As I finally take off my jacket and gloves, and reflect back on the Sundance that just was, one thing stands out from all the rest of the week – the talent, originality, and just plain arrival of the female director. Sure, I saw a number of films that hailed from Texas. Yen Tan’s PIT STOP, about two blue collar gay men in a small Texas town stayed with me for days with its subtle storytelling and rich tapestry of characters. Berlin/Austin dual-resident Bastian Günter delivered a gripping corporate two-hander about a German headhunter come to America to track down a CEO and getting ‘lost’ in a foreign land in HOUSTON. I also enjoyed watching some of our Austin Film Festival alumni making their mark on Sundance. David Andalman, whose short THE BRAGGART played AFF in 2005, presented his first feature, MILKSHAKE, a clever, dark comedy about the great-great-grandson of Al Jolson who desperately wants to be a ‘gangsta’ like all his black basketball teammates. G.J. Echternkamp, whose hilarious 2011 short CAPTAIN FORK played AFF, killed it with the Roger Corman-produced VIRTUALLY HEROES, an action comedy about self-aware video game characters who begin to question to point of their endless mission that reboots each time they die.
However, the strongest voices of the 2013 Sundance film festival were female. The U.S. Dramatic Competition tellingly featured (for the first time ever) as many female directors as men. Jerusha Hess, the female half of the NAPOLEON DYNAMITE team, made her directorial debut with AUSTENLAND, a brilliantly hilarious adaptation she co-wrote with Shannon Hale, the author of the book. Keri Russell sparkles as a Darcy-obsessed single who puts her life-savings into a full Jane Austen-immersion vacation to find true love. Another enigmatic film I had the privilege of seeing was EMANUEL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FISHES, the second feature from Francesca Gregorini. With a breakout performance from Skins actress Kaya Scodelario, the surreal thriller also features Alfred Molina, Frances O’Connor, Jimmi Simpson, and Jessica Biel. Emanuel’s mother died when she was born, so when a mysterious woman who looks identical to her lost mother moves in next door, Emanuel finds herself drawn to her and her newborn. One of my favorite films of the week was the last film I saw, VERY GOOD GIRLS, a heartfelt coming-of-age story about two friends (played by Elizabeth Olsen and Dakota Fanning), with music by Jenny Lewis and written and directed by Naomi Foner. An Academy Award©-nominated screenwriter for RUNNING ON EMPTY, Foner finally directed a screenplay she wrote years ago, a film she described herself as ‘old-fashion’ and about characters and relationships she found absent in the films she saw Hollywood churn out yearly.
The shorts programs were full of strong female directors and writers from around the world. Israeli director Sharon Maymon told the understated story of a man on vacation with his family who finds his biggest secret in the cabin down the beach, his gay-lover, in SUMMER VACATION. British director Romola Garai (who you may recognize as Belle on BBC America’s The Hour) artfully crafted the story of a suburban housewife bored out of her mind and the fantasies she lets take over her life in SCRUBBER. Austin’s own Kat Candler (and AFF Audience and Jury award winner for 2009’s LOVE BUG) rocked this headbanger with BLACK METAL, a dark trip into the world of one of music’s most sinister genres. This one you can see for yourself until the end of the week at http://www.youtube.com/user/ytscreeningroom.
Shorts Program 2 was probably my favorite 95 minutes of Sundance. Jordana Spiro’s ‘first love’ story between an apprentice taxidermist and small-town wallflower, SKIN, managed to break my heart three times in just 13 minutes. Mahalia Belo’s VOLUME, a beautifully shot girl-gone-missing and the broken relationship she leaves behind mystery, was directed with such confidence and style it was disappointing that it wasn’t a feature. Finally, SOCIAL BUTTERFLY, directed by Lauren Wolkstein, was everything a short could be – sharp characters, interesting situations, rich relationships, beautiful cinematography, perfect structure, and a little bit (okay a lot) of sex appeal.
Sundance’s parties and star-studded premiers often dominate industry headlines and what can get lost is the festival’s ability to discover and support new artists with singular visions. I saw one of these Sundance auteurs, the self-proclaimed ‘walk-out king of Sundance’ Calvin Lee Reeder, present his midnight section film THE RAMBLER and I still haven’t recovered (in a good way). However, the freshest voice of my week came from Eliza Hittman, whose ennui-soaked, restrained, coming of age first-feature IT FELT LIKE LOVE, captivated my soul. It is so inspiring to find a simple story with no recognizable names that rises above all the madness of a festival like Sundance and just shines on the screen. Remarkably intimate and painfully honest, Hittman captures that final summer (usually spent on a beach) when innocence is crushed by the need to be accepted and keep up with your more experienced friends. Her short FOREVER’S GONNA START TONIGHT premiere at Sundance in 2011, and if she keeps up this pace and momentum, I would guess Eliza Hittman will be a regular in Park City and at other festivals for quite some time.
I return to Austin Film Festival invigorated to dive into our 2013 submissions (which I found piled upon my desk this morning) and find some gems of our own. The Film Competition is open, and the Earlybird deadline is May 1st. Get your film in now while the fee is only $50. For more information, including rules and awards, check out our website.
– Bears Fonté, Director of Programming