Famous faces pop up in three very different films from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, all of them doing their best to anchor stories of complex characters struggling through difficult chapters in their lives. These three projects couldn’t be more distinct in terms of ultimate success with one being high on my list of the best of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and one at the other end of the spectrum, which illustrates how expectations, even at an event that has become a brand name, are best left at the door.
The truth is that, especially when you hear it’s from the writer of “Junebug,” Angus MacLachlan’s “A Little Prayer” has a relatively predictable path to follow. However, that doesn’t stop it from having an impact. There’s a reason we watch well-done family dramedies like this one over and over again. We see ourselves or the people we know in them. And if we believe the emotion of these characters, the familiarity of it all doesn’t matter. “A Little Prayer” is an old-fashioned family drama, a movie that cares about its people more than any high concept, and one that wants you to get to know them in a way that makes you care for them. One of the most moving films you’ll see this year, it’s also a fantastic platform for the phenomenal Jane Levy and the legendary David Strathairn, a performer who seems incapable of delivering a false performance.
The star of "Nomadland” plays Bill, a decent man in an ordinary-looking section of Winston-Salem. He still works at the business he founded and lives with his wife Venida (the wonderful Celia Weston). His son David (Will Pullen) not only works for him but lives out back with his wife Tammy (Jane Levy), who has become a beloved part of Bill and Venida’s life. She comes over every morning and chats with Bill, and Levy and Strathairn find perfect chemistry from their very first encounter. We instantly believe that Bill sees Tammy in a sort of daughter role, someone he cares for greatly. The problem is that David may not have the same decency as his father.
Early on, Bill discovers that David is not only struggling with the bottle but fidelity, sleeping with a woman at work (the always-welcome Dascha Polanco) when he's not drunkenly stumbling home. As Bill considers how he can persuade his son to be a more upstanding human being, his daughter Patti (Anna Camp) comes home with her daughter, both of them fleeing a bad situation with Patti's husband. Patti isn’t a very supportive mother or child, and seems inconsiderate of those around her, although the film is more forgiving of her given her marital predicament. However, it’s telling that her kid is more drawn to spend time with Tammy than her own mother.
Strathairn understands Bill, a man who finds himself questioning the bad influence he could have been to create selfish children. The truth is that it becomes harder and harder to persuade our kids to behave in a certain way as they grow older, even as their problems continue to impact our lives. MacLachlan’s script smartly conveys how much influence David and Patti's behavior still has on their parents, even as their parents can no longer discipline them.
While I admire the old-fashioned structure of MacLachlan’s script and the gentle discipline of his direction—it’s a very quietly cut film with the director allowing many scenes to unfold almost like a play—the truth is that this is a performance piece through and through. Everyone is good to great, but it belongs to Strathairn and Levy, whose bond becomes the center of the film. It reaches an emotional crescendo in two scenes that Levy absolutely nails, never giving into the melodrama of each, finding their truth instead. You come to care about Tammy and Bill, and hope they figure their way through this knotty mess of family drama. The best films in this genre are passed down through recommendations not because of what happens but because of who it happens to. I’ll be thinking about Bill and Tammy all year.
I’ll also be thinking about Eileen and Rebecca. William Oldroyd, the director of Florence Pugh’s breakout “Lady Macbeth,” returns to the festival circuit with this divisive tale of a young woman who discovers herself by discovering that you never really know other people. It’s a film that sets its table as a period romance of sorts before upending it in a way that had viewers gasping and muttering in the Eccles Theatre. I would argue that the smoking car that opens the film, along with the chosen credit font and Bernard Hermann-esque score, should signal viewers that this will not end in a traditional manner. And I would also argue that the sharp turn the film takes is consistent with the theme of “Eileen,” a movie about a woman who has to be shocked into understanding the complexity of people before she can escape her mundane existence.
Thomasin McKenzie (“Leave No Trace”) plays the title character in this adaptation of the book by Ottessa Moshfegh, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Eileen works at a juvenile prison in Massachusetts in the mid-‘60s, constrained by society and her alcoholic, abusive father (Shea Whigham). If she’s not going about the mundanity of her day, she’s cleaning up her dad’s puke or trying to keep the WWII vet from terrorizing the neighbors with his pistol. When a new doctor named Rebecca (Anne Hathaway) enters her life, Eileen is entranced. This woman appears to have it all. She’s gorgeous, smart, and confident. Appearances are not always what they seem.
Filmed captivatingly by Ari Wegner (“The Power of the Dog”), Oldroyd’s film captures the drab existence of an ordinary life, one that’s shot through with sparks of repressed emotion. Eileen has visions of “acting out,” whether it’s being taken by an attractive guard (Owen Teague, also in town with “You Hurt My Feelings”) or taking dad’s gun and shooting herself or the old man. These visions punctuate a life that Eileen hopes to leave when she meets Rebecca, a woman who doesn’t hide her feelings like Eileen. McKenzie expertly navigates the bubbling freedom emerging for her character (even if her accent is a bit dodgy), while Hathaway does some of the best work of her career.
Without spoiling anything, “Eileen” is not the film one might expect after its first act. I don’t think this is a problem. Oldroyd and his collaborators are playing with expectations in a way that reflects the themes of their entire production. Just when Eileen thinks she knows where things are going with Rebecca, she finds out that she’s very wrong. That is the coming-of-age story here: how a young woman learns that anyone could be something other than they seem, even her. She doesn’t have to be a loving daughter or a dutiful employee. She can escape.
I kind of wanted to escape every scene of Alice Englert’s “Bad Behaviour,” the most frustrating film I saw in Park City this year. Englert, who also stars, has made a film about aimless, unsettled people that feels aimless itself. The truth is that it’s incredibly hard to make a movie about people who lack direction or focus without delivering a product that feels shapeless and unrefined. Englert doesn’t seem up to that challenge. Some of the performances here work, but they’re stuck in a movie that goes nowhere interesting.
Jennifer Connelly plays Lucy, a woman who spends most of the movie at a retreat run by a self-help guru named Elon Bello (Ben Whishaw, always solid), the kind of guy who doesn’t exactly practice what he preaches. He probably doesn’t understand it, either. He starts with encouraging silence and then moves to silly games like pretending to be a baby, and so on. Some of Englert’s script plays like a satire of the self-help movement, but it’s not scathing enough to have anything to say about it. Instead, long scenes unfold between Connelly and her retreat-mates that have almost no direction or interesting form, maybe to mirror the shapelessness of her life, but not in a way that’s engaging for the viewer.
The other half of “Bad Behaviour” features Lucy’s daughter Dylan (Englert), a stunt coordinator working on a film halfway around the world. The idea here could be that both Lucy and Dylan are “going through the motions” without actually delivering blows, but, again, it all feels so half-considered. The film improves a bit in the final act when Lucy and Dylan are reunited, but by then, I needed a different kind of movie therapy.