“The Sundance Movie.” In recent years, this description has come to signify a specific kind of movie. It’s usually a dramedy with an eclectic ensemble cast, an indie rock soundtrack and a story that deals with something dark (cancer, depression, lost love) in a way that’s poppy and a little twee. To say that “this movie is so Sundance” is to say that it falls in line with recent Sundance hits like Little Miss Sunshine, 500 Days of Summer or even Garden State.
Some people hate these “Sundance movies.” I don’t, but some people do. They are often refreshing discourse from the grim, forcefully dramatic fare that ends up filling in the rest of a festival schedule. They are a respite from challenging documentaries, powerhouse dramas and every manner of filmmaking experiment you can imagine. As the kids might say, they make you feel all the feels. And if you ask me, there’s nothing wrong with that.
There’s especially nothing wrong with 2015’s crop. I like to call it the Brat Pack Trio. Three movies that are united by a set of interesting criteria: they all include standout leading performances from a young actor or actress, they are all driven by strong musical choices and they all have big personalities. I’m talking about three very good films: Me Earl and the Dying Girl, Diary of a Teenage Girl and Dope. Allow me to introduce you to them.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Sony Pictures Classics
Prior to adapting Phoebe Gloekner’s graphic novel and directing this movie, Marielle Heller could have best been known as “girl who stood behind Val Kilmer in MacGruber.” From here on out, she’ll be known as a breakout filmmaking talent – someone we’ll surely be watching to see what she does next. Set amidst the counterculture haze of 1970s San Francisco, Diary of a Teenage Girl is the story of a girl Minnie (Bel Powley) who tackles her own burgeoning sexuality head on and ends up in a twisted relationship with her mother’s boyfriend (played by Alexander Skarsgard).
The film is littered with great performances, including that of both Skarsgard and Kristen Wiig (who plays Minnie’s mother), but this is Powley’s show. The story wonderfully and energetically conveys all the anxiety, pain and confusion of growing into one’s sexuality. Through her charismatic performance, Powley infuses Minnie with self-awareness and confidence. She has the ability to be very alluring and mature in one moment, then reveal the child beneath the surface in the next.
It’s not rare to see a coming-of-age movie about sex that involves a girl. It is far more rare, however, to see one that is from her perspective. Think of all the coming-of-age sex comedies you’ve seen that are from the male perspective. Boy grows up, pursues the girl of his dreams, etc. In this instance, Minnie is offering us a new and complicated perspective on the matter. She’s also written with such agency that while her story is being told through a feminine lens, it feels universal. I would never claim to be an expert on the subject of advanced feminism, but this feels like what they talk about when they talk about seeing gender on equal footing. Diary of a Teenage Girl accomplishes this without having to be forceful or overt. It’s unique and universal at the same time, thanks in great part to the work of the source material, the script and an incredible performance from Powley. If it weren’t destined for a pretty hard R rating due to nudity and language, I’d recommend it as a movie for teen boys and girls who are in that period of struggling with their own sexuality. For us adults, however, it speaks truth to the process of growing up.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
At Sundance, consensus is rare. When combining such a large and wide-ranging swath of press and industry from around the world, it’s not likely that everyone will be high on a single film. This year ran against that grain with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a movie for which I am yet to meet a hard detractor. It’s a film that would be easy to write-off based on its longline: it tells the story of a high school loner who is taken out of his comfort zone of anonymity and forced by his mother to befriend a girl recently diagnosed with cancer. With the help of his only friend and amateur movie-making partner Earl, he learns lessons about being part of something bigger than himself. He finds friendship and a richness of emotional experience in his time spent with a witty girl with cancer.
See? Easy to write-off. You don’t have to guess. Yes, it’s also got an upbeat and poppy soundtrack. And quirk, plenty of quirk.
There’s far more to this movie, however, than the usual “Sundance formula.” For one, Greg (the titular Me) and Earl have a love of cinema – the kind that leads them to remakes of Werner Herzog movies and Criterion classics. Their filmmaking drives energy into otherwise mundane moments of the movie. Credit should be given to writer Jesse Andrews, who adapted his own book of the same title, and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, both of whom squeeze every ounce out of the film’s livelier and more charming moments.
The performances are also strong. Thomas Mann, who you may recognize from Project X or It’s Kind of a Funny Story, gives Greg a charismatic, oft-caustic shell and slowly but surely exposes a well of heartfelt emotion under the surface. Olivia Cooke plays Rachel (the girl with cancer) bravely and with a wit of her own that slowly erodes as her condition worsens. Earl is played by newcomer RJ Cyler. Stoic and given some of the film’s best one-liners, Cyler proves to be far more than the film’s comic relief – at times he’s the quietly beating heart of the film.
Together this cast of youngsters excels within the confines of a great script and the steady hand of a director growing into his own style.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl starts by presenting us with a number of genre tropes (witty teens, cancer, young love). Then it bounces those tropes around in unexpected ways and leaves us laughing, heartbroken and thoroughly satisfied in the experience as a whole. It’s the perfect kind of movie for people who hate this kind of movie.
Open Road Films
The third film in our teen trifecta is about a young kid growing up in The Bottoms, a touch neighborhood in Inglewood, California. Our main guy Malcolm, played by talented newcomer Shameik Moore, is a nerdy kid living in a gangster’s paradise. He loves 90s hip-hop alongside his two friends Diggy (Kersey Clemons) and Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori). He lusts for Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), the older girl across the street who runs with a slightly more dangerous crowd. And most of all, he’s on a quest to get out of The Bottoms and get into Harvard.
It’s all thrown into a loop one night when his desire to be close to Nakia leads him closer to a life of crime than he ever envisioned for himself. This is where the title Dope goes from being a play on the popular expression from the 90s to being literally personified in the drug-related situation that stands to ruin all of Malcolm’s plans.
From there it’s a stylish, earnest look at modern culture – everything from coming-of-age in the millennial era to our love for rehashing recent decades (hello, 90s nostalgia). The only problem that arises with Dope is that late in the game it becomes a message movie. The message is earnest and deserving of a platform (it has to do with how we view a person based on race), but it feels a bit shoehorned in. Involving a fourth wall-breaking Malcolm replacing an otherwise entertaining narrator (Forest Whitaker), Dope takes a tonal shift in its final minutes that detracts from all the great work the film has done early on.
This does not detract, however, from the fact that writer/director Rick Famuyiwa has made a clever movie filled with interesting characters. He’s also delivered a film with a beating heart. That beating heart is often provided solely by lead Shameik Moore, but it’s there all the same.
Moore, like Powley and Mann in the other films we’ve talked about today, delivers a star-making performance. Famuyiwa, to his credit, shows a confidence that is seen in the other two filmmakers, as well. Each of these films is united by the fact that they are cleverly drawn stories that feature stand-out young performances. But each has its own unique vision. That’s what makes them special: honesty and quality of vision. It’s something that has come to define the best of “The Sundance Movie.”