When you come to a festival like Sundance, you can expect a wide variety of approaches to even the most familiar of premises—even something as simple as people trying to find “the one.”
The fundamental likeability of protagonists can go a long way towards making a slick teen rom-com engaging, and writer/director Jonathan Kasdan hits paydirt in The First Time. After meeting cute outside a neighborhood party on a Friday night, high-schoolers Dave (Dylan O’Brien) and Aubrey (Britt Robertson) spend a weekend trying to figure out if they’re right for each other—or at least for right now. Kasdan aims for a melding of Before Sunrise and John Hughes, sympathetically portraying hyper-verbal kids who use their sardonic observations about conventional romance as a defense mechanism. The banter gets more than a little precious at times, but Robertson and O’Brien both sell their tentative connection, up to and including their confusion over how to deal with the physical side of their relationship not meeting with expectations (a terrifically handled scene from start to finish). There’s nothing remotely groundbreaking about the arc of the story; it’s simply executed with charm and smartly built on two kids whose happiness is worth 90 minutes of our attention.
Worth considerably less attention is That’s What She Said. New York BFFs Bebe (Marcia DeBonis) and DeeDee (Anne Heche) spend one crazy 24-hour period dealing with relationship troubles—particularly Bebe’s much-anticipated date with her new guy—and other mishegoss; the fact that the two main characters are named “Bebe” and “DeeDee” is actually the least annoying thing about this excruciating attempt at female raunch comedy. Screenwriter Kellie Overbey finds her humor in yeast infections, a woman (Alia Shawkat) who masturbates compulsively, and an old man having a heart attack on top of a woman—like a Sex and the City episode for those who think that show was too subtle and demure. It’s a parade of alternating slapstick and clichés without a single honest thing to say about urban single women of a certain age, but the most ghastly excesses come from Heche, whose chain-smoking, liquor-swilling pansexual train-wreck of a human being is like an amateur-hour drag-queen’s version of Kim Cattrall’s Samantha. It’s a performance that’s the kind of bad for which new adjectives should be invented—like “ineptilarious.”
I’ve been coming to Sundance long enough to know that “What’s it about?” is very often the wrong question; the main problem with Simon Killer, Antonio Campos’ follow-up to the mesmerizing Afterschool, is that it starts to fall apart as soon as you get a handle on the answer to that question. Brady Corbet plays the titular Simon, a recent college grad from New York who heads to Paris to clear his head after a traumatic break-up. While there, Simon hooks up with a prostitute (Mati Diop), and soon begins showing sides of his personality that are somewhat … dark. Campos is a remarkable visual stylist, and many of his individual scenes are brilliantly crafted: Simon’s wanderings through art galleries; a night of nightclub dancing; Simon awkwardly attempting to find a Wi-Fi signal while masturbating to Internet chat-porn. But Campos’ exploration of the enigmatic Simon and his efforts at re-creating himself on the fly remains compelling only as long as it doesn’t venture into familiar territory of Portrait of a Borderline Sociopath. A couple of over-the-top decisions take Simon Killer from something that could have been a marvelously stylized tale of an “anything goes” vacation gone bad to the story of a messed-up guy with mommy issues.