The great thing about Sundance's "Next" category compared to "US Dramatic" or "World Cinema Documentary" is that it doesn't come with a competition, so much as an objective. If your film makes it into the category, you've got to do more than just be a fresh face in movies; you've got to be forward-thinking; you've got to bring viewers into whatever the future is. It's a distinction a movie has to earn, and in the category's past (giving the world "Entertainment" and "Tangerine" just in 2015), it comes with a prestige of its own.
Leave it to the "Next" category to continue to challenge what that the program believes in most of all, especially with two films that feel to be hopelessly stuck in an earlier time. In the case of these three films, it's a young woman and a rec center who chumps dudes who have run out of things to say.
First, we have Andrew Hyland's “The 4th." It's a soggy piece of hipster neo-realism that has found its way into Sundance’s Next program, despite barely being anything that promises something new, or forward thinking. Compared to the Next program’s previous titles like “Tangerine,” “The 4th” is a pale sludge, tailing a Carrot Top-looking LA transplant trying to put together the finishing touches for his low-key Fourth of July barbecue.
Written, directed and starring Hyland, “The 4th” begins with Hyland’s character Jamie talking on the phone in a wide shot that zooms in on him a block away, following him up the street and into his apartment. It’s not a particularly interesting shot, nor is the idea of listening to him talk on the phone a striking visual, even if this might be social commentary. But crucially missing from this alternately bold or lazy visual is a sense of charisma for this character, scruffy and always punctuating sentences with “man,” who dominates the camera’s attention from start to finish. In a manner that does not make him distinct, he’s a walking litmus test for viewers to decide how much they can care about someone later labeled a “hipster douchebag.” I personally failed this test, finding little to hang onto while he goes through some aptly basic obstacles along the way.
His day of trying to get lighter fluid for his BBQ goes from having a shouting match with an angry pick-up truck driver, to pissing off a square Uber drive, to getting stuck with some friends in LA traffic, and more. He spends a lot of time talking on his phone. Hyland writes the story to be as organic as possible, cutting out the fat and leaving little else in its place. Even the goal of the party is no big mission, despite its ultimate focus. And there’s even more for him to do once the party starts, like pick up his girlfriend for work.
Take it or ditch it, this is how the movie cruises, following his character around through what is essentially city life slapstick, which also includes trying to stuff a bike into the back of a car trunk, having to find a store with a public restroom, or later trying to find a parking spot. In terms of his comedy, the sense of goofy misfortune that befalls Hyland during these events rarely works. It had me missing the likes of “Tangerine” or even “Fort Tilden,” which had more spark and even specific attitude within its character’s urban journeys. Hyland adds very little flavor to a story that feels primitive in the scale of his contemporaries.
I look forward to getting a second look at "The Fits," especially as it has already been picked up for distribution for distribution in summer 2016. My first time with it was a wonderful haze—it plays like a dream, in pacing and detail, and it was also the last movie I saw before throwing in the towel on my Sundance experience. I am convinced that the film will resonate even deeper when I check it out on the big screen again a few months from now.
Director Anna Rose Holmer has crafted what will undoubtedly be one of the most original films of 2016, with its minimal use of dialogue, its extensive visuals of people boxing or dancing, and its focus on a magnetic performance from newcomer Royalty Hightower. "The Fits" is less plot than it is character, place, and action. Hightower's lead is Toni, a young girl trained in boxing by her brother in a room full of young men, but who steals away to watch all-female dance competitions in the adjacent rooms of the recreation center where a lot of this takes place. She is pulled back and forth between these two different worlds, identifying with each. In one marvelous scene that follows her exercising alone, she begins to blend the two influences into a fluid mix of body language, equally fighting and dancing.
And then, "the fits" start happening, in which some young ladies start to randomly have seizures. This left-turn is casually lumped in with the rest of the atmosphere in this piece, as just one part of the environment. But it makes for a further enigmatic touch in a movie with much of its own rhythm, style and attitude.
"How To Tell You're a Douchebag" is like a misogynist's episode of "Sex and the City," with stiff lead Charles Brice's character Ray playing the typing & narrating Carrie Bradshaw of this whole 80-minute affair. The film is his journey to understand to respect women in New York City, after his clumsy marriage proposal fell apart (she said no, because she was cheating on him) and supposedly turned him into a misogynist. Ray goes on a womanizing rampage, to the appropriate eye-rolls of his sidekick Jake (William Jackson Harper, who steals the show with great timing and line-reading), while writing about himself in his blog "Occasionally Dating Black Women."
He experiences a revelation when he fails to woo Rochelle Marseilles (DeWanda Wise), a feminist blogger who embarrasses his slimy tactics on Twitter. Nonetheless, his clumsy game does soon win her over, for one night, which sends Ray into a self-evaluating spin about where he wants to aim his desires, and how he can properly win over Rochelle.
The good graces that could have come with this boldly-titled directorial debut are muffled by the actual presentation. Tahir Jetter’s film “How to Tell You’re a Douchebag” may try to be aware about its misogynist character’s faults, but it has one big flaw—it fails the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Now, the Bechdel Test is not meant to be a clear-cut indicator, but Jetter’s failing in this case shows just how far he lets his feminist characters go, or what perspective he's willing to show them as a director. He has an image of an independent woman, but little sense in how women talk, or become people outside of gabbing about men at brunch. The effect is fitting to the whole package—grossly altruistic, the equivalent of a man claiming to be a feminist, but still speaking over women.