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Breakout hits at Sundance: ‘Whiplash,’ ‘Dear White People’

Miles Teller (left) and J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash.”Daniel McFadden/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

PARK CITY, Utah — It’s surprisingly easy to get cinephile’s fatigue at the Sundance Film Festival. With 123 features in this 30th-anniversary edition of Robert Redford’s little movie club, filmgoers can get the sense they’ve seen it all before. And often they have, even if they haven’t.

Two movies in competition here, “Obvious Child” and “Appropriate Behavior,” struggle to break out of the indie-Brooklyn-comedy-drama box and both clamber only halfway out, despite great intentions and talented women on both sides of the camera. “Child,” the debut feature of writer-director Gillian Robespierre, stars ex-“Saturday Night Live” comedian Jenny Slate as a hapless female stand-up in early-life crisis. “Behavior,” also a debut from writer-director-star Desiree Akhavan, is about the comic travails of a bisexual Iranian woman from the wilds of suburban New Jersey.


Below: “Dear White People,” a campus comedy about race by writer-director Justin Simien.Ashley Beireis Nguyen/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

“Child” steps nervily and with confidence into an abortion subplot in the last half, and it represents a very rare attempt to tackle the subject without getting preachy or freaked. Likewise, “Behavior” peers into the conflicted life of a kind of person the movies rarely deal with. I liked both movies without loving them, in part because their rhythms, their comic and dramatic beats, their impeccably cool soundtracks, all hew to a template that owes much to the success of Sundance as a genre. (They’re also both part of a post-“Girls” phenomenon, and a welcome one.)

Here’s another source of niche cultural and commercial profits: Lovable misfits, making life miserable for families and friends while their colorful quirks fill the screen. Two Sundance entries, “Frank” and “Infinitely Polar Bear,” are the kind of movies you either want to hug or hate, depending on the level of your cynicism and/or what you had for breakfast that day. If nothing else, “Frank” features one of Michael Fassbender’s sweetest, oddest, and most invisible performances as the tensely charismatic leader of an indie rock group who never takes off his large fake plaster head. (He’s like Ian Curtis of Joy Division in a Mummenschanz touring troupe).


Leonard Abrahamson’s film is high quirk but it does a decent job of avoiding the cutes, especially when Maggie Gyllenhaal is onscreen as a fearsome lady theremin player. Both it and “Infinitely Polar Bear,” a Providence-shot comedy-drama about a bipolar father (Mark Ruffalo) raising two young girls, dance around the subject of mental illness with a mixture of honesty and occasionally dubious entertainment value.

“Polar Bear,” written and directed by Maya Forbes and rooted in personal experience, benefits from Ruffalo’s unrestrained performance and even more from Zoe Saldana, in frayed realistic mode, as his wife. Some audiences in Park City have embraced the film as a life-affirming experience, others have found it phony. I, um, liked it without loving it because the film’s well-established framework — coming-of-age with a difficult parent — seems to limit the freshness of the director’s voice. Particularity of experience doesn’t always translate into originality of creative vision.

Maybe originality of creative vision just comes on its own. The two films I’ve seen at this Sundance that do break out of the box do so with the energy of young filmmakers finding their distinct individual voices, and that energy has been echoed in the buzz of festival audiences. “Dear White People” is a breakout debut for writer-director Justin Simien, a campus comedy about race that, for once, goes beyond character type and clique to explore the differences that divide and bring together people.


It’s a first film, without question, low-budget and ragged around the edges, and it would have far too many characters if those characters weren’t fascinating to listen to as they hash out the coulds, woulds, shoulds of how to be white, black, and everything in between in 21st-century America. Simien’s script is thick with biting observations — one character, on his giant afro: “It’s like a black hole for white people’s fingers” — and if it’s overstuffed with ideas, it’s also alive with the excitement of thinking and talking about them. And since when is too many ideas a bad thing?

An even bigger splash was made with the festival’s opening-night film — easily the best first shot fired at a Sundance I’ve been to. “Whiplash,” which was quickly picked up by Sony Classics for distribution later this year, is named after an obscure but ravishing jazz composition by Hank Levy, and jazz is just one of the things on this movie’s mind. It stars the up-and-coming Miles Teller, so good in 2013’s “The Spectacular Now,” as a drum student at a New York music conservatory where the reigning teaching god is a sadistic purist named Terrence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons in one of the more scarifying performances of his long career. The film plays like the first half of Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” in 14/8 time. You could also call it the “Black Swan” of jazz drummer movies.


As good as the performances are, it’s the direction of “Whiplash” that puts you into a sustained swoon and demolishes any cinephile’s fatigue you may have wandered in with. Damien Chazelle — the Harvard grad’s first film was the gossamer Boston romance “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” (2009) — loves jazz and he loves a moving shot, and the combination of the two, in the rehearsal and band competition sequences, can just about give you a contact high. The camerawork, gleaming but with a dark undertow, is by Sharone Meir, and the fantastic editing — on the beat or skittering across it — is by Tom Cross, but the movie is Chazelle’s all the way. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a young filmmaker this confidently invested in formalism as opposed to slackadaisical realism — maybe since Darren Aronofsky with “Pi” back in 1998.

The film becomes a battle of wills that climaxes at daring length on a festival stage, the student and the professor one-upping each other again and again and Chazelle bringing his audience to the brink of tension and release. When the movie cut to black at the end, there was a stunned pause, and then a delirious roar of approval from the Sundance audience. It was the sound of a young director’s arrival.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com .