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Sundance 2015: “Nasty Baby,” “Slow West,” “Strangerland,” “Ten Thousand Saints”

Star power can be a dangerous thing at film festivals like Sundance. Seeing names like Nicole Kidman, Michael Fassbender, Ethan Hawke, and Kristen Wiig in the plot description naturally catches the eye simply because they craft an expectation that films without recognizable cast members do not. “A Western with Michael Fassbender”; “A Coming-of-Age Story with Ethan Hawke”—these are descriptors to which people can relate to more easily than films that aren’t so easily defined. However, predictability doesn’t mean quality. And while some of the star-powered films of this year’s Sundance have worked—“The End of the Tour,” for example—it feels like more of them have disappointed to varying degrees.

For example, the film with the most “names above the title” that I saw in my first few days of Sundance 2015 was also one of the least effective, Kim Farrant’s “Strangerland,” starring Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving and Joseph Fiennes. Kidman and Fiennes play the matriarch and patriarch of a troubled family who has just moved to the Australian desert town of Nathgari. Dad is a pharmacist, but he spends more time in perpetual fear of the sexuality of his teenage daughter Lily (Maddison Brown) than anything else. In fact, the Parker family had to move to this desolate area of the world because of a sexual situation with Lily that pop thinks brought shame to the entire clan. How can he possibly control her? And when will he stop worrying to the point that he pays attention to his wife and son (Nicholas Hamilton) again?

There’s no time to answer these questions as Farrant races through the first act to get to the mystery at the core of the film when the Parker children literally disappear one night. Mr. Parker sees them go for a late night walk and is just too exhausted by family drama to stop them. They don’t come home. A search party is formed, suspects are considers, and a local detective (Hugo Weaving) heads the investigation. Sadly, “Strangerland” can’t even commit to its mystery enough to engage as a procedural or whodunit, leaving a void in its center that Farrant’s lack of character development doesn’t fill. There are no stakes because we don’t know these characters; we don’t care what happened to the kids or how the parents will cope with their new reality. Even the town isn’t well-defined as an effective setting. It should be foreboding visually; it’s just boring. And so Kidman and Fiennes are stuck trying to convey their character’s increasing desperation over and over again without anything to back it up. Given the talent above this title, it’s a true disappointment.

Less disappointing by some stretch is the Michael Fassbender-produced “Slow West,” a unique Western that certainly lives up to its title with a relatively glacial pace, but is gorgeously shot and climaxes with a set piece that all fans of the genre will really need to eventually see.

Kodi Smit-McPhee is excellent as Jay Cavendish, a Scottish teenager who has come to the American Frontier of Colorado in the 19th century to find his runaway love, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). Relatively unequipped to deal with the harsh terrain and those who roam it (including a nefarious Ben Mendelsohn), Jay would likely die if not for the intervention of Silas Selleck (Fassbender), a man who offers his protective services for a fee. What Jay doesn’t know is that poor Rose has a bounty on her head of $2,000 and her one true love is leading Silas the bounty hunter right to her door.

“Slow West” is an odd beast, a film that sometimes feels genre-referential, sometimes flirts with lyrical poetry of the Old West, and even contains a remarkable thread of black comedy. It’s a tight, unsparing 85 minutes (that will feel much longer to those not engaged by cinematic visions like “Dead Man,” for example, that aren’t overly concerned with plot). Fassbender and Smit-McPhee are really excellent here, and the film was shot by the great Robbie Ryan, who worked with Andrea Arnold on films like “Fish Tank” and “Wuthering Heights” to give them such a visual language. The imagery here isn’t traditionally stark but it’s not overly mannered either. It exists somewhere in between realism and memory. “Slow West” will try the patience of some viewers, but it’s a piece of work that improves on reflection, something that becomes increasingly difficult to do at a non-stop fest like Sundance.

