Trying to see everything at Sundance is an understandable, yet impossible impulse—the vagaries of Park City’s shuttle buses preclude it. But among all the hype and excitement over the big-name stars and indie stalwarts, it can be too easy to forget that Sundance should be as much about discovery as catching the latest Noah Baumbach film. Yes, the carpets and celebrity Q&As are fun, but if you focus only on those, you’ll have missed something essential to the festival’s DNA: young blood.
Marielle Heller’s debut film The Diary of a Teenage Girl falls squarely in that category. An adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 novel of the same name, Heller’s film feels quintessentially Sundance without falling into the sand trap of indie ennui. The teenage girl in this case is Minnie Goetze (an endlessly engaging Bel Powley) whose sexual awakening just happens to involve sleeping with her careless mother’s hippie boyfriend—Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgard, respectively. On the Park City shuttle buses, this film quickly earned a reputation as the “sleeping with Alexander Skarsgard” movie. Accurate, yes: There are plentiful scenes of the actor wearing little other than his charismatic smile. But that quip belies the engaging new creative voice Heller offers. Diary beautifully evokes the childlike hedonism of the Castro in 1976 San Francisco with muted, soft focus and delights in its offhand humanity. As ill advised as Minnie’s adventures are, Heller avoids scorn, instead inviting the audience into a sweet chaos, ready to implode at any minute. Believe me, “sleeping with Alexander Skarsgard” doesn’t rank high on my bucket list, but in Heller’s hands even I feel the butterflies that flutter in Minnie’s stomach as she exuberantly falls down the rabbit hole of her own naiveté. Even better, the sexual tryst doesn’t overwhelm the characters’ dynamics; instead it provides a dramatic spine on which to hang Heller’s insights and observations. (Frankly, the teenage boy version of me would’ve avoided a lot of heartache if he could’ve seen this movie.)
Of course, for those who really want to check out the bleeding edge of new talents fashioning the future of film on a shoestring budget, Sundance’s Next category provides the doorway. I got into a debate with a fellow journalist about what exactly qualifies a film as Next: when it started, Next typically gave a break to new filmmakers scrapping together their first feature with no money and tons of guts. But these days, it can be hard for even established directors to rustle up the kind of budgets required for traditional shoots. Take Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Silva: His first film The Maid actually received a Golden Globe nomination and he had two films in Sundance two years ago—the eccentrically beautiful Crystal Fairy and the disturbing Magic, Magic. This year he’s back in the Next category with another down and dirty digital feature called Nasty Baby, a mind bender that you might mistake for a potpourri of indie clichés if you didn’t know the acuity of Silva’s eye for human behavior or the deviousness of his intentions. Nasty Baby starts out with a post-racial gay couple in Brooklyn (an effectively restrained Tunde Adebimpe and Silva himself, the antic counterweight) trying to conceive a baby with their scooter-riding nurse friend, played by Kristen Wiig (again) in her unplugged funny woman mode. At first it seems like just another slice of post-Obama Brooklyn life, until the Bishop, a not-quite-there neighbor who annoys the Brownstone gentrifiers, refuses stay on the edge of the story. The film rolls leisurely along these tracks for quite a while before the accumulation of unnerving incidents hits a tipping point, literally flipping over the table of audience expectations and going for the jugular. If you’re not used to Silva, it can be a hard experience; but if you can appreciate his ability, you can appreciate how his unique form of parody insinuates time bombs in our most complacent social-cultural assumptions.
Finally, the Next film that had everyone giggling with delight at its sheer manic brio was Sean Baker’s Tangerine, an uproarious look at the lives of two transgender prostitutes working the seedy stretches of Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard. If you make your home in L.A., you know that stretch of road well and will marvel at how perfectly Baker captures its vibe without condescending to Alexandra and Sin Dee, his gender-bending heroines (or is it heroes?). Even if you don’t, Tangerine invites you into its unique sub-culture and lets us laugh with its protagonists—but not at them. As Sin Dee marches up and down the street looking for the “actual” woman who stole her man, Alexandra in tow handing out fliers for her Christmas Eve concert, you will also find yourself moved by the consolations of friendship in even the most hardscrabble of margins. In fact, you might even forget the fact that has become the movie’s calling card: It was shot almost entirely on an iPhone 5s. As Next proves, these days, you can perform wonders on even a shoestring.