Sure, even within that world of Sundance movies there are some familiar tropes. The love stories might be more likely to be same-sex, or find their protagonists dealing with considerably less conventional, um, appetites. Or maybe they just find a perceptiveness that isn't much in demand in multiplexes.
It Felt Like Love is, title notwithstanding, more about adolescent sexual discovery -- but not in a way that's remotely prurient. In some ways, it feels like a lot of coming-of-age dramas, but writer/director Eliza Hittman shows there's plenty you can do with a familiar setup. In contemporary Brooklyn, teenager Leila (Gina Piersanto) is trying to negotiate adolescence without a mother, and unsure how much she wants to be like her more sexually experienced best friend, even as she becomes fascinated with a hot college-age guy. The film is intensely observational, which could easily have been code for “not a damned thing happens.” But Hittman is confident enough to let us walk with Leila through nuanced variations on her tentative experimentations, all while showing how profoundly uninformed she seems to be about becoming a woman. It's a lovely, heartbreaking performance, and even when a few of the situations become repetitive, there's still rich material here that understands how terrifying it can be to be on the cusp of womanhood, simultaneously afraid to become sexually experienced and afraid not to.
Then, you have something like The Lifeguard, one of several festival films about relationships between older women and younger partners. Late in writer/director Liz W. Garcia's film, a character pretty much dismisses the navel-gazing angst of protagonist Leigh London (Kristen Bell), a 29-year-old journalist whose unsatisfying professional and romantic life lead her to chuck it all and move back in with her parents in her small Connecticut hometown. Stories that deal with 1/3-life crises are tricky to pull off and, like last year's Hello I Must Be Going, this one has its emotionally wounded heroine get involved with a teenager (David Lambert) as part of her reversion to a simpler time. But while Garcia gets some nice details right about high school friends futilely chasing the good old days, all of the conflicts feel like warmed-over material from plenty of other movies about young adults stranded in a perpetual adolescence. Even Bell's motivations for turning her life upside-down feel thin and undercooked. And it's hard to spend 90 minutes on a story with people on personal journeys that even other characters in the movie find self-indulgent.
There's no point attempting to separate response to Before Midnight, the third visit with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), from those that came before in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset—and indeed, it misses the point of what's so extraordinary about these films if you try to do so. Nine more years have passed, and this time the strolling and intense conversations take place in Greece. But what exactly has taken place in the nine years since Jesse missed a plane in Paris? I opt here to preserve a sense of discovery, but it's fair to say that Hawke, Delpy and director Richard Linklater have deepened and complicated the relationship between these characters in unexpected ways, just as they managed to do in Before Sunset; they've also made it considerably funnier this time than either of the previous two. And much like the Toy Story trilogy, it's not just familiarity with the characters that makes the film resonate so deeply, but watching filmmakers use the passage of time as a fundamental part of the connections between people. Even as Jesse and Celine's encounters with other people here provide glimpses at the other directions their lives might have taken had they lived in different eras, this trilogy is grounded deeply in who these people are at this moment in their lives. Before Sunrise was about romance; Before Sunset was about longing. What Before Midnight reveals is that, for the first time in the series, we're seeing a story about love.