Maybe I’m a bit cynical. That’s not true. I’m excessively cynical. I could claim it comes naturally once you’ve seen too many movies, but that doesn’t seem like a good enough excuse. And the 2012 Sundance Film Festival’s online shorts are a perfectly illustrative example of why any exhausted approach to new movies is a bad idea.
American independent film has arguably hit a point of stylistic ferment. There’s a ton of exciting and innovative new work produced every year, but there’s also a growing list of aggravating indie film trends. Documentaries about cute old people doing something unexpected en masse, raucous banter-heavy family comedies, quirky teenagers that talk like cynical 30-somethings. It’s true that each of these styles initially caught on because of some genuinely excellent films, but that doesn’t make the inferior ones any less irritating. If I were to say “oh, it was just another bad Sundance movie” a lot of people would have a pretty clear stereotypical image, though it might vary based on the individual.
All of that drives the cynicism. You can sense a dreadful movie in its first few minutes; it’s so easy to put it into a box. Yet take heed! Apparently it doesn’t always work that way (I know, duh). Sometimes that instant recognition is right (see Jesus Henry Christ). But often it’s totally wrong. Seven of the nine Sundance online short films had me convinced for a good 1-3 minutes that they were going to be predictable and frustrating. Each one of them proved me wrong.
Click on the images to go watch the shorts!
Una Hora por Favora, by Jill Soloway
I got pretty invested in the apparent genre of this short film rather quickly. The set-up is as follows: a single woman inCalifornia, constantly harassed by her mother, ends up hiring a day laborer to come fix her shower. Lonely and neurotic, it becomes inevitable that she’s going to hit on him. Movies about middle-class white urbanites having a roll in the hay with the help, without any effort to resolve the whole objectification-exoticizing thing, are really irritating. Mercifully, this turns into a satire and by the end has supplied enough ridiculous neurotic behavior that I’m confident it knows what it’s doing. I think.
Henley, by Craig Macneill
Sometimes a short film can be a bit too long. It sounds silly, but it’s actually a lot easier for a short to overstay its welcome than a feature. Shorts need to validate every second. Henley just takes too much time to wind up. Ted is nine years old and has an unsettling hobby, like many of his Sundance-y brethren. He collects dead animals from off the road by his father’s motel. For most of the short he just keeps gathering and experimenting. Director Craig Macneill is very deliberate in slowing down the kid’s process of inspiration. Yet the last half is redemptive, and the final moments of the short show that Macneill really does know what’s up.
Odysseus’ Gambit, by Àlex Lora Cercos
Documentaries about the really entertaining and socially excluded person hanging out in the park (or any other public place) often come from a genuinely selfless place and turn out to be impressively self-indulgent. I worried about Odysseus’ Gambit from the beginning, but that was mostly because I really need to get my cynicism checked out by a doctor. Admittedly the intertitles aren’t the best device and the audience could easily build a story without them (they could certainly be in a better font). But once Saravuth gets around to telling his story things lift off. Sometimes a human life gets caught in the mess of a filmmaker desperately trying to tell it. By the end of this short, its subject’s fascinating character absolutely gets through.
’92 Skybox Alonzo Mourning Rookie Card, by Todd Sklar
Bros acting ridiculous can get really tiring, whether or not they are actually brothers. Adults acting like adolescents, especially in some recent “homecoming of age” movies (™ Christopher Campbell), behave badly and only learn once the plot forces them into obligatory heartwarming Act III. Todd Sklar miraculously doesn’t let that happen, despite some early warning signs: comically large diner orders, inexplicable childish costume choices and other irritating antics. Yet the relationship between these brothers feels genuine by the end, and somehow you end up liking both of them. It does feel top heavy in structure but there’s enough humor to keep you going for the very empathetically written last few minutes.
The Arm, by Brie Larson, Sarah Ramos and Jessie Ennis
Children talking like adults, if those adults were disaffected 30-somethings, are arguably Diablo Cody’s fault (and I’m not even one of the bitter Juno haters.) Texting jokes can easily go the route of terrible New Yorker cartoons. When you put the two together, failure is practically guaranteed. Jessie Ennis, Sarah Ramos and Brie Larson (who may have picked up the teenager-speak thing on the set of The United States of Tara) pull this off with flying colors. Two teens have a relationship that consists entirely of text messages. One of them dies, while texting. What’s the emotional impact? Is there an emotional impact? Whimsically metaphorical instead of moralizing and oblivious, The Arm asks some questions without presuming to know all the answers. That’s why it keeps both funny and intriguing throughout.
Aquadettes, by Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari
Old women synchronized swimming is not, at core, enough for a movie. Not even a ten minute movie. Thankfully, these two filmmakers are much less concerned with making us awwww for the duration of their project à la Young@Heart than they are with telling a single story. Margo is getting older, and uses the swimming pool and medical marijuana as a way to cope. We learn about her life from a simple one-to-one perspective, seeing her truth instead of (only) how cute she is. It’s refreshing and delightful.
Dol (First Birthday), by Andrew Ahn
I have seen this film too many times: A single cultural event brings a family together, but the gay protagonist is left isolated either internally or explicitly and it becomes an opportunity for conflict, growth and a heart-warming conclusion. Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet is excellent. Many other films are not. The one biggest weakness they have is their inability to let loose the reins and give the audience an opportunity to gather up emotions independently. Writer/director Andrew Ahn gives us a little space. There’s no open conflict but there’s also no painfully obvious guilt. There is only the basic element of longing, a wish for the real traditional values of family that might not be open to some because of the so-called “traditional values” that stand in the way. With an unexpected closing shot that oddly enough recalls last year’s Sundance hit Like Crazy¸ Dol shows us the ambiguity of a gay Korean American’s life without needing a thematic cudgel.