The Opening Night of the Sundance Film Festival is usually one to be celebrated, because it’s a little more relaxing than the week to come with just a couple of movies offered in the evening, one from each of the competition categories. I’m not sure how many of the films in competition I’ll be able to catch before I leave Park City, but I was able to see two very different movies.
In reverse order, the big opening night premiere in the US Dramatic Competition was The Bronze, which was co-written and stars Melissa Rauch from the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” She plays Hope Ann Greggory, who in 2004 won the bronze metal at the Rome Olympics despite a serious injury, making her a smalltown hero in her town of Amherst, Ohio. Ten years after her Olympic victory, Hope Ann is living with her beleaguered postman father (Gary Cole), bitter that her career ended after her injury, exacerbated by the light being shone on the town’s younger new gymnastic star Maggie (Hailey Lu Richardson). When Hope Ann’s beloved coach commits suicide, she leaves a note saying that Hope Ann will inherit $500,000 if she trains Maggie for the Championships in Toronto.
At first, Hope Ann does her best to sabotage Maggie’s career. After all, she doesn’t want any chance of Maggie getting a silver or gold medal, replacing her as the town’s hero. Helping her in the endeavor is the gym’s manager Ben—or “Twitchy” as Hope Ann calls him–played by Thomas Middleditch from “Silicon Valley”—and she has some competition in Sebastian Stan’s Lance, a Gold medalist gymnast vying for the gig to coach Maggie knowing that Hope Ann isn’t up to the task.
Once things are set-up, The Bronze’s biggest hurdle is that Rauch makes Greggory so deliberately unlikeable, one of those characters who does and says the worst things possible just to get laughs. We’ve seen many guys who can get away with acting like children and it’s somewhat endearing, but Greggory is a much harder pill to swallow. Yeah, we get the joke that Hope Ann isn’t exactly the model of an Olympian and there’s probably people out there like her, who found fame at an early age but never moved beyond it. Rauch delivers every line with such a grating nasally voice, it’s almost as hard to understand what she’s saying as it is to warm up to her.
The whole thing goes for the most obvious laughs i.e. Hope Anne’s expletive filled diatribes, but the storytelling falls flat since it never feels like they’re striving for any sort of authenticity in terms of making her feel like a real person.
It’s immediately obvious where things are going storywise as everything is set up to force Greggory to show remorse and gain repentance for her actions by really putting effort into taking Maggie to the National Championships. As with most sports dramas, there’s only two directions this can be taken.
It’s also obvious where it’s going in terms of Rauch’s relationship with Ben, an awkward romance that the filmmakers feel they need to disrupt with conflict by having Hope Anne get into a drunken one-nighter with Lance. This leads to a “gymnastics sex” scene between Rauch and Stan where they’re both fully nude, which is a mildly amusing idea, but it’s also something that can’t be unseen.
Once the Championships are over, Hope Ann gets back to Amherst and you would think that would be the end of the movie, but it just keeps going on and on and on with so many different endings with every relationship having to be resolved, whether they interested you or not.
I’m sure there was a really funny movie somewhere in Rauch’s screenplay, but director Bryan Buckley just wasn’t the right guy to realize it. It’s not like he lets Rauch run rampant and do whatever she wants to, but he also doesn’t keep the movie particularly focused. It also doesn’t look particularly good, obviously done on a lower budget with corners cut to allow money for the bigger gymnastics moments (which are quite impressive).
I have no doubt this is going to sell and that someone clever can come up with a marketable trailer that focuses on the raunchy humor, but it’s a grueling experience to sit through if you’re not in on the central joke and Rauch’s character.
Considerably better is The Summer of Sangaile, the Lithuanian coming-of-age film from Alanté Kavaïté. It’s also a film that’s harder to put into words what I liked or disliked about it, because it’s an artier film that isn’t quite as on the nose as The Bronze and presumably some of the other films to come at Sundance.
It introduces us to two fine young actresses in Julija Steponaityte and Aiste Dirziute, the former being the title character of Sangaile, a 17-year-old aviation enthusiast who forms a friendship (and more) with the latter, a quirky photographer and fashion designer. From very early on, we learn that Sangaile is a cutter, who uses a protractor to cut lines in her arm, but she doesn’t seem suicidal as much as she does it out of boredom.
It’s obvious from the moment these two meet that there’s going to be some sort of relationship between them. As they get closer, Kavaite doesn’t skimp on the eroticism and sensuality, although watching these two gorgeous, nubile and often scantily-clad actresses cavorting made me feel like like a dirty old man.
But it’s a strange film that opens with some impressive aerial stunts and spends much of the first 20 minutes watching young people having fun—drinking, smoking, playing with tapeworms—you know, the usual, before shifting the focus to the relationship between the two young women. There isn’t much of a story other than watching how this relationship evolves and for Sandaile to get over the vertigo that keeps her from flying in one of the stunt planes we saw earlier.
It’s a gorgeous-looking film that’s possibly a little too off the beaten path for mainstream audiences, but fans of arthouse foreign language films should be impressed with what Kavaite has achieved in terms of creating a dream-like tone as well as the performances she gets out of her two leads.
Friday is going to be a big day with potentially five movies, a couple of premieres and a couple of press screenings. I’ll be running around a lot trying to get them all in.