In most cases, it's a futile exercise to try to put all the films of a particular festival under one thematic umbrella. Even program sections in which all titles ostensibly adhere to a certain demographic trait or hail from a particular region still have room for outliers. Held at a number of locations within the Los Angeles area, Sundance's debut NEXT Weekend event screened a dozen features, drawing from the pool of the parent festival's Park City lineup but also showcasing a few world premieres. But despite the varied slate, the idea of isolation kept popping up in many of the offerings of this new NEXT offshoot.
This is Martin Bonner showcases Paul Eenhoorn as the titular coordinator trying to reclaim elements of his own past, all while helping inmates transition back into society. Stand Clear of the Closing Doors mostly centers on a teenage boy with autism who gets lost in the world of the New York subway. One of the aforementioned premieres, The Foxy Merkins, follows a freshly-minted lesbian New York hooker whose dependence on a new friend and colleague for guidance leads the two to drift around the city (complete with a late-film musical nod to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).
In many of these cases, the discovery of that one individual willing to rescue these protagonists from their various states of removal is the key to the richness of the stories. But these connections come at high emotional and psychological peril, regardless of whether we laugh, cry or sit in stunned silence along with the characters on screen. Below are three closer looks at some of our NEXT Weekend favorites, including a troubled teacher, a troubled father figure and a man who revels in bringing trouble on himself.
How to Be a Man
Dylan Kidd's 2004 film Roger Dodger followed the exploits of a slicker-than-oil, power-suit-wearer who tries to teach an assuming mentee the finer points of manhood, only to have those lessons end in inevitable hypocrisy. With How to Be a Man, director Chadd Harbold and Gavin McInnes trade in the smooth operator archetype for a genuine screw-up (who wastes no time in the film’s opening scene proving that, at least anatomically, he is indeed a man). Early on, there’s an initial fear that the sole purpose of How to Be a Man is to show outrageous, unbridled masculinity. But those fears are gradually assuaged as McInnes delivers an unrelentingly comedic turn as Mark McCarthy, a comic-turned-ad-man diagnosed with breast cancer.
Wanting to leave a set of life guidelines for his unborn son, he enlists the help of Bryan (Liam Aiken), a young film school grad, to be his personal documentarian as he imparts his videotaped lessons on location. With anything less than 100% from McInnes (and past a certain point in the plot, Aiken), the film would come off as a half-hearted indictment of macho culture. But Mark McCarthy is the best kind of imperfect hero: a damn funny one. A workplace rant, a glimpse of his returning-to-the-comedy-club set and an instructional monologue to Bryan about the finer points of female interaction all comprise a master class in comedic commitment.
There are a handful of slight missteps when Mark is jettisoned both from and within the story, moves so brash that they’re hard to exist as anything but punchlines. A late-film confrontation is a bit on-the-nose for something that, up to that point had avoided those kinds of trappings. And the subsequent revelation about Mark’s motivation for making these videos for his son is a little cheap, even if it’s immediate undercut by a satisfying slo-mo montage.
But those minor moments are dwarfed by the well-earned laughs that come from McInnes’ being front and center, coupled with Harbold’s timing instincts and Aiken as a proper straight man to all the commotion.
Much like this summer’s Fruitvale Station, Alexandre Moors uses video footage to open Blue Caprice, his tale of the 2002 Washington D.C. sniper saga. But rather than use that newsreel stock to plunge us into a particular environment or establish the resultant story as a kind of historical document, those images divert the audience’s primary focus to the area between "How?" and "Why?" John (Isaiah Washington) isn't introduced to us as a disturbed father bent on recruiting a teenager (Tequan Richmond) into a ploy to regain custody of his children, but Moors chronicles the slow burn that ropes both figures into a series of actions that seem more like an escalation of bluff-calling than a cold-blooded procedural.
RFI Porto's script barely refers to the team of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the men behind the Beltway attacks, by name. The kinetic energy of the tracking shots following the two individuals training mentally and physically in the Washington state wilderness expresses a kind of unspoken linkage and familiarity with their nefarious ambitions. When their plans are finally set in motion (much later in the running time than a biopic of this kind would usually portray it), they address each other as id-fueled counterparts in a plot with an ambiguous mission statement.
As the title would indicate, Moors and DP Brian O'Carroll give us a palette of eerie blues to mark the attacks' evolutionary stages, from the waters of the Caribbean near where the two first meet to the decorations at the house of John’s friend where they stay as the plan takes form to the vehicle that gives the film its name. The lack of a tidy, "where are they now?" on-screen text epilogue to bookend that opening footage and the framing of the film’s final moments are the parting emotional blows that cement who the story's true protagonist is.
The early moments of A Teacher feature a string-heavy score of great import, usually befitting a modern Greek tragedy. But the best moments in Hannah Fidell's ensuing tale of a high school English teacher Diana (Lindsay Burdge) and her romance with student Eric (Will Brittain) show that all the necessary drama is in its setup, not its frills. Wisely starting when the two are impossibly deep in their affair, Fidell's script bypasses any depiction or discussion of a meet-cute. Instead, the story is more concerned with the roots of Diana’s psyche than the roots of the relationship.
The traditional media narrative for these kinds of stories puts the older player as the seducer, a predatory figure. But Fidell, Burdge and Brittain subvert those expectations by giving us a story where the student holds all the cards. Eric certainly enjoys being able to treat many aspects of his trysts with Diana like a normal high relationship, but Brittain subtly conveys the unsettling realization that Diana has more in common with Eric's classmates than we suspected.
Burdge is naturally the film's lynchpin, portraying oppressive obsession without devolving into histrionics. Whether it's in the legitimately tense moments where Diana and Eric are in the most danger of being caught or in the period where Diana's instincts bypass reason, Burdge keeps that struggle on the inside. When that unnerving facade of calmness finally cracks, it doesn't shatter, but it does plenty enough to hint at what might befall everyone involved once the credits roll.