never match.
Amir Bar-Lev's Happy Valley, a documentary about the Jerry Sandusky scandal and its aftermath, is similarly about the way we use stories to either process or paper over grief. Beginning, essentially, where the story of Sandusky's horrific acts ends, Happy Valley is less about Sandusky than it is Joe Paterno, and more broadly the culture that enabled them both; at one point, a TV talking head appears to explain the nature of Sandusky's pathology, and Bar-Lev fades him out in favor of Paterno's widow talking about society's need for easy villains. Bar-Lev by no means lets Paterno off the hook for reporting and then ignoring an eyewitness account of Sandusky molesting a teenage boy in the locker-room showers, but his focus is on what he called the "shaming spectacle" through which American culture habitually assigns blame and then shuts the door on the past. The movie's central and most poignant figure is Matt Sandusky, who is Jerry Sandusky's adopted son and was also one of his victims, a perfect syllogism of the way Sandusky took unprivileged boys under his wing and then grotesquely exploited their trust.
Jeremiah Zagar, whose first documentary, In a Dream, was about his father, mosaic muralist Isaiah Zagar, returned with Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, which uses the real-life case that inspired To Die For as a lens to view how a media-besotted culture turns crimes into narratives that gradually infect and supplant the truth. Smart, a high-school administrator who was convicted of hiring her teenage lover to murder her husband, became the center of the first fully televised trial, a perfect storm of easily assigned tropes — the Black Widow, the Bad Teacher — that Zagar’s film argues made it impossible to see the truth clearly. Having gone to high school a few miles from where Smart’s trial took place, I wasn’t convinced that Smart got an unfair shake (at least not beyond a reasonable doubt), but Zagar finds a slew of fascinating characters, like a TV reporter who seems put off by the media spectacle without seeming to realize his role in it, and expertly collates archival footage to explore what feels like the archetype of the modern show trial.
Sundance was short on must-sees this year, at least until the festival announced a few weeks in advance that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood had been added to the lineup. The one-of-a-kind feature was shot over 12 years — or, as Linklater put it at the premiere, 4,027 days — with Linklater checking in on a divorced couple (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) and their children (newcomer Ellar Cotrane and Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei) at annual intervals.
Given how much the quality of Linklater’s output has varied over that timespan, it’s not surprising that the quality of Boyhood varies wildly; imagine the director of Before Midnight collaborating with the director of Fast Food Nation. But its best years are its last, in no small part because Coltrane grew during filming from a cute kid to a captivating young actor. Although Linklater initially shot clever transitions to mark the passage of time, he discarded them in favor of seamless time travel, embodying the “it goes so fast” element of parenting. The initial flood of wildly positive reactions seemed as much directed at Linklater’s undeniable achievement as the film itself, but it’s still a unique and sometimes overwhelming experience that may be better processed once the heat of the festival has died down.
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