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Highlights of the Sundance Film Festival: London 2016

Sundance London is the UK offshoot of the largest American independent film festival, created by the Sundance Institute. A celebration of independent filmmaking and a platform of artists to make showcase their talent and creativity, the London festival was first held in The O2 in April 2012 and returned there for the following two years. The 2015 festival was cancelled, putting the future of the whole endeavor into question, but Sundance London did return in 2016, moving from The O2 to the Picturehouse Central cinema in London’s West End.

I was lucky enough to attend the press screenings of the festival on behalf of Entertainment Fuse and was able to see most of the movies that were featured. Life, Animated was not screened for the press and due to a clash in the schedule of the screenings, I had to make a judgement call and pass on Goat.

Overall, this year’s festival had a very good selection of movies to showcase.

Two out of the ten movies shown and the nine I saw were documentaries. Weiner explored the contemporary scandal that derailed the political career of New York candidate for mayor Anthony Weiner with a bottleneck approach that made for an interesting, if narrow case study. Author: The JT Leroy Story tackled one of the biggest controversies of the literary world in recent memory and offered exclusive access to the personal account of a central figure, but suffered from a limited perspective that ultimately holds it back.

Another two were straight up comedies with a very specific target audience in mind. Wiener-Dog, written and directed by Todd Solonz, is a series of unrelated stories only linked by the presence of the titular dachshund in all of them. It’s the type of the movie that you will either really enjoy, or find absolutely awful. Its brand of comedy hinges on slow, drawn out scenes and delivery that I personally believe completely deflate any potential for comedy the movie might have had. The Greasy Strangler, directed by Jim Hosking and written by Hosking and Toby Harvard is a crass gross-out comedy that revels in how disgusting and weird it is, with plenty of nudity, intentionally bad writing and acting and a juvenile sense of humor. Like Wiener-Dog, it will either work for you or it won’t. There really is no middle ground here.

The rest of the movies were dramas with various degrees of comedy to them. Other People, written and directed by Chris Kelly, was the movie that handled the balance of drama and comedy the worst, often succumbing to severe mood whiplash. That and an unsatisfying ending smothered what could have been a very moving story about a young man moving back to his home town to be with his dying mother. Indignation, written and directed by James Schamus and based on the book of the same name, is an adaptation with high production values that is completely undermined by a miscast Logan Lerman as its main character and narrator.

The other three movies were the best of this year’s selection. Here they are, ranked in ascending order.

3. Morris from America
Morris from America 1
The coming-of-age story of a 13-year old American boy living in Germany with his father, Morris from America suffers from overindulging in the types of stock plot points and characters that we have come to expect with movies that have a similar premise, but the charming pairing of Markees Christmas and Craig Robinson as the father and son, plus the unusual setting that allows for some neat cultural juxtaposition helps make the tired old tropes feel fresh enough to warrant another look.

2. The InterventionThe Intervention 1
Four couples go on a weekend retreat that is secretly intended as a marriage intervention for one of them. Written, directed by and starring Clea DuVall, The Intervention has way too much going on for its relatively short 90-minute runtime and sometimes rushes through important bits of characterization and plot to make it all work, but at its core, it’s a well put together drama/comedy with a strong sense of focus and a handful of complex and interesting characters. That an ensemble cast that includes the likes of Cobie Smulders an Melanie Lynskey is more than enough to make up for its shortcomings.

As an aside, the script and story for The Intervention would be particularly well suited for a stage adaptation. Hopefully one will be made in the foreseeable future.

1. Tallulah
Tallulah 1
Written and directed by Sian Heder, Tallulah was easily the best movie out of this year’s Sundance London selection. A complex story that sees the lives of three different women intertwined in various ways, Tallulah does an excellent job of balancing its characters and giving them their own unique voices and perspectives. In a story that has a young woman (Ellen Page) kidnap a baby from a negligent mother (Tammy Blanchard), Tallulah manages to make you understand exactly where both of them are coming from and why. It’s a gripping, endearing and powerfully acted movie with perhaps the most definite and satisfying sense of closure out of this year’s entire selection. I would not be surprised if this one makes quite a splash come awards season.

Although I was not able to attend the public screenings or any of the special industry events, I still had a wonderful time at this year’s Sundance London Film Festival. The Picturehouse Central, which was recently completely rebuilt, is a fantastic venue in the heart of London and I hope Sundance returns to it next year as well.

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