Below you can watch a video blog that Matt Patches and I recorded on a Park City shuttle bus last night, going over the first two movies we saw yesterday-- Hello I Must Be Going and Beasts of the Southern Wild. They're almost nothing alike, but sometimes that's the luck of the festival draw-- you see two movies in a row that put each other in stark relief, pointing out the other's strengths and weaknesses by their sheer difference. Check out the video below, and underneath that are longer reviews of each film.
Hello I Must Be Going
Hello I Must Be Going is another entry in what's becoming a familiar kind of Sundance mini-genre-- stories about relatively privileged, usually white people, dealing with moderately important issues with a mix of humor and drama, and a few quirky plot twists to keep things interesting. Even though Hello feels a little overly familiar, though, it's very much an enjoyable sit, led by a standout performance from Melanie Lynskey, playing a 34-year-old woman who, devastated by a recent divorce, moves back in with her parents in their lavish Connecticut home. A chance meeting with the son of a family friend blossoms swiftly into a romance, and even though he's 15 years younger and also living with his parents for the summer, their furtive relationship carries on with sex in the car, late-night skinny-dipping, all the hallmarks of teenage summer love.
Known for small roles in films like Win Win and Up in the Air, Lynskey seems to be coming into her own herself as this confused, childish woman, playing disheveled and sexy, petulant and proud, eventually emerging as a heroine who still might not get her happy ending. She and many of the film's other characters are often wrapped up in ridiculous problems, and though there's a little satire of the posh Westport world, writer-director Todd Louiso sometimes lets things slip into caricature-- a high school friend raving about how babies change your life, or Blythe Danner's mom character going crazy over a broken, ludicrously expensive glass sculpture. The script is overwritten at times and muddled at others, but Lynskey and her co-stars shine through all the same; nobody is reinventing the indie dramedy here, but there's plenty to be said about taking a familiar setup and doing it well.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beasts of the Southern Wild, as mentioned, is nothing like any of that. Though the film's director Benh Zeitlin hails from the New York suburbs not far from Westport, he's spent the last six years in New Orleans, embedding himself and a massive crew of collaborators into life in the parts of the city that still aren't really fully recovered from Katrina. Beasts isn't exactly a Katrina movie and certainly doesn't have a political message, but it's a fantasy clearly spun from the real-life circumstances of people who love southern Louisiana, and what happens when the waters rise and the government comes to throw you out of the only place you've ever known. It's also a story about a fictional community called the Bathtub and beasts unfrozen from glaciers and a girl named Hushpuppy; though there are no rules, exactly, in this alternate land, it's clear from the beginning you're somewhere strange and new, and every minute of the film feels like another turn deeper into this intricately created world.
Hushpuppy is played by Louisiana native Quvenzhané Wallis, who commands the film with an almost terrifying, preternatural presence. The tiny six-year-old lives in her own trailer on backwoods property with her father (Dwight Henry), an ailing alcoholic whom she loves and fears in equal measure, and who tells vague and wistful stories about the mother who's long gone. Though the plot of the film involves the entire community of the Bathtub recovering from a flood and clinging to their ravaged homeland, it's really Hushpuppy's coming of age, trained by her father and everyone she knows to expect disaster and be capable of standing on her own at any moment. Hushpuppy talks often of the end of the world, represented by breaking glaciers and rising waters and those enormous black horned beasts, but for this child the end of the world could be anything-- growing up, losing her father, even finally finding the mother she imagines on the far horizon. As Hushpuppy says in the lyrical voiceover that threads throughout the film, "we who the earth is for," but living in a fragile island on a flood plain, it's no wonder she and her neighbors are constantly preparing for the end.
In his short films Zeitlin has shown a gift with complex visuals and intricate sets, and the creation of The Bathtub in Beasts is breathtaking-- ramshackle trailers, animal cages, floating gardens, a boat made from the flatbed of an old truck. And though the script he wrote with Lucy Alibar is just as rambling and shaggy as some of those old backwoods trailers, it's got a powerful, roaring spirit, embodied in Wallis's performance and the whole unlikely endeavor of building a flourishing community on the banks of a river that's bound to flood. Childhood and family and relationships and the land itself are so fragile in The Bathtub, but everyone there fights for it anyway, both because they know nothing else and they know it's worth it.
Shot beautifully outdoors and featuring a lot of voiceover, Beasts is already earning some comparisons to Malick, but it's odder and more ragged, mixing fantasy and surrealism and myth with the kind of confidence that's stunning in a first feature. iIt's a bold, brave movie that is justly thrilling audiences here-- the festival has just begun, but I doubt I'll see anything as ambitious and heartfelt and gorgeously made the rest of my time in Park City. And based on the buzz it's getting, you'll have a chance to see it soon as well.
Keep checking back to this page for all of my ongoing Sundance coverage, and for more from Matt Patches, you can check out his coverage at Hollywood.com. We'll have much more to tell you very soon!