Cinema has long been fascinated with the way that people fall in and out of love, how they impact each other with their obsession or their passion, and how we are most forever changed by the people we meet. Two films in competition this year—Jason Lew’s “The Free World” and Elizabeth Wood’s “White Girl”—and two films in the Premieres section—James Schamus’ “Indignation” and Matthew Ross’ “Frank & Lola”—fall into this time-tested category of films about people intrinsically altered by someone they meet. Whether it’s an NYC young woman getting involved with the drug dealer across the street or a recently-released con who tries to rescue a damaged soul, these films pivot on the dichotomy of how it can often be those with whom we are most obsessed that lead us to our damnation.
That description feels like it’s going to be apt for the story of Frank (Michael Shannon) in “Frank & Lola.” Frank is a brooding Las Vegas chef who forms an intense sexual relationship with a beautiful young woman named Lola (Imogen Poots). Frank knows Lola is the kind of girl who’s going to get hit on by numerous men who come into her sphere of influence, but he’s doing his best to keep the insecurity at bay, cook his food, and live his life peacefully. His world is shattered when Lola shows up one night crying. She made a mistake. She cheated on him. To help explain her own problems with love and sex, she tells Frank about another man who raped her years earlier, and Frank becomes obsessed with the idea that if that violation hadn’t occurred than his relationship would still be whole. When he’s given the chance to travel to Paris to cook for a famous restaurateur, he uses it to plan an act of vengeance, and he slides deeper into jealousy, sexuality and obsession.
“Frank & Lola” flirts with deep noir—there are a lot of shots of neon reflected in windshields and lines like “Do you fall in love easily, Frank?”—but can’t quite commit to the right tone. The sense of danger is just a tick off. As Frank progresses deeper down the rabbit hole of history, sexuality and violence, Ross needs to amplify the intensity of the narrative and filmmaking, and it’s just not quite there. We always feel at arms’ length from the action of “Frank & Lola,” even though Shannon is typically fantastic, conveying a man who’s not even sure what he’s going to do but feels like he has to do something. “Frank & Lola” kind of writes itself into a corner and never feels entirely sure where it’s going but Shannon anchors it in ways that lesser performers certainly would not.
Over in Competition, “The Free World” is another film anchored by its male lead, but one that falls apart even more completely around him. Mo Lundy (Boyd Holbrook) was recently exonerated, released from Angola after being cleared for a crime he never committed. And yet Mo definitely did commit a few violent acts behind bars, earning himself the nickname “Cyclops” for what he did to another inmate’s eye. Mo is trying to be a good, non-violent man now, working in a dog shelter, caring for other animals left behind by life. One day, an abusive cop and his wife Doris (Elisabeth Moss) bring their clearly-beaten dog to the shelter. Not long after, Doris herself returns to the shelter, battered and bloodied, and Mo chooses to protect her, setting in course a sequence of events that could send him back to a prison in which he never belonged in the first place.
Like “Frank & Lola,” “The Free World” is a film that can’t settle on a tone. At times, it feels like it’s going for Jim Thompson—desperate people in a heat-soaked corner of the country who cling to each other to survive—and yet Lew can’t quite pull that off, opting too often for overwritten dialogue and paper-thin metaphors about men and women who are like the discarded dogs of society. At one point, Moss’ miscast character literally gets in a dog cage to hide from the police. Like so much of the movie, especially in the ludicrous final act, it just doesn’t work. The one saving grace of “The Free World” is Holbrook’s physical, magnetic performance. He does nothing wrong here, really capturing a wounded soul who wants desperately to be a normal person again. The problem is that it feels like Lew has no idea what to do with Holbrook’s work, creating a dynamic all too common at Sundance—a good performance in search of a better movie.
It would be too harsh to say the same thing about James Schamus’ “Indignation,” but, again, the best thing about the film is the work of its male lead. In this case, that role is filled by Logan Lerman (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) in this adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel that marks the directorial debut of the incredibly successful screenwriter and producer James Schamus (he wrote “The Ice Storm” and produced “Brokeback Mountain,” among many others). Lerman plays Marcus Messner, a blindingly intelligent young Jewish man in 1951 who avoids going to Korea by getting a scholarship to a prestigious academy in Ohio. Marcus is automatically something of an outsider by virtue of the fact that this Christian school requires regular visits to chapel to graduate and he’s forced to room with the only other Jewish kids not in the Jewish fraternity on campus. It almost doesn’t help that Marcus himself is moving towards atheism, eschewing the school’s religion and that of the group on campus looking to welcome him in.
Then Marcus meets Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), the most beautiful girl on campus. The two go on a date that ends in well, shall we say, sexual interaction. Marcus can’t believe someone that beautiful and refined would do something like that to him and he begins to obsess over this person who, in many ways, is similar to him in defiance of the norm. Just as Olivia refuses to give in to impressions of what “good girls” do and don’t do, Marcus grows more defiant of the Dean (Tracy Letts) and his restrictions. There’s a fantastic centerpiece dialogue scene between Marcus and the Dean about religion that crackles with such indignant energy that the audience applauded after it at the premiere.
The problem with “Indignation” is one that’s common in adaptations of Roth’s work—the intellectualism that he conveys on the page can come off cold and pretentious on the screen. “Indignation” isn’t risky enough, too often feeling like more of an intellectual exercise than the character study it needed to be to work. It is downright clinical at times in its dialogue scenes, and so the characters start to sound more like mouthpieces for Roth and Schamus than three-dimensional ones. Lerman does everything he can to ground it—and like Shannon in “Lola,” the lead performer is the reason to see this one—but I never quite believed this world or Marcus’ journey through it.
Which brings us to the frustrating “White Girl,” a movie with a title that promises an examination of gender and racial roles in 2016 but doesn’t really deliver on that potential. In fact, the “white” of the title could just as easily be read as a reference to the mountains of cocaine done by its central character, a young woman in New York City who does little more than have sex and do drugs. She has almost no other defining characteristics, purposefully underwritten by Elizabeth Wood and played flatly by Morgan Saylor. Leah is an intern at an undefined company in New York, but she lives in Queens with her roommate, and both girls instantly become objects of interest for the local Hispanic guys across the street, especially a drug dealer named Blue (the great Brian ‘Sene’ Marc). Blue and Leah fall into a sexual relationship and a lot of “White Girl” almost plays like “Kids,” arguably blurring the line between exploitation and drama.
Don’t get it wrong—“White Girl” is not a love story between Leah and Blue. Leah isn’t that interested in love, even if Blue is. She wants instant gratification. When Blue tells her that he loves her, she responds with how badly she wants to f**k him. She is about the moment, the dime bag, the thrill. And, of course, that mentality leads her down a few dangerous roads. The most interesting element of Wood’s film is the implication that wide-eyed white girls can go down these dangerous alleyways and come out the other side more easily than anyone else. Certainly more easily than Blue. Leah has always had a mindset of “everything will be OK,” which is not uncommon for young women used to the safety of white privilege.
I wish this concept felt more refined and developed in the final product. I’m convinced that Leah is almost a non-character (drugs and sex, drugs and sex, drugs and sex!) on purpose, but that makes for a tough task as a filmmaker to sustain interest in a lead who can be remarkably naïve and annoying, however purposeful by the writer. And Saylor isn’t strong enough as a performer to pull it off. Marc steals the movie, grounding it in something that feels more genuine and less like a filmmaking exercise, but he disappears for large chunks of the second half of the movie, and I found myself caring less and less when I needed to get further invested in Leah’s journey.