The final days of Sundance are often given over to what could be called less edgy product, more crowd-pleasing fare than the Competition and Next titles that premiere on the opening weekend of the 11-day affair. This isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes truly delightful crowd-pleasers end up closing the fest like 2017’s “The Incredible Jessica James” and 2018’s “Hearts Beat Loud.” Some of this year’s late fest offerings include “Paddleton,” “The Tomorrow Man,” “Troop Zero,” and a pair of very different films that I got to preview before leaving Park City, both rich in the way they use setting and both reasonably able to overcome the inherent clichés in their narratives, even if one hurdles that obstacle a bit more cleanly the other.
The better of the pair is Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s “The Mustang,” a film about a program in which convicts work to train to wild mustangs so they can be sold at auction. While it’s a real program that has seen notable success in the way its participants often fail to become repeat offenders, it’s obviously a subject matter that’s just ripe for cliched storytelling. Even the Sundance description made me roll my eyes: “Roman must learn to tame not only the mustang but also the beast within.” Seriously? Another film that portrays the male prisoner as an animal waiting to be tamed is not exactly what the world needs right now. And yet “The Mustang” is evidence of how new life can be breathed into clichéd concepts with the right focus on character and setting, and trust in your performers.
Matthias Schoenaerts leans into his strong, silent archetype as Roman Coleman, a resident of a maximum-security prison in Nevada that participates in a Wild Mustang program. Every year, mustangs are rounded up and trained by prisoners to take part in an auction. Of course, Roman first bristles at any sort of structure to his day, especially one that involves shoveling horse shit, but an irascible trainer named Myles (Bruce Dern) and a fellow convict (Jason Mitchell) soften Roman, as does the wildest horse in the program. Roman even learns how to talk to his daughter (a great Gideon Adlon, who is going to be a star very shortly).
It sounds like clichéd screenwriting 101 but it works because of how deliberately Clermont-Tonnerre handles the material. She allows scenes that would have been easy moments to strike sentimental chords to instead play out organically, and she lets the movie breathe, becoming more believable and moving in the process. “The Mustang” doesn’t feel the need to rush anywhere, allowing Roman to develop into a fully-formed character instead of just an archetype. It builds instead of races, knowing that it’s the accumulation of minor character beats in a film like this one that really matter. Seek this one out when it opens in March.
Less successful is Wayne Blair’s generic “Top End Wedding,” a movie that plays out like a mainstream romantic comedy until it finally gets to its last half hour, where respect for its setting and the people who live there add some much-needed weight to a film that was direly in need of it.
Lauren (the charming Miranda Tapsell, who also co-wrote) is a workaholic with a taskmaster of a boss (Kerry Fox) and a supportive boyfriend named Ned (Gwilym Lee). On the same day that Lauren gets a promotion and Ned quits his job—the kind of early-script stuff that just screams wacky movie!—he proposes to her. Hold on, the coincidences aren’t done. They race to Darwin, Australia, which is on the North side of the continent aka the “Top End,” only to find out that Lauren’s mother has left Lauren’s father. Like, literally left, hitting the road and not turning back. Lauren and Ned chase after Lauren’s mom, leading them into a mystery regarding their family past and the culture of the people who live in Northern Australia.
The first hour of “Top End Wedding” can be downright annoying in its simplicity and bad screenwriting, reminding me more of the kind of multiplex rom-coms that currently star people like Jennifer Lopez. Then it hit me. Most of this movie is just prologue to what really matters to Blair and Tapsell and that’s the arrival in a part of the world we haven’t really seen in a Sundance film before. There’s a genuine respect for the people of the Tiwi Islands that’s effective and even moving, and “Top End Wedding” really becomes a different film altogether when Lauren gets there—although even then Blair can’t avoid an airport revelation and other cheesy rom-com clichés. The Sundance description for “Top End Wedding” ends with “...making you wonder why you’ve stayed away for so long.” I too wondered why this movie stayed away from what works about it for as long as it does.