Ty Burr

Finding winners at Sundance

Sean McElwee
A scene from “Morris from America.”

PARK CITY, Utah — Sticking around a film festival in its final days, when the dealmakers and glitterati and most of the press have left, is like being at a party where everyone has gone home but they’re stilling bringing out great food. Some quick impressions from the Park City screening rooms.

Morris From America”: Director Chad Hartigan made a splash here a few years ago with “This Is Martin Bonner,” a small, affecting drama about a middle-age man finding his sea legs. His latest film employs that same lower-case charm in the services of an adolescent coming-of-age story, one with a generic outline but wholly original specifics. Imagine you’re a husky 13-year-old black kid (newcomer Markees Christmas) from suburban Virginia who’s picked up and relocated to skinny, white Heidelberg, Germany, when his dad (Craig Robinson) gets a job as a soccer coach. The elements are so familiar that you wonder if the director took on the project as a challenge — there’s a haughty girl (Lina Keller) to humble and bewitch the hero, a snotty rival (Levin Henning), an understanding teacher (Carla Juri), talks with dad, dabbles in bad behavior, and various growing experiences. But Hartigan knows we’ve never seen this particular fish out of this particular water, and the novelty, the crisp writing, and the performances put it over. I came out of it wishing Robinson had been my dad.

Frank & Lola”: Any love story that stars Michael Shannon (“99 Homes,” “Take Shelter”) is a psycho thriller by any other name, and this feature debut from writer-director Matthew M. Ross teases intriguing interference patterns out of its various genres, moods, and locations. Shannon — who gets to be downright sexy here while still coming off as a ticking time bomb — plays Frank, a Queens-born chef working high-end restaurants in Las Vegas. The euphoniously named British actress Imogen Poots plays Lola, a younger woman who wanders into Frank’s restaurant one night and ignites a passionate affair and then a sustained relationship before details from her past start Shannon’s eyes doing that pinwheel thing.


It’s great to see a Vegas movie without a single scene set in a casino, and when “Frank & Lola” hops the Atlantic to Paris, where the ever-skeevy Michael Nyqvist (“Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol”) plays a figure from Lola’s past, Ross uses the Marais district and the Place des Vosges with a similarly fresh and unnerving eye. The movie ends up less than the sum of its stylishly glossy parts, but Ross is one to keep an eye on.

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Dark Night”: One of a quartet of movies unspooling at Sundance that deal with gun violence one way or another, this third scripted feature from writer-director Tim Sutton (“Pavilion,” “Memphis”) goes so wrong so quickly that it’s almost impossible to convey how irritating the experience of watching it is. Set amid the Florida sprawl, it examines a handful of blasted lives with the sort of uninflected, anomic gaze that Gus Van Sant employed to far better effect in “Elephant” (2003), his meditation on the Columbine shootings. Like that film, “Dark Night” caroms with would-be indie poetry off a real-life tragedy, the 2012 mass slaughter in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater showing “The Dark Knight Rises.” Traumatized Iraq War vets, despairing selfie queens, a darkly intelligent video-game addict who takes a hatchet to his pet turtle — these are the victims, and their wanderings through the cement cemetery of modern America are interlayered with arty shots of streetlights and overmodulated Cat Power-esque soundtrack warbling. The movie doesn’t show the climactic movie theater massacre — it’s apparently not meant to be the Aurora event, which is referenced earlier in “Dark Night” — but leaves us at its door while a dour acoustic version of “You Are My Sunshine” assaults our ears.

I guess Sutton is saying we’re all diseased and damaged in the soul-sick 21st century and it’s only the extreme cases who pull out the automatic weapons and start shooting. Also: Florida. There’s one interesting image in all of “Dark Night,” a shot of two women quietly playing guitars in a living room while, unseen by them, a gun barrel protrudes through a window. The rest may qualify as artistic license but also as an insult to a lot of people who died for no reason at all, least of all some filmmaker’s horribly glib ideas of what’s wrong with this country.

Nuts!”: Just your basic historical documentary about charlatans and goat testicles. How did John R. Brinkley create a medical, media, and political empire in the 1930s out of a highly questionable procedure in which impotence was supposedly cured by surgically inserting goat “glands” into the, uh, male parts of the afflicted? Did he really win the popular vote in the Kansas gubernatorial election only to be skunked out of the win by the American Medical Association? Did Brinkley create a nationwide audience for country music when he built one of the first radio stations in the US to sell his quackery and needed some live music to fill the space between the ads? Wiesenheimer documentarian Penny Lane (“Our Nixon”) uses archival materials and a raft of animators to tell the whole forgotten, bizarro story. Totally ridiculous and great fun — and it’s educational!

Southside With You”: The shuttlebus buzz on this one was “‘Before Sunrise’ starring Barack and Michelle Obama,” and the shuttlebus buzz was, for once, pretty right on. Written and directed by Richard Tanne, this deceptively casual debut feature dramatizes the 1989 first date of the future President and his first lady — it’s a combined American/African-American origin myth. The young Obama (uncannily captured by Parker Sawyers) is a summer associate at a Chicago corporate law firm; he still smokes like a chimney, drives a beater, and hides his insecurities in swagger. Michelle Robinson is his advisor at the firm and a cautious, cultured professional who wants him to know that whatever they’re doing on this day, it’s not a date. They visit a museum, eat lunch in the park, go to a community meeting, buy tickets to see the new Spike Lee movie, “Do the Right Thing.” It’s a getting-to-know you romance involving people we think we know all too well, the two warming delightfully to each other as they test each other’s values and argue over what you owe to where you came from versus what you carry forward to where you’re going.


If you can get past the absurdity of the entire enterprise, “Southside With You” works: The writing edges toward the banal, but the performances are excellent and the movie never takes itself more seriously than it needs to. At the same time, its vision of two young black Americans in 1989 wondering how far their ideals and ambitions actually will take them — without having a clue — couldn’t get more serious. It’s a pleasant, provocative diversion for everyone but the haters, who doubtless won’t go near it in the first place. And now I’m ready for more Presidential romances: George Washington (“Martha, My Dear”), Abraham Lincoln (“When Abe Met Mary”), and Harry Truman (“Bess, You Is My Woman Now”).

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