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Sundance 2016: “First Girl I Loved,” “Operation Avalanche,” “Sleight”

In my four years of Sundancing, the Next program has become one of my favorite sections of the annual Park City affair, as it highlights new voices in cinema, often presenting viewers with unique takes that they won’t find in other programs. “The Eyes of My Mother,” which kicked off the program this year, already counts as a stand-out, but other Next films have been premiering all weekend, including a trio of offerings that couldn’t be more diverse in terms of storytelling, style and intent. Sadly, two out of three of them miss their mark wide enough to be considered disappointments, but one is a stand-out for the charismatic, engaging performances at its core.

Let’s start at the top. Kerem Sanga’s “First Girl I Loved” is a tender, sweet story of teenage romance with two fantastic acting turns to anchor it. The rest of the piece sometimes gets away from its writer/director but when it focuses on its pair of committed actresses, it’s believable, confident and even moving. Anne (Dylan Gelula from “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) is a 17-year-old girl who could be called a nerd. She’s more likely to take photographs of the sports team than be on it. And one day when she’s doing just that, she spots a beautiful girl named Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand) and falls instantly in love. She’s not entirely able to express her passion, especially to her best friend Cliff (Mateo Arias), who complicates things even further by revealing that he’s trying to get out of the friend zone with Anne himself. One of the most refreshing things about “First Girl I Loved” is that Anne’s sexuality isn’t treated as a manipulative, after-school special device. It’s just a part of who she is that she’s discovering through her relationship with someone who may be discovering the same thing.

Gelula and Hildebrand make so many great, genuine choices. I love that Sasha is kind of awkward and dorky too—not a perfect object of interest that she could have been. Sanga puts neither of these characters on a movie pedestal, allowing the two actresses to embody them in a way that feels real. I wish more of that happened in the rest of the film. Cliff, the mothers of the two girls, their teachers, etc. all feel false to such a degree that I started to wonder if it wasn’t intentional—as if these two young ladies were the only genuine people left in the world. In some ways, that's what young love is like. The rest of the world falls away.

While the two protagonists of “First Girl I Loved” make up for the film’s problems enough to merit a cautious recommendation, the flaws of the other two Next movies I’ve seen so far push the needle just far enough in the other direction. J.D. Dillard’s “Sleight” has an interesting concept and engaging protagonist but the execution is flat, especially in a final act that doesn’t have nearly the energy of the closing scenes of a film that could accurately be called “”Dope” meets “The Prestige””.

Bo (Jacob Latimore) is a charismatic young street magician, the kind of guy who gets the tourists gasping on street corners with his sleight of hand. He’s also struggling as he’s the sole caretaker for his little sister, and so he deals a few drugs on the side for a local tough guy named Angelo (a miscast Dule Hill). It’s no big deal—just some Molly to guys on the weekend who want to party. The problem is that Bo is a good employee, and so when Angelo feels threatened by another drug dealer who’s moved to town, he draws the magician into his inner circle, complete with higher stakes and increased violence. At the same time, Bo falls for a beautiful young lady named Holly (Seychelle Gabriel). As his jobs for Angelo get more intense, he realizes that he’ll have to use some magic to get Holly and his sister to safety.

It’s a good idea for a movie—a young man using a unique set of tools to escape a dangerous situation. The problem is the danger, or lack thereof, in “Sleight.” The stakes never feel high enough, and so when the piece does get violent, it feels unearned. Too many of Bo’s decisions feel overly scripted, especially in the final act, and the overall film needed to take more risks to stand out from the crowd as much as it could have. A movie about a street magician caught up in the drug trade needs to be violent, edgy and scary—and “Sleight” is none of these things. Unlike Bo, it blends into the crowd.

Whatever one may say about the near-miss antics of “Operation Avalanche,” it definitely doesn’t blend into the crowd. It’s the kind of thing I love to see in Next—a film by a talented writer/director who’s actually graduating from the little festival just up the hill, Slamdance, where his “The Dirties” won the top prize in 2013 (and played the first Chicago Critics Film Festival). Writer/director/star Matt Johnson has actually delivered a film structurally similar to “The Dirties” although with the greater scope that often comes with success. Sadly, “Operation Avalanche” is more interesting concept than execution, a film that needed another pass in the writing process and to lose 10-15 minutes in the final product.

On paper, “Operation Avalanche” approaches brilliance from its logline—a mockumentary about the guys who faked the moon landing. It’s 1967 and the FBI has recruited a pair of young, eager cadets who start the film placed on Operation Deep Red, an investigation into whether or not Stanley Kubrick is a spy, and then move to Operation Zipper, which is designed to find a suspected Soviet mole within NASA. While on that operation, Matt (the character and real film creator share the same name) overhears a life-changing conversation—NASA will not be able to send a man to the moon anytime soon. They will not fulfill Kennedy’s prophecy, lose the space race to Russia, and all hope will be lost. Matt has a brilliant idea—why not fake the moon landing? As Matt points out, “Walter Cronkite will do half the work for us.”

Johnson is clearly having a blast with “Operation Avalanche” and that energy is effective … for a while. The sometimes-nauseating shaky cam structure wears out its welcome by the hour mark and Johnson drags the ending out past the breaking point. He never quite figures out how to add the right tension to the final act, as the stakes don’t feel high enough early enough for us to care. As the operation falls apart for Matt, so does the film, becoming less interesting instead of more intense. Despite that, I’m still eager to see what Johnson does next. Ditto Sanga and Dillard. And that’s what Next is really all about.

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