On the other hand, the impact of “Ten Thousand Saints” dissipates pretty much as soon as it’s over, especially as better coming-of-age films at Sundance this year (“Dope,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) further prove Robert Pulcini and Shari Stringer Berman’s film as a bit too inconsequential. The directing pair do their best with relatively straightforward source material—it’s arguable that much of the narrative thinness of this tale is something irreparable in the transition to the screen—and great supporting turns make the void at the center a bit easier to take, but this dramedy premiered early in the fest and will likely be forgotten before people board their flight back home.

Asa Butterfield plays Jude, an ‘80s teenager with little direction and little parental guidance. His dad Les (Ethan Hawke) took off a few years ago, leaving mom (the always-so-great Julianne Nicholson) for a series of other women that culminated in Diane (the also-always-so-great Emily Mortimer). Jude grew up without much of a male role model, and he spends most of his time huffing turpentine with his buddy Teddy (a great small turn by Avan Jogia, also great in a small part in this year’s “I Am Michael”). When Diane’s daughter Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld) comes to visit on New Years Eve, Jude’s jealousy over the fact that his dad’s girlfriend’s daughter spends more time with pop than he does has to be set aside when real tragedy strikes. Unexpectedly, Jude ends up in ‘80s NYC, living with dear old dad and drawing closer to Eliza.

Pulcini and Berman have long been deft at telling stories of lovable outsiders, people on the fringe of predictability. In the opening scene of the film, Hawke’s pothead dad tells his son that he’s adopted in about the most casual way possible, advising at the end that you never know what tomorrow may bring. It’s essentially the theme of the film, a piece that reminds one of the superior “Perks of Being a Wallflower” in the way it unfolds, right down to the excellent use of music (including ‘80s-era R.E.M., Social Distortion, and The Replacements). Hawke and Nicholson are great here, but Butterfield is surprisingly unengaging, likely because the perspective of the book forces him to be more of an observer of the more interesting people around him. Whatever the reason, it makes for a film in which the driving narrative doesn’t really connect as much as the casual acting decisions made by the supporting cast. It’s a generally likable movie overall that just misses an opportunity to be more.

Our final bit of star power in this dispatch comes from new festival darling Kristen Wiig, who had “The Skeleton Twins” here last year and “Welcome to Me” at TIFF this year. At least with Sebastian Silva’s “Nasty Baby” she’s operating a bit left of her comfort zone. The writer/director of “Crystal Fairy” and “The Maid” premiered a film at Sundance for the fifth time this weekend and the result is an odd hybrid of truly personal filmmaking and a final act that goes just horribly awry. For 60-70 minutes, “Nasty Baby” feels like a new key for Silva—a personal, character-driven one that I really like. Sadly, the final twenty minutes develop into something new, something that feels unearned by what came before, and the goodwill built up for over an hour leaks out of the film.

Silva plays Freddy, an experimental filmmaker mounting a new show in which he and his friends basically act like babies. Why does Freddy have babies on the mind? He’s been trying to have one with friend Polly (Wiig). As it turns out, Freddy doesn’t have the sperm count to close the deal, and so the friends ask Freddy’s boyfriend Mo (Tunde Adebimpe) to be the donor. Meanwhile, a mentally unstable man named The Bishop (Reg E. Cathey) who lives down the street starts to harass Freddy and Mo, firing up the leaf blower at dawn just to clean the street and even going as far as to physically assault Polly. Can they bring a child into this world? Should they?

Silva proves himself a likable, engaging performer, especially subtle in the early beats when he only barely hides his disappointment that he won’t be the birth father. There’s real love between these three character, and Adebimpe (of the great TV on the Radio) proves himself a natural screen presence yet again (as he did in “Rachel Getting Married” and as one would hope he did more often). There’s believable love between these three characters, and one enjoys spending time with them.

Until they don’t. Sitting at the premiere, one could feel the conflicted responses to the final act in the room. And maybe that’s what Silva wants. There’s definitely a meta reading of the work in that Freddy is making a movie with his friends in which they act like babies—and there’s certainly some immature decision-making in the final act of this film, which Silva introduced by saying he made it with his friends. Even that though is not enough to justify some of the narrative decisions here. One wishes that Silva returns to the character-driven, personal filmmaking style of the first hour of “Nasty Baby” and soon realizes that that’s more than enough.


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