June 2016 saw the return to London for the Sundance Film Festival showcasing some of the best that American Independent Cinema had to offer from this years Park City Festival in Utah. London also had a shiny new host venue in the middle of the West End, the absolutely stunning Picturehouse Central, and what a choice that turned out to be. It really is a classy, stylish and modern cinema that offers chilled out bars, a fresh menu and somewhere to relax before and after the film.
11 films were chosen to screen at this years festival along with a number of special events and talks, including screenings of past Sundance hits such as Winter’s Bone and The Usual Suspects.
Opening this years’ festival was Tallulah. Tallulah (Ellen Page) is a young woman living out the back of her van struggling to find where she fits in the world. After refusing to settle down with her on the road boyfriend she finds herself alone. That is until a chance encounter with a wealthy woman who asks for Tallulah’s help to look after her toddler. Thrust into these bizarre circumstances Tallulah decides to take matters into her own hands, she takes the young baby in an effort to protect her and pass her off as her own. This is director Sian Heder’s feature debut and what a confident debut it is. Her film handles a particularly delicate subject tactfully whilst also posing questions as to what it is to be a mother. Ellen Page is undoubtedly the life & soul of the film with great work from the supporting cast in the form of Allison Jenny and Tammy Blanchard. Tallulah is emotive & heartfelt and thought provoking.
The festival featured a number of directorial debuts including Chris Kelly’s Other People. This is his very personal film about a struggling New York writer, David, who moves back home to Sacramento to help with terminally ill mum. Back in his childhood home he is struggling to fit in with his younger sisters and dad who has never accepted that he is gay. However David insists on telling everyone that he is doing “okay” and puts everyone else’s needs before his own. The story for Other People comes from Kelly’s own personal experiences in what is a very well handled story that although is very moving it also has well-judged comedic tones to soften the blows. Another strong cast with Jesse Plemons in the lead role with the excellent Molly Shannon, there is also a pretty impressive scene stealing performance from JJ Totah as Justin that is not to be missed.
I had lots of fun with Clea DuVall’s The Intervention which features four couples taking a weekend away together, however the real reason for the getaway emerges when one of the couples realises their friends have arranged this specifically for an intervention into their struggling marriage. Only things don’t go quite to plan. The ensemble cast bubbles along nicely and comes to the boil to entertaining effect, especially when you add some alcohol and quarreling couples to the mix.
One of the most anticipated films of the festival was Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog which has several separate stories interlinked by one little dachshund, Wiener-Dog, who appears to bring a small bit of joy into the lives of everyone it meets.
Now by Solondz’s own admission he makes depressing films and this is by no means an easy watch as it’s maybe a little too whimsical for its own good. With mortality its recurring theme it’s a bizarre watch as each story meanders to the next. Despite its impressive cast featuring Greta Gerwing, Danny DeVito, Kieran Culkin and Julie Delpy, it starts off strong and even has its own inspired intermission but seems to lose its way down a depressing path.
Another disappointment was The Greasy Strangler, which is fairly difficult to put into words, suffice to say it’s a fairly unique experience. That’s not to say I hated it but it wont take you long to realise if this is the film for you. Think of it as a warped version of Little Britain merged with an episode of The Mighty Boosh, turn it up to eleven and you should be getting somewhere close.
As well as feature films, the festival also included a number of documentaries most notably Life, Animated and Weiner. Director Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated is the incredibly powerful and moving true story of how they were able to give one Autistic boy his voice through the magic of Disney’s animated films. The documentary offers a real insight into the Suskind family’s lives as they slowly bring their son Owen out of the isolation that autism has trapped him in. Using a mix of great original animation as well as snippets of the Disney Classics we all know and love, the film is beautifully put together and is sure to warm even the coldest of hearts.
Another great documentary on show was Weiner. This is an insightful, honest and fascinating documentary that follows Anthony Weiner’s New York City mayoral electoral campaign as he becomes embroiled in a media scandal. After being reduced to little more than a media punch line, this film speaks volumes in today’s political climate and shows how the media and the public can be consumed by political scandal whilst also offering the more human story from Weiner’s perspective. With unrestricted access into his life through the campaign, you will see that there is a public and a private story to be told in what is a completely engrossing documentary from Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg.
One of the standout films at the festival was James Schamus’ Indignation, which has been adapted from Philip Roth’s novel by the same name. It’s 1951 and Marcus is attending college in Ohio, which is a big change from his humble beginnings in New Jersey as the son of a kosher butcher. Away from his family he attempts to follows his own beliefs and starts to learn life’s lessons for himself, only he finds that he is continuingly struggling with authority, his own religious beliefs and his sexual repression. This is a story of a young man’s education of discovery, inexperience, foolishness, courage and love that is told with inventive energy and searing intensity whilst continuously remaining elegant. This really is a brilliant and beautifully crafted film that is very much a timeless coming of age film with contemporary themes.
Morris from America was another completely charming coming of age film that screened at this year’s festival. Thirteen-year-old Morris, Markees Christmas, moves from America to Germany with his dad. Hip Hop loving Morris is struggling to fit in and adjust to a new life in a foreign land, but after falling for one of the local girls he starts to learn what growing up is all about. The film is endearing and playful and owes a great deal of success to its ever so charismatic young lead.
Ensuring that Sundance London went out with a bang, my final film was Andrew Neel’s searing and gripping drama, Goat. After suffering a brutal assault, Ben (Ben Schnetzer) looks to join his older brother Brett’s (Nick Jonas) fraternity in a bid to prove his manhood and ends up pushing the brotherhood to breaking point. This hard-hitting film looks to question the social stigma attached to what it is to be masculine. Goat manages to sustain a real brutal intensity throughout, which at times is difficult to watch, as it examines masculinity within fraternities and the psychological damage that could be inflicted. With clear influences from Lord of the Flies and Full Metal Jacket, Goat is a film that does pull its punches. It’s raw, intense and powerful which makes it essential viewing.
Sundance Film Festival London 2016 had a great selection of films and showcased some of the best of what independent cinema has to offer. Of course the festival would not have been such as success had it not been for the stunning venue at the Picturehouse Central and its fantastic staff. I hope that the festival returns again to London next year and builds upon this year’s success.
I hope that the films presented at this year’s festival get the wider audience that they deserve and that independent cinema continues to be supported and nurtured.
Go to the cinema. Support independent film.