PARK CITY, Utah —
The message of Sundance 2015? That the independent movie business is stronger than ever, even if the movies themselves are the slightest bit lacking. There were buzz titles at this year’s film smorgasbord in Park City — there always are — and some very good movies that should have had buzz, but the lineup lacked a game-changing title like last year’s “Boyhood” or, from 2012, “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” You can’t get lucky every Sundance.
What was notable was the feeding frenzy of independent distribution companies as the formerly hesitant buying pace of recent years picked up with a sense of mission. The biggest deal of the festival came midweek, when Fox Searchlight spent $9 million for “Brooklyn,” a 1950s coming-of-age drama about an Irish immigrant (Saoirse Ronan) in New York, based on the novel by Colm Toibin and adapted by Nick Hornby. The company also picked up rights to “Me & Earl & the Dying Girl,” a festival favorite, based on a young adult novel that slots neatly into the nascent teen cancer genre, and “Mistress America,” the latest indie comedy from director Noah Baumbauch and his leading lady, Greta Gerwig.
The adventurous distribution house A24 nabbed two of the best-received Sundance titles, “The End of the Tour,” in which comic actor Jason Segel gives a touching, career-changing performance as the late author David Foster Wallace, and the festival’s premiere eek-a-thon, “The Witch,” a creepy, controlled psychological horror story set in 1630 New England. “The Witch” was perhaps the hardest-to-get ticket in Sundance, and it announces a new talent in director Robert Eggers, who has definitely seen “The Shining” more than once and who teases a masterful 90 minutes of scares out of slender material.
Sony Classics bought another favorite, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” a raw tale of growing up in 1970s San Francisco, with a breakout performance by British actress Bel Powley. Open Road spent $7 million for “Dope,” a comic caper about urban teenagers that played especially strongly to well-heeled moviegoers who have never been to urban neighborhoods. New distribution company The Orchard snapped up “The Overnight,” a frisky Los Angeles farce with deft performances by Taylor Schilling (“Orange Is the New Black”) and Jason Schwartzman.
What’s fueling the action? All of these movies should be coming to theaters near you in the coming year, but some of them may reach larger audiences — and reap potentially bigger profits — in the various streaming platforms that are starting to cannibalize theatrical markets. The qualified on-demand success in 2014 of films like “Snowpiercer” and “The Interview” means that the industry will continue to test these waters, with smaller distributors wading in where larger studios fear to tread.
As usual, Sundance has been a showcase for strong, often-overpowering documentaries. Some of these arrived in town with deals in place. “The Hunting Ground,” a sobering overview of campus rape, will be distributed to theaters and on-demand markets by Weinstein Company subsidiary Radius and on broadcast TV by CNN. “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” an unrelenting takedown of the controversial religion from the prolific Alex Gibney, will air on HBO after going to theaters. Other documentaries came looking for deals, like the heartbreaking “Hot Girls Wanted,” about the amateur porn business. Coproduced by actress Rashida Jones, the film is extremely sympathetic to the naïve 18-year-olds who enter porn seeking fame and money, much less so to the culture that supports the industry.
One of the pleasures of Sundance for a New England moviegoer is seeking out those films with local ties, either from directors who got their start in the area or that focus on familiar people and places. The filmmakers Ryan Fleck and the Boston-raised Anna Boden debuted “Mississippi Grind,” the latest in a strong filmography (“Half Nelson,” “Sugar”) and a tale of footloose gamblers that recalls the ’70s films of Robert Altman while giving the weathered Australian character actor Ben Mendelsohn a welcome lead role. (Mendelsohn also turned up in a supporting-villain role in “Slow West,” a lean, wholly satisfying western starring Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee that A24 will release later in the year.)
“Stockholm, Pennsylvania” is the first film from Newburyport-raised Nikole Beckwith and one of several films at the festival with a psychological angle. Starring Saoirse Ronan as a young woman coming home after 14 years as the captive of a kidnapper, it’s a moody drama that takes a turn for the bizarre midway through, when the girl’s mother (an unnerving Cynthia Nixon) takes matters into her own hands. The narrative risk-taking doesn’t pay off and “Stockholm” loses control of its tone, but it’s a strong start for a filmmaker from whom we should be hearing more.
“Call Me Lucky,” a documentary by comedian-turned-director Bobcat Goldthwait, turns a spotlight on Barry Crimmins, a majordomo of Boston’s 1980s comedy scene. A galvanizing presence whose stand-up political rants — still stinging in archival clips — led to a life of activism, Crimmins has in recent years become a crusader against child pornography; and while new footage of the comedian hardly suggests he has mellowed, one senses that most of his demons have been put to rest. Look for this one when it comes to local theaters.
And hope that “Bob and the Trees” makes it to theaters at all. Diego Ongaro’s low-budget labor of love couldn’t get more local, being set in the small Berkshires town of Sandisfield among the year-round community of farmers and loggers. Everyone’s struggling yet philosophical except for Bob Tarasuk (played by himself), a scrappy bantam who’s struggling and mad as hell. His best cow is sick, the parcel of trees he’s logging is infested with ants, his son (Matt Gallagher) is fed up, and Bob’s starting to go DeNiro. The film’s a very small, very particular study of a way of life and one character chafing against it; it’s the kind of micro-indie that does what it does well without anyone really noticing. Some of us at the festival noticed, though, and with any luck you’ll get a chance to, too.
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