Yes, there are definitely certain plots that seem to recur in Sundance movies. But what a film is about isn’t the same as how it’s about what it’s about.
The arc of the “profile of an addict” story is so deterministic that it feels there’s nothing it can do but showcase a performance. And there is a wonderful performance in Smashed by Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate Hannah, a first-grade teacher, devoted wife … and barely functioning alcoholic. After a couple of particularly rough nights, Kate decides it’s time to explore Alcoholics Anonymous—which presents different problems when it strains the relationship with her also hard-drinking husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul). Co-writer/director James Ponsoldt steers in a somewhat different direction by focusing on the early days of sobriety—and the unique set of challenges provided by trying to right the ship of your life—rather than the drinking. Yet ultimately, this is a story that will move in one very clear direction, hitting very specific mile-markers along the way: the bottoming-out moment; the tentative steps toward personal integrity; the inevitable falling off the wagon. As effectively as Winstead plays those moments, she plays too many of them almost in isolation, with too little context for Kate and Charlie’s non-stop party of a marriage, in particular. Special kudos, though, to Nick Offerman, whose scenes with Winstead involve one of the most hilariously inappropriate confessions of attraction in recent memory.
Comedy-dramas about the romantic fumblings of 20-somethings can be whiny, self-satisfied and/or overly precious—but they don’t have to be. Director/co-writer Michael Mohan’s Save the Date tells the story of two sisters: Beth (Alison Brie), who’s happily planning her wedding to musician Andrew (Martin Starr); and Sarah (Lizzy Caplan), a commitment phobe who freaks out after moving in with Kevin (Geoffrey Arend), her boyfriend and Andrew’s bandmate. What follows is relationship comedy that’s almost effortless in its simple commitment to character dynamics, with punch lines that don’t feel like they were written to be accompanied by a rimshot but are still terrifically funny. There’s no grand message here or groundbreaking stylistic approach, and in some ways it’s not much more than a collection of individually delightful scenes. The characters are simply so well-realized by the uniformly terrific cast, so human and enjoyable to spend time with—even in their flaws and occasional self-absorption—that it all feels fresh and energetic.
Here’s a Sundance plot I never need to see again: the alluring stranger who shakes up a family/couple by having sex with everyone. In Nobody Walks, director Ry Russo-Young (who co-wrote with Lena Dunham) follows a New York-based artist named Martine (Olivia Thirlby) who uses a family connection to hook up with Los Angeles sound designer Peter (John Kracinski) for help with her video-installation project. Will sparks fly, much to the consternation of Peter’s wife, Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt)? The opening gag offers promise for something frisky and fleet in its look at artsy types who let their libidos wander where they will (a topic that clearly seems to fascinate Dunham), and the film’s various subplots—including therapist Julie’s flirtatious client, and the confused yearnings of their 16-year-old daughter—seem to skewer bohemian libertinism. But none of these characters are developed enough for us to understand the reasons behind anything they do, leaving nothing but the experience of watching shallow people do shallow things because the heart wants what it wants, etc. While there’s some spark in individual scenes and moments, there’s no sense of focus here and too many characters to keep track of, virtually all of whom are in need of a swift kick in the ass.