PARK CITY, Utah — It’s an unusually quiet Sundance Film Festival this year, and an unusually serious one. Extra-vigilant staffers are conducting bag checks and coat frisks before every screening. Four movies about US gun violence pepper the schedule — two documentaries, “Newtown” and “Under the Gun,” and two dramas, “As You Are” and “Dark Night,” the latter inspired by the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo.
There are the expected independent comedies about fluky families, the sort for which 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine” serves as the unofficial blueprint. But while actor John Krasinski’s second directorial effort, “The Hollars,” or Matt Ross’s “Captain Fantastic,” with Viggo Mortensen playing a shaggy single dad, haven’t turned off audiences, they haven’t excited them, either. There are look-Ma-I’m-decadent shockudramas like “White Girl,” about a college student who sinks deep into degradation when she tries to get her drug-dealer boyfriend out of jail, but no one here seems in the mood. Sundance regular Werner Herzog is back with his latest documentary, called “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World,” but it’s a rambling, surprisingly flat affair that takes on the Internet and fails to connect.
Ira Sachs is another favored son of this festival, having won a Grand Jury Prize for “Forty Shades of Blue” in 2005 and having most of his subsequent movies premiere at Sundance, including 2014’s “Love Is Strange.” His latest, “Little Men,” is another entry in Sachs’s favored non-genre, the modern New York problem drama. It’s as solid as ever: a tale of a Manhattan family that relocates to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where the son (Theo Taplitz) befriends a local kid (Michael Barbieri, a real find) even as their parents wrangle over gentrification issues. Small, observant, and very wise, it’s the sort of movie everyone here is glad to see and no one’s really buzzing about.
The free-floating anxiety that has touched so many aspects of modern life is seeping into the offerings here as well. Is there a reason the 1974 on-air suicide of Florida newswoman Christine Chubbuck is the subject of not one but two movies at Sundance this year (“Christine” and “Kate Plays Christine”)? On the other hand, some films work hard to reclaim a sense of humanity. “Jim,” a documentary about James Foley, the journalist beheaded by ISIS in 2014, eulogizes its subject from close quarters — the director, Brian Oakes, was a friend of Foley’s since childhood — and finds its strength in its portrayals of three different “families.”
The first is Foley’s tight-knit clan in Wolfeboro, N.H. (parents John and Diane were at the Tuesday screening), the second consists of his colleagues on the front lines of conflict journalism in Libya and Syria, and the third is the family of men who shared months of imprisonment and torture together. This last section is where “Jim,” otherwise a fine documentary portrait of a good man, steps into wholly new territory, as Oakes interviews many of Foley’s fellow hostages and re-creates a vibrant midnight world of survival and selflessness. (The film’s an HBO production and will air on the cable channel later in the year.)
Yet there are two movies that do seem to be soaking up all the chatter on the shuttle buses and in the coffee shops, and, while very different, they’re both heavyweights. “Manchester by the Sea” marks the long-awaited return of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, whose “You Can Count on Me” made stars of Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo in 2000 and whose next film, “Margaret,” got lost in years of editing-room limbo. Starring Casey Affleck in the performance that may finally get him out from under his brother’s Hollywood shadow, it’s about a townie family in the upscale North Shore hamlet of the title, specifically the one brother who has lost his way after a personal tragedy.
Wintry and muted, attuned to all the things people want to say to each other but never do, “Manchester by the Sea” sounds like a particularly relentless example of Bummer Cinema. It’s better than that, in large part because Lonergan has faith in people, even the damaged ones — even when they’ve lost faith in themselves. The film’s full of bleak New England humor, the kind that gets us through our Februarys, and it culminates in a quiet scene of self-awareness that seems to break the heart of everyone who sees it. A lot of people I’ve talked to in Park City don’t just love this movie, they want to take it home and hug it.
The other work that has people talking is “The Birth of a Nation,” a genuine provocation and a labor of love for its writer-producer-director-star Nate Parker. Swiping the title of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film classic — both a landmark blockbuster and a racist artifact — Parker dramatizes the 1831 Virginia slave uprising led by Nat Turner, demanding that audiences examine their own consciences as Turner is led, step by step, from preaching the Bible to slaughtering slave-owning whites and their families. It’s a first film, to be sure, awkward in spots and fired by zeal, but it’s also a pretty amazing first film, one that seems to almost subconsciously triangulate the cultural head-space between “12 Years a Slave” and Black Lives Matter. You’re meant to grapple with “The Birth of a Nation,” to argue with it, to try to come to terms with it one way or another.
“The Birth of a Nation” sold within hours of its Park City premiere to Fox Searchlight Pictures for $17.5 million, an amount that smashed the previous Sundance record of $10.5 million for “Little Miss Sunshine.” There’s a new wave of money in town, and it comes from digital distributors flexing their muscles: Amazon bought exhibition rights to “Manchester by the Sea” for roughly $10 million, and Netflix reportedly offered $20 million for “Birth” before the producers decided to go with the Fox Searchlight offer. Whether those amounts will ultimately be deemed to have been “worth it” may be hard to ascertain, since theatrical box-office revenue is no longer the only measure of a film’s success. But one thing’s clear from this year’s festival: Movies are serious business here, both on the screen and off it.