From droll Heathers homages to docs about the triumph of the human spirit, Matt Cipolla breaks down his first day at Sundance.
While January 28 was day 5 for most other Sundancers, I only danced myself into Park City on Monday morning. It felt like something of a tropical vacation, too, with Utah being over 45 degrees warmer than Chi-beria. After checking into my hostel and grabbing whatever bearings I had left, I made my way to the Holiday Village Cinema for a film of two firsts: my first Sundance film, and the first from director Tayarisha Poe.
Teen dramedy Selah and the Spades is sure to elicit a bevy of obligatory comparisons to Heathers with its exploration of teenage politics, cliques, and queen bees. That would be selling its ambitions short, though. Poe, who also wrote the film, displays more in impressionistic filmmaking than anything else—at least at first. It’s a tale of social factions and the wars they wage against themselves and each other but with more matter-of-factness than comparable fair. It’s also touches base on gender roles, chauvinism, and internalized misogyny, attempting to absolve itself from its skin-deep observations with its steam-of-consciousness editing, as well as some sharply realized framing that engages without distracting.
Poe is clearly a talented filmmaker. She knows her drollness and she knows the dynamics that interest her. It’s her film, though, that lacks texture beyond its veneer, wavering uneasily between the abstruse and the conventional. By taking beats and motifs from Stand by Me as well as the aforementioned Heathers, her script lives in a bubble of genre literacy and never has any intentions of getting any fresh air until its disquietingly rushed climax. Selah is more of an auspicious directorial debut than a successful film in its own right: an exercise that has personality but not enough meat to satiate audiences once it veers too close to convention.
You could say something similar about Alex Holmes’s Maiden, a documentary about unsung sailor Tracy Edwards. From September 1989 to May 1990, Edwards and an all-female crew partook in the Whitbread Round the World in which a handful of teams sailed from England to Uruguay, and then to Australia… and then Florida… and then back home. Sailing across the globe is one thing, but coasting through tidal waves of sexism from competitors and media alike is a whole other game.
Luckily, this isn’t the type of film that coasts on its inherently interesting story. It’s edited with gusto, lining up its talking heads to emulate conversations. It blends new material with its plentiful archive footage with a swirl of greys and blues. Its visuals are soft in a roundabout way while its many crowd-pleasing moments are played with an earnestness which, when combined with the women’s screen presence, avoid many of its pitfalls. That isn’t to say it’s a revelation or anything, though, as its skittish pacing bypasses some of its deepest musings on chauvinism and objectification. It feels a bit too focused on reaching the finish line.
But as for a movie that couldn’t reach the finish line fast enough? Well, that would be Mope, Lucas Heyne’s comedy/drama-turned-thriller that claims to be hard as a rock but couldn’t feel much baggier. Telling the true story of aspiring porn stars Steve Driver (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and Tom Dong (Kelly Sry), the film attempts to skate the lines between shock value, buddy comedy, and the type of try-hard raunch reserved for American Pie Presents… sequels. That would be a little more understandable if Heyne knew just what he was doing, but his film is just a prime example of how boring shock value can be when done wrong.
Mope makes sense in theory. It’s outrageous, disturbing, and like a cracked out stepchild of Boogie Nights. As it turns out, that cracked out stepchild is more like Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star (remember that thing?) in how much it overstays its welcome, leaning on the flimsiest jokes before toppling into obscurity. Heyne displays little to no awareness in just how pathetic this story really is until the latter third, but guess what? It’s too late then. You can only watch some poor sap endure so much ball busting—figuratively and literally—before it means nothing. When Mope actually tries to be serious in the end, it solidifies itself as a tonal train wreck that’s as ugly to sit through as it is to look at. It may be acted with energy, but surely that energy can be put to better use.
So just what did learn over the course of the day? Well, the impacts of Stand by Me know no bounds, the human spirit is a beautiful thing, and as for Mope… well, someone should get Brian Huskey a role that deserves his deviously detailed talents.
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