Sundance: A Good Day

The first day of my first Sundance proved fruitful. I saw four films, all of which were successes.

David Gordon Green’s latest atmospheric mood piece, Snow Angels, is another of the filmmaker’s nuanced, emotionally true investigations into relationships both burgeoning and breaking. Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale are at the story’s nexus, playing a separated couple with a young daughter. Green deftly weaves a variety of characters into the couple’s orbit, including a touching relationship between two high school kids (well played by Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby) that brings to mind the director’s 2003 Sundance success, All the Real Girls. And while Green ups the melodrama in this ambitious adaptation of Stuart O’Nan’s novel, he laces the film with plenty of humor, a fact he brought up in the post-screening Q&A: “I needed those (comedic) windows to balance out what could otherwise be an aggressive drama … at least I do for my own sanity.”

Andrew Wagner’s blandly titled Starting Out in the Evening is an elegant drama about acclaimed but out-of-print novelist Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) who is struggling to finish one last novel before he dies. Enter Heather (Lauren Ambrose), a bold, ambitious graduate school student looking to revive his career by writing her master’s thesis on “America’s greatest unknown novelist.” Emotionally rich, well written and often incisive about the influence of life on art and vice versa, Starting Out in the Evening wades into some deep psychic waters without ever sinking into unbearable melodrama. Much of the credit goes Langella and Ambrose, whose scenes together never fail to compel, yielding moments that seem both odd and deeply authentic.

A Good Day
Lauren Ambrose and Frank Langella in Starting Out in the Evening.

Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier’s feature debut, Reprise, treads similar ground as Wagner’s more straightforwardly rendered look at the writing life and its affect on relationships. Erik and Phillip are lifelong buddies who dream of becoming successful novelists. Alas, things get complicated when they get what they wish for. Trier’s non-linear narrative, varying film stocks and other technical flourishes sometimes get in the way, but Reprise is an accomplished debut that bodes well for the director’s future endeavors.

After three heavy dramas, Adrienne Shelley’s Waitress was a welcomed sight as my final screening of the day. An off-kilter comedy starring Keri Russell as an unhappily married waitress with a unique skill for making mouth-watering pies, Waitress arrives at Sundance with a tragic back-story: writer/director/actress Shelley (best known for her appearances in Hal Hartley’s early films) was murdered in New York City a few months ago, a fact that added an extra layer of melancholy as I watched this sweet, well-crafted film.

Elsewhere, I’ve made two very brief treks to Main Street, where celebrity-spotting is apparently at its finest. Well, the only familiar face I saw was that of Crispin Glover, who looked dapper in a black suit and tie as he chatted up several people at a private party for press and filmmakers. Glover’s in town with his latest wonderfully obtuse directorial effort, It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.

— Jason Gargano

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