The U.S. Dramatic Competition program at Sundance is often the one from which the most national stories emerge. Previous winners have included “The Birth of a Nation,” “Whiplash” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” This year’s section boasts a lot of highly anticipated titles, including the directorial debut of a recent indie star, the latest from the woman behind the clever “Obvious Child,” and a star vehicle built around Aubrey Plaza. Sadly, all three miss the mark for me, two just barely enough to almost recommend, while one wastes its potent set-up with almost no follow-through whatsoever.
It would be polite to say that Opening Night has been a mixed bag of quality over the last few years. For every “Whiplash,” there are a few disasters like “The Bronze.” In the middle is Macon Blair’s “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore,” an ambitious-as-hell first feature that owes a lot to Blair’s friend and recent director, Jeremy Saulnier (“Blue Ruin,” “Green Room”) in its premise and tone. The problem is that what Saulnier does requires an incredibly deft hand when it comes to tonal consistency and pacing, and that’s where Blair falters ever so slightly. Still, there’s much to like here in terms of ambition and performance. It’s one of those classic Sundance cases of a film being more “promising” than anything else, although I suspect some will take to this gritty thriller as is, and forgive its flaws completely.
It’s easy to forgive a film that stars the always-great Melanie Lynskey and equally-always-great Elijah Wood as everyday vigilantes. Lynskey plays Ruth, a woman angry at the increasing displays of unempathetic assholes she sees everywhere. It’s the guy whose truck billows black smoke; the guy who cuts her off at the grocery store to get in line first; the horribly racist woman at the care center in which she works. Basically, people suck, and she’s tired of letting people suck (everyone is “fucking taking”), although this is no “Falling Down”-esque display of a woman pushed to the edge. She finds a literal target greater than all the dicks of society when her house is broken into, her laptop and silverware taken. On a whim, she fires up the locator app she installed to keep track of her computer. It pings. She knows where the crooks are, and she enlists the assistance of a neighbor (Wood) who happens to be into nunchucks and morning stars and tracks down the computer, leading her to a trio of sociopaths, including a nearly-silent and nearly-movie-stealing Jane Levy.
If films like “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room” are direct punches to the gut, Blair’s film is more a series of blows from different angles and at different speeds. The pace and structure of the film often lurches under the weight of a project that sometimes feels like it’s trying to do too much. Blair peppers his script with religious references and jumps around tonally between black comedy and stark thriller, which is admirable but also incredibly difficult. The film never quite has the stakes or tension I hoped it would, although Blair does excel at staging and shooting the darkest moments, including a fantastic home invasion sequence and the unusual climax, and I appreciate that the film never devolves into a cynical worldview. Despite that, I wanted more sleaze and pulp. Blair has basically made a B-movie that doesn’t quite embrace its B-movie-ness. Again, the effort and the film’s best moments will be enough for some people, and I may warm up to its strengths and not see its flaws on subsequent viewings (it premieres next month on Netflix), but I don’t quite feel at home in this movie yet.
Similar issues of tonal imbalance pervade Gillian Robespierre’s “Landline,” a Friday premiere in the U.S. Dramatic Competition category. Robespierre’s follow-up to “Obvious Child” is again at its best when it highlights the skills of star Jenny Slate, but her sitcom set-up here doesn’t connect like it did in the previous film, too reliant on exaggerated characters and situations, and often looking and feeling like a TV show. The cast is strong enough to elevate the material, but it’s still a disappointment overall.
Slate plays Dana Jacobs, the older sister of Ali (Abby Quinn), an increasingly rebellious teenager into drugs, her boyfriend, and general hatred of her parents, played by Edie Falco and John Turturro. Ali’s focus shifts when she finds love letters that her father has clearly written to a woman other than Ali’s mother. Unsure how to process such a revelation, she first tries to figure out the woman on the other end of the love letter exchange, while Dana undergoes her own relationship drama with her fiancé (Jay Duplass) and an old flame coming back into her life.
“Landline” operates under several familiar tenets, including that moment when we all realize our parents are fallible people too, but doesn’t add enough to them to make them resonate. And it doesn’t have the strength of character to work on that level either. Turturro and Falco, as great as they are, don’t have enough to work with, as Robespierre is clearly more interested in the sisters than the parents. And the film downright fetishizes 1995 from the (admittedly killer) soundtrack to constant period-specific sight gags like roller blades and non-power windows. You can see any two minutes of this film and know it takes place in the mid-‘90s. It’s downright distracting.
And yet I admire Robespierre’s willingness to present a project in which the characters are deeply imperfect. Dana is cheating on her husband; Ali is kind of awful; their dad is a cheater—but it never feels like these characters are being judged for their failures. It’s a movie about accepting your family for who they are, warts and all.
Someone looking for a similar degree of acceptance from the world is the deeply-troubled Ingrid, played with urgency by Aubrey Plaza in the Competition entry “Ingrid Goes West.” We meet Ingrid on one of her darkest days, obsessively liking photos on Instagram. We see a couple preparing for a wedding. Ingrid is crying as she likes the photos, clearly not invited to the event. She stands suddenly, marches into the reception of the nuptials, and pepper sprays the bride in the face before she’s tackled.
Such a dark opening promises a dark film, but Matt Spicer’s debut consistently pulls its punches and refuses to find the dark edges of its promising set-up. Ingrid moves to Los Angeles after finding a new object of obsession, the beautiful and trendy Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). Ingrid basically “Single White Female”s Taylor, seeing where she eats and where she goes on social media and then following in her footsteps for long enough that she ends up becoming friends with her. She becomes friends with Taylor and Taylor’s husband (a great Wyatt Russell), but when Taylor’s brother Nicky comes to town, he sees through Ingrid and aggressively mocks her social awkwardness. Ingrid does not handle rejection well.
There’s an interesting subtext at play in “Ingrid Goes West” in that Taylor’s job as a “lifestyle guru,” in which she is paid to promote products to her Instagram followers, is not that distinctly different from Ingrid’s obsessive personality. In other words, a lot of us have a little bit of Ingrid in us, mimicking the habits of people we admire, from fashion to food to every lifestyle choice. This could have made for a scathing, pitch-black comedy, especially as set up by that opening scene, but Spicer never goes there. “Ingrid Goes West” is a depressingly predictable movie, which is a problem when it’s about an essentially unhinged woman. It’s a film that takes few risks and feels safe instead of scathing. Let's hope the U.S. Dramatic Competition titles to come take more chances.