Notes from Sundance

Fewer films than expected sold this year at Sundance, but there were plenty of highlights in the ten-day festival. What’s likely coming to a theater near you?

Fewer films than expected sold this year at Sundance, but there were plenty of highlights in a ten-day festival marked by picturesque snowfalls, strong documentaries, and unlikely sequels.
The first days of the fest were abuzz with the news that Hamlet 2 sold for $10 million. A latecomer to the festival, the rough cut of Hamlet 2 barely got onto the screening schedule. An ironic portrayal of the perennial high school teacher drama, the film stars Steve Coogan as a drama teacher who writes a sequel to Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy to save his job from budgetary cuts.
With indiscriminate jibes at movie clichés, political correctness, and Christianity, Hamlet 2 is hit or miss with its punches, but the rushed cut of the film excited buyers — it sold to Focus Features after a bidding war.
The “estranged sequel” feeling of the film seemed to be a theme throughout the festival, where echoes and direct references to other popular films were abundant.
Sundance’s most famous graduate, Little Miss Sunshine, had a clear inheritor this year in Sunshine Cleaning. Sharing a similar name, a quirky family story, and Alan Arkin in an offbeat but loving grandfather role, Sunshine Cleaning tells the story of two sisters who take up biohazard removal as a means of improving their lot in life. Starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, the film has strengths that compensate for its familiar elements. But whereas Little Miss Sunshine sold for a record $10.5 million and went on to make $60 million at the box office, Sunshine Cleaning was unsold at the end of this year’s festival.
Another showpiece of the festival yet to find a buyer is the almost-mockumentary Anvil: The Real Story of Anvil. Following the two original members of a 1980s hair-metal band as they toil in obscurity in Ontario, Canada, the documentary often pays tribute to 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap. Equal parts humor and pathos, Anvil follows men who — despite adversity and some harsh reality checks — refuse to let the dream die.
A similarly themed fictional project tells the story of a devoted air drummer on his quest for greatness. Ari Gold writes, directs, and stars in Adventures of Power, a film that might be hindered in the marketplace by its similarities to 2004’s Sundance hit Napoleon Dynamite. Aside from the physical similarities between Power and Jon Heder’s Napoleon, the films share slightly delusional main characters, an underdog Cinderella story approach to plot, and even enthusiastic Hispanic sidekicks.
Another twist on a classic from the festival is still searching for distribution. Phoebe in Wonderland boasts a cast that includes Patricia Clarkson, Felicity Huffman, and Bill Pullman, and follows an impressively self-possessed Elle Fanning as the 8-year-old Tourette’s sufferer Phoebe. Cast as Alice in the school play, little Phoebe dives into the fantasy world of Wonderland as an escape from her daily troubles.
More successful out of the gate was the adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke. Though not as iconic as 1999’s Brad Pitt vehicle Fight Club, the raunchy story of a sex addict and his mentally-ill mother won a Special Jury Prize for drama and sold to Fox Searchlight for $5 million.
Morgan Spurlock’s hotly anticipated Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden? takes a childlike approach to geopolitics, but Christopher Bell used Mr. Spurlock’s ingénue approach to documentary-making to far greater effect in his steroid doc Bigger, Stronger, Faster.
With so many films on display at the festival — 207 this year — it is impossible that they will all make it to theaters, but there were plenty this year that deserve to get picked up.

A partnership with HBO ensures that Sugar, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s story of a Dominican baseball player and his troubles breaking into the American game, will at least make it to television. Starring newcomer Algenis Perez Soto, Sugar diverges from sport hagiography to show what happens to talented players who don’t shoot straight to the top of their field. Stunning gems like Captain Abu Raed and Frozen River stood out in the crowd of features, while Man on Wire capped a very strong breed of documentaries.
Winning the World Cinema Jury Prize at the festival, Man on Wire tells the story of the impish Frenchman who put on a tightrope show at the top of the World Trade Center in 1979. Watching the Twin Towers star in a lighthearted romp of playful espionage is especially poignant in light of the tragedy they are remembered for today.
With the influx of SUVs, temporary clubs, and fur-clad blondes flooding the streets of Park City, the quaint ski town takes on an entirely different feel during Sundance. But attendees are glad to be reminded of where they are every once in awhile: The biggest laugh I witnessed came during Sunshine Cleaning, when Mary Lynn Rajskub’s character finishes explaining why she doesn’t drink. The crowd was positively overjoyed when Emily Blunt turned to tell her: “You should just tell people you’re Mormon.”
It’s hard to imagine that Mitt Romney supporters surround a festival enclave dominated by Robert Redford sightings and industry gossip, but it’s simply another offbeat touch to a festival that prides itself on them.

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Meghan Keane is a film critic for the New York Sun.


  • Joanna Bogle

    Joanna Bogle is a writer, biographer, and historian. She relishes the new translation of the Mass, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, her own excellent local Catholic parish, traditional hymns (especially, perhaps, Anglican ones) rain, good literature, sleep, the English coast, Autumn, buttered toast, and a number of other things too precious and important to list here. Visit her blog.

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