We seem to be worried about our children. Sure, Sundance has a long history of movies about periled adolescence, but it’s been a more prominent trend here over the last couple years. “Eighth Grade” was one of last year’s biggest hits to come from the Sundance U.S. Dramatic Competition slate, and this year I saw a trio of films about what could be called endangered youth. What’s most interesting is how distinctly different these three stories are even though they’re all about young people. Maybe it’s just that those years are ripe for material for indie filmmakers. Maybe it says something about where we are in 2019. Discuss among yourselves.
The best of the three and one of the best of this year’s fest is Julius Onah’s fascinating “Luce,” a deeply smart film about race and expectations. At what point do we stop categorizing people based on ethnicity and privilege? And is it doing them a disservice to completely dismiss those elements of their existence? How do you find the balance? Based on a play by J.C. Lee, “Luce” is about complex people, characters whose motives feel like they’re shifting and sliding depending on the situation. It reminded me of early Mamet work although with a commentary on race he could never attempt. All of this, and it’s got one of the best ensemble performances of Sundance 2019. This is one to watch for.
The first thing to note is that Kelvin Harrison Jr., star of “It Comes at Night” and “Monsters and Men,” is the real deal. He gives an incredible performance here as the title character, a valedictorian beloved by everyone at his elite school. He’s a star athlete, gives great speeches, and honestly looks like he could go on to be President. He’s come a long way since being a child soldier in Eritrea, from where he was adopted by Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth). Although Luce may not be who everyone tells him he is. His teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), is startled when Luce writes an essay for class that seems to be encouraging violence to overthrow power structures. She uses the essay to search his locker, in which she finds something even more unsettling.
Luce is told day in and day out who he is – he’s a great student, a great son, a great kid. In many ways, Onah’s film is about Luce questioning what this all means. Why is he given certain privileges that other black kids are not? Because he was adopted by white parents? The script by co-written by Lee and Onah is brilliant in the way it dissects coded language. In one of the first scenes, Luce calls Mrs. Wilson “stern” in front of his parents and dad jokes that he really means “bitch.” It’s a playful scene but it also fits with a movie that’s really about how labels can define people – and how they can be wrong.
Harrison is flat-out brilliant here, keeping us unsure about whether or not we can trust Luce. There’s an honest question through most of the film as to if Luce might actually be a sociopath. Mrs. Wilson becomes increasingly convinced he’s dangerous, and even his parents vacillate in their support. The three adults are also great. It’s nice to see Roth in a role that’s sometimes playful, and Spencer is possibly as good as she’s ever been. The film gets a little overwritten in the final act (as works based on plays often do) but the cast keeps it engaging on a human level. It’s a film that will have people talking. It may not be my #1 of Sundance (although it’s close), but I think it’s the movie I most want people to see just to read the essays and hear the conversations that will emerge from it.
An entirely different story of troubled youth unfolds in Jason Orley’s very funny debut, “Big Time Adolescence,” the movie that produced my biggest laughs at Sundance 2019 (sorry “Late Night” fans) and proves something that I’m pretty happy to say: Pete Davidson is a movie star. The troubled “SNL” star has always been one of my favorite parts of Lorne Michaels’ creation and makes for a great podcast/radio guest, but that’s true of plenty of people who can’t carry a movie. Unlike a lot of young comedians, he looks totally comfortable in his first leading role, taking a part that’s more challenging than it looks in the way he has to balance irresponsible behavior and not come off like a total asshole. He’s legitimately great here, and it will be fun to watch people respond to his work when the movie is released.
Davidson plays 23-year-old Zeke, a college dropout without much motivation beyond weed, sex, and booze. He hangs out with a couple of similarly unmotivated early-twentysomethings, doing a whole lot of nothing. But Zeke is funny, likable, and generally optimistic. He thinks things will work out, a worldview that has both kept him pretty happy and doing just about nothing. What Zeke does most days is hang out with a 16-year-old kid named Mo (Griffin Gluck of “American Vandal”), the younger brother of a girl that Zeke dumped six years ago. He liked hanging out with the kid.
There’s a heightened period of our lives in which being perceived as “cool” means just about everything. And it goes both ways. Mo thinks he's cool because he gets to hang out with older guys like Zeke. Zeke likes being considered cool. Mo’s one of the few people who likes him. And yet this weird friendship is believable. It doesn’t feel like a screenwriter’s construction. It’s only when Zeke starts making some truly bad decisions in what is basically his mentorship of Mo that things go awry.
The first half of “Big Time Adolescence” is better than the second. It’s a movie that I liked way more in its casual beats than in its lesson-learning ones, and it makes a few legitimately disappointing mistakes regarding its female characters, who seem strong at first but kind of become plot devices. Still, there are times when “BTA” reminded me of another great movie about teenage rebellion: “Superbad.” That’s a pretty high compliment for a debut. I’m eager to see what everyone here does next, including Orley and Gluck, but especially Pete Davidson.
The final film in this triptych of troubled youth shines a light into a rarely-seen corner of the world, capturing life in a deeply religious community – the kind that doesn’t allow for even the suggestion of sin, speaks in tongues when they’re trying to cast out the devil, and uses snakes in their ceremonies. “Them That Follow” attempts to capture turmoil in a pocket of spiritual fervor, but it’s a disappointingly flat drama. Rarely has the world of religious extremism felt so dramatically inert, as the film never feels like it’s genuinely engaging with this world as much as using it as a backdrop.
Alice Englert plays the troubled Mara, daughter of the head pastor in a group of Pentecostal snake handlers, Lemuel (Walton Goggins). Mara has recently had a fling with Augie (Thomas Mann), and she’s pregnant. This is a problem on multiple levels, not only for the sin that could lead to her being exiled from her community but because Augie has strayed from the group already. Oh, and Mara is supposed to marry one of the members, the earnest Garret (Lewis Pullman). Of course, Augie’s mother, Hope (Olivia Colman), is a crucial matriarch in the community as well.
Walton Goggins and Olivia Colman in a movie about Appalachian zealots – I can almost hear you saying, “How could that go wrong?” And, to be fair, Goggins and Colman are as good as you’d expect them to be, the former finding the absolute certainty men like Lemuel need and the latter capturing the conflict within Hope when she learns the secrets of her son’s relationship with Mara. The problem is that these two performances are lost in a film that never finds the right tone and relies too heavily on manufactured melodrama to fill in the lack of realism at its center. To be blunt, I never bought “Them That Follow,” always aware of the screenwriting strings being pulled when one needs to completely engage with this world for a movie like this to work. I felt like an observer when I needed to be a participant. Like some of Lemuel’s lost sheep, I guess I just didn’t believe.