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You can't prove that Bridesmaids actually caused what's happening at Sundance this year, but it's hard to deny that there's a trend here. Nearly a year after the raunchy Kristen Wiig comedy became an enormous box office success, female-led films, and especially comedies, are all over the place at Sundance. Some, like the similarly titled Bachelorette, are completely open about admitting that the success of Bridesmaids made funding for their films possible. Others, like the equally raunchy For A Good Time Call, watched Bridesmaids in development and knew that something good was happening that they might be a part of.
Sundance is always a home for voices in film that don't often otherwise get heard, but this year in particular seems like a great one for women, whether they're following in the footsteps of Bridesmaids or not. I still haven't managed to catch one of the biggest female-led films, the Alison Brie and Lizzy Caplan-starring Save the Date, but here are reviews of three others: two raunchy comedies, one thriller, all putting ladies right up front.
For A Good Time Call
Lauren Anne Miller and Katie Anne Naylon attempted to sell their first script to studios before Miller had what she calls a "3 a.m. moment of the soul" and decided to make it themselves. The result is filthy and sweet, raunchy and tender, a high-concept comedy that's also remarkably honest about the complexities of friendship between women. Miller takes on her first major acting role opposite Ari Graynor, the two of them playing a mismatched pair of roommates who, strapped for cash, decide to open a phone sex line that's met with immediate success.
The premise is exactly as out-there as it seems, but For A Good Time Call throws a lot of wild stuff out there and sticks with it, from Justin Long's swishy performance as the girls' mutual gay best friend to a running farce set up in which Lauren's parents visit at exactly the wrong moment. The movie is pitched at a speed it can't quite maintain, and cribbing as it does from the standard rom-com setup, the stakes are generally low and the finale never in question. But Miller and Naylon's script is rarely short on laughs, and director Jamie Travis, making his first feature, edits briskly and with an eye for trimming out the fat. He doesn't quite get there, especially in the middle act, but everything ends on such a high note it doesn't even matter in the end.
For A Good Time Call is one of the priciest acquisitions of the festival, having been bought by Focus Features for around $2 million-- they clearly think they could have their own Bridesmaids-style hit, and they may be right. For A Good Time is a little more raw, but it's also even sweeter, a feel-good comedy for girlfriends who grew up on the Sex and the City explicitness and can handle a lot of dildo jokes. I mean, a lot of dildo jokes. But I promise they're all funny and worth it.
You know what happens when three pretty girls go on a camping trip in some remote woods, right? In most horror movie versions of the story, the women make for easier targets than deer in hunting season, picked off by a psycho with a knife or an angry ex-boyfriend or nature itself. In Katie Aselton's second feature Black Rock, the stereotypes are all there, but so is writing that sets it all in a believable context of a strained female friendship, past wounds, and one woman's desire to prove herself capable for reasons that go far beyond the will to survive.
The plot is dead simple-- Aselton, Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth play three friends revisiting the Maine island of Black Rock where they spent their childhood summers, but since Aselton and Bell's characters have been angry at each other for years, it's more like a peace summit than a happy vacation. Tensions flare up early but get pushed aside when they come across three hunters, one of whom they grew up with, all three of them recently dishonorably discharged from the military. Things eventually go wrong, the girls wind up being hunted, and they're forced to figure out a way to get off the island alive.
Black Rock's plot isn't treading new ground, and if you don't scare easily like I do, you might be bored by the many scenes of the girls running through the woods, coming up with battle plans or glaring at each other. But the script by Aselton's husband Mark Duplass (and tuned up by the actresses themselves) brings out both humor and relatable conflicts between the women, building up their fight for survival as not just a dramatic plot twist, but as a chance for these characters to move past old wounds. The movie is definitely low-budget and a little rough around the edges-- a climactic fight scene has both great humor and some glaring technical flaws-- but as a thriller that's just a step or two off the beaten path, Black Rock works pretty nicely. It's been picked up for distribution by upstarts LD Entertainment, so expect a theatrical release later this year.
It's funny how expectations can work for Sundance premieres, where you're often seeing a movie that literally no one you know has laid eyes on and you may know nothing about-- in this era of huge hype and marketing, that's a rare thing. So seeing Bachelorette at its premiere on Monday, I had just a few things to go on, namely the starry cast made up of Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan and Isla Fisher in the lead roles, and the concept of a bachelorette party gone wrong that seemed to be The Hangover meets Bridesmaids. That's not just a movie that's easy to sell, but the kind of thing you're dying to see after a few days of dark and difficult Sundance films.
Turns out, Bachelorette was one of the darker and grimmer movies I've seen here, an attempt at black comedy and painful honesty that takes a veer into meanness early in the second act and never recovers. Kirsten Dunst expands on her brittle Melancholia performance to play the type-A former bulimic Regan, who runs the upcoming wedding of her friend Becky (Rebel WIlson) with ruthless precision but also near-constant condescension. Because Becky is fat, all three of our prettier, more famous leads made fun of her in high school and continue to do so-- it's an accurate detail about certain types of frenemy relationships, but also quickly establishes our leads as nightmarish assholes who doesn't deserve any of the redemption the story is about to bring their way.
To be fair to writer-director Leslye Headland, making her directorial debut after a career in theater, these mean characters and the adventures they go through could have worked as black comedy, and Caplan and especially Dunst are giving their all to characters who feel well-rounded and fascinating whenever the actresses sit still for a minute and let us get to know them. But the movie's tone gets too sharp and hostile as soon as the post-bachelorette-party shenanigans begin, and what ensues isn't funny enough to make up for it. No one wants a movie full of only relatable and sympathetic characters, but everyone in Bachelorette is either brittle and awful or so thinly sketched (as with Fisher's ditz character) that they can't matter. It's frustrating to see so much potential trip up on its own dark tone, especially when there are so many glimmers of potential greatness, from the occasional great joke in Headland's script to Dunst's go-for-broke performance. Bachelorette is almost guaranteed to get picked up at the festival given its starry profile, but where a lot of the fest's comedies have been bright spots, this is just a troubled one that sounds better on paper.