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Sundance 2017: "Person to Person," "Axolotl Overkill," "Family Life"

The first full day of Sundance saw the world premiere of three films that focus on finding your place in the world, whether it's the strange streets of New York, the anything-goes nightlife of Berlin, or someone else's house in Chile. Below are three reviews, including NEXT category title "Person to Person" and two World Cinema Dramatic films, "Axolotl Overkill" and "Family Life."

“Person to Person” begins with a New Yorker talking about having a party, and after a strange day of various New York stories, the last scene is said person having a party. This is that kind of movie, an ensemble riff on character ideas based on 20/30-something New Yorkers trying to figure out what they want to do with their relationships, jobs, and their lives overall. It’s played out casually, never lunging for big laughs or revelations—and it charms often because it's cozy with just enough surprises. 

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Writer/director Dustin Guy Defa makes his stories interesting with their sensitivities. In one thread, a young woman starts a new job where she has to be invasive into a widow’s personal life, as pushed by her oblivious boss (Michael Cera in his reoccurring new role as anti-Michael Cera). In another thread, a vinyl collector (Bene Coopersmith) ventures across town to buy a rare Charlie Parker vinyl, and finds out that he’s a part of a larger scheme. Somewhere else in the city, a young woman (Tavi Gevinson) faces some type of dilemma about what she wants in a relationship, and with what type of person. 

It should be noted that this movie’s aesthetic is undoubtedly hipster—both by the jazz definition and the modern definition—a designation that it seems to demand when Coopersmith's Bene is in a legitimately tense, mini-action scene chase through a vinyl store and then onto fixed-gear bikes. That’s not a knock against the movie at all (as the “h”-word might be negative to some), especially with this movie’s excellent soundtrack. But said hipness is crucial to a key part of this spirit, where it’s a little different, but it stands out—and yes, with its own personality. In Sundance speak, "Person to Person" boasts a cast that would fit a Premiere category slot, but the movie is right at home in the NEXT section. 

That appeal isn’t limited to age, either. Philip Baker Hall and Isiah Whitlock Jr., in particular, have some strong scenes that could be throwaway moments, but they contribute to filling in the movie’s atmosphere. They would certainly fit in with that finale party, which Defa’s filmmaking invites you to join as well. 

"Axolotl Overkill" is either too much or too little, depending on how you read it. With a polarizing brazenness more familiar to Sundance's NEXT category, this World Dramatic competitor is like an abstract memoir; it focuses a great amount of detail on one life, the rebellious, self-destructive 16-year-old Mifti, and experiments with telling her story as if the pages were shuffled at random. It doesn't work. 

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The biggest takeaway for the project might be Jasna Fritzi Bauer, who plays Mifti as if the character was Joan of Arc of fucking shit up. Bauer gives one of those completely wild performances that promises great roles in the future (Stacy Martin's breakout work in "Nymphomaniac Vol. 1" comes to mind). She takes us through the albeit maddening events with an anything-goes mentality and a zeal to live more than just dangerously. 

As impulsiveness becomes the movie's main sense of logic, it's an idea that works for Mifti but not for anything writer/director Helene Hegemann is trying to do. Mifti interacts with people who float in and out of her life, like her actress friend Anika (Laura Tonke), or an older woman named Alice (Arly Jover) that she meets in a grocery store who becomes a fixation. Everyone is painted with throwaway interactions, the movie's penchant for random conversations as character detail (further nudging its French new wave influence) leading to white noise. As a filmmaker too, she communicates without logic—here's something of a flashback, here's another character of uncertain relationship to Mifti, here's a scene of a penguin walking around Mifti's apartment.

"Axolotl Overkill" dreams most of actualizing raw, wild images, but it stinks of a rotting malaise where nothing matters to the story or storyteller, not even the arc that is very possible with its boundless lead performance. It's frustrating to watch a director take on so many ideas, but pursue none of them with clarity. There's passion in here, at least for the numerous scenes that seem like intricate productions (scenes in the club, or walking around the city). But I wish I could say there was hope for where Hegemann's vision will go next—spending 90 minutes with it, I don't even know what that vision is. 

Also competing in the World Cinema Dramatic category is "Family Life," a big whiff of a Chilean dramedy about a bad house sitter, but a movie that has little personality despite its intriguing premise, and low-key quirkiness. Fifteen minutes after showing a relationship between husband Bruno (Cristián Carvajal), wife Consuelo (Blanca Lewin) and their young daughter, it finally focuses on Martín (Jorge Becker), Bruno’s long-lost friend who has been chosen to watch Bruno and Consuelo’s house for a few months (in a rare charismatic detail, Bruno asked Martin to do it when they ran into each other at Martín’s father’s funeral, of all places).

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The main problem is with the story, which never lets anything develop. A depressed but self-entertaining Martín does a couple of amusing things to the house in wordless sequences, urinating on plants, wearing Bruno’s clothes, framing a picture of Consuelo for him to look at. But he’s as bland a character can be when immersed in such melancholy, to the detriment of even the broadest ideas of comedy or drama. 

Co-directors Cristián Jiménez and Alicia Scherson provide a little focus when pursuing an underwhelming narrative about Martín using the house and its pieces to be someone else. When he meets a woman, Paz (Gabriela Arancibia) looking for her dog (after he loses the family cat, Mississippi), his lies get bigger while their bond goes beyond purely sexual. She thinks the house is his, that the woman in the framed picture is his ex-wife, etc. It’s a movie of constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, whether it's Paz finding out the truth, or Consuelo & Bruno coming home to see Martín’s displays of self-destruction, without any sympathy for anyone established. As a movie that continues to only exist rather than barely amuse, it then aims for poignancy in the last few minutes about what we can’t have, but it’s one last strike-out before the movie's done.

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