The U.S. Dramatic Competition program at Sundance typically produces a few critical darlings that ride the entire year and into the next awards season. Last year saw the premieres of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Luce,” and “Clemency,” the winner, in that section. Buzzed-about standouts early this year include “Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always,” “Palm Springs,” and “Minari.” Of course, as with any competitive slate, there are also films that fall short of that top tier. To be honest, there are sometimes films so unengaging that they never really get a release (there are even a couple from 2019 that haven’t played anywhere but Park City). But the truth is that most of these films fall in between the peaks and the valleys. Take this pair of competition titles, two movies that I suspect will find audiences when they descend from the mountain, but also come with their own flaws.
The better of the two is Tara Miele’s ambitious “Wander Darkly,” a film that echoes one of my favorite movies of the modern era, Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Some of the dialogue is a bit too self-conscious, and I’m not sure about where the film lands, but Miele directs her two leads to excellent performances, and she’s willing to take risks as a filmmaker that make this one of the more promising dramas that I’ve seen at this year’s festival.
Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna) are in a crumbling relationship. They have a child together and are closing on a home, but distrust has wormed its way into their union in a way that makes each of them wonder about their own feelings. One night after a party, they’re arguing about the future, with Adrienne even suggesting that perhaps it’s time they move on. And then they’re hit head-on by another car.
From here, “Wander Darkly” becomes a surreal, almost sci-fi film. Adrienne leaves her body, seeing herself die in a hospital and even attending her own funeral, where Matteo speaks emotionally about his love for her. Naturally, she thinks she’s dead, but then Matteo starts trying to convince her otherwise. Was the funeral scene just a dream? The two of them trace the history of their relationship and “Wander Darkly” goes with them as we see the night they met, their biggest fights, etc. Miele breaks from traditional flashback style, having her characters comment on the memories in-scene as they’re happening. It’s a fascinating choice that actually adds to the emotional resonance because it keeps us aware that these are memories seen from the vantage point of time and not happening in the moment. So when the two of them disagree about what happened the night they met, it has the weight of memory and loss instead of traditional romance.
The biggest strength of Miele’s film is the leads. Miller is phenomenal, playing multiple emotional zones from the early days of a relationship to the fear of a horror movie heroine worried she’s stuck in purgatory and the Grim Reaper is coming for her. She’s legitimately always good, giving her all to everything she does, and this is one of her best performances. Same for Luna, who is allowed more emotional beats here than he’s often given. The final scenes of “Wander Darkly” felt a little manipulative and unearned to me, but I liked so much of the ambition of what came before and how much its two leads give to it that I didn’t really mind.
Conversely, “Dinner in America” aggravated me at first but eventually wore down my defenses by the end. A film that could kind of be called a punk version of “Heathers” with a “Napoleon Dynamite” sense of humor, Adam Rehmeier’s film takes no prisoners with an energy that reflects its youthful protagonists. Some of the humor falls flat, especially in the clunky first act, but it works once its two leads team up and become a stronger force together than apart.
Simon (Kyle Gallner) is a punk rocker with an attitude too big for his Midwestern setting. The aggro young man is actually the anonymous lead singer of a famous local band, one that happens to be the favorite of a young lady named Patty (Emily Skeggs). When the two run into each other, Patty doesn’t even realize that Simon is the music icon to whom she’s been sending dirty pictures and letters. Through a series of happy accidents, Patty and Simon end up as a team, taking various forms of vengeance on the asshole jocks and worthless mean girls around town while maybe falling in love.
Gallner and Skeggs are all-in on what Rehmeier is doing here and that can’t be undervalued in a film like this. If they weren’t so committed, the whole movie would fall apart, but I came to like Simon and Patty. Again, some of the comic rhythms are off, and the repeated use of slurs for gay and mentally disabled people feel genuine to Midwestern punk rockers but also make the film a bit abrasive overall. What’s interesting is that abrasiveness starts to dissipate as we come to like Simon and Patty more and more with each scene—the film almost becomes sweet, making it more tonally interesting that its early aggression made me think it would be. By the end, I was a little sad to say goodbye to these two, especially Patty. After all, even punk rockers and lonely kids need love too.