Unfortunately I’ve started to fall behind with these Sundance Film Festival updates and reviews and once that happens, it’s hard to get caught up, but Day 4 began with Sebastian Silva’s Nasty Baby, a strange little beast in which he stars as a video artist named Freddie, living in Brooklyn with his boyfriend Mo (TV on the Radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe). The two of them are in the process of trying to have a baby with the help of their friend Polly (Kristen Wiig), but things haven’t been going so well since Freddie’s sperm hasn’t been working.
While Freddie is trying to convince Mo to get more actively involved in the process by donating his own sperm, he’s also been having a feud with a local crazy known as “The Bishop” (Reg E. Cathey), who wakes them up every morning with his leaf blower and acts menacingly towards Polly whenever she’s in the neighborhood. They end up getting in a number of altercations with “The Bishop,” even getting the police involved.
Originally from Chile, Sebastian Silva’s earlier films The Maid and Old Cats were significant exports from his home country before he teamed with Michael Cera for Crystal Fairy and Magic Magic, all which played at the Sundance Film Festival. Nasty Baby isn’t really a comedy as much as it’s an everyday life drama that has the type of humor we see every day. It takes a similar slice-of-life approach as Silva’s other films where there isn’t as much focus on plot developments as there is on inserting the viewer into the lives of the diverse characters of this Brooklyn neighborhood and showing how they interact with each other. In that sense, it’s probably one of the better and more accurate depictions of what it’s like to live in New York and what people frequently experience there.
As far as the acting, Silva does a decent job with a fairly unchallenging role but one that definitely brings the most humor to the situations. It’s really Adebimpe, in his first major acting role since Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, that impresses with a low-key performance as his lover, really working well as Silva’s counterpoint. Wiig is also far more palatable in a role which allows her to be free but never going overboard with the improv.
For most of the film, there aren’t a ton of significant moments as it essentially rolls along and follows their journey to find out if Polly can get pregnant, but just as its finding its footing, it takes a drastic 180 degree turn as Freddie’s conflict with The Bishop comes to a head.
That’s not saying it’s a bad turn, but it’s one of those moments that could lead to huge repercussions and it’s frustrating when Silva goes for a fairly ambiguous ending rather than allowing those events to play out.
I didn’t realize going into Me and Earl and the Dying Girl that it was an adaptation of a book written by its screenwriter Jesse Andrews, but in hindsight, it does make sense because the film does feel fairly literary… and not in a bad way. Directed by Alfonso Gonzalez-Rejon, changing gears after The Town That Dreaded Sundown and episodes of “American Horror Story: Coven,” it feels at first very much like a movie we’ve seen at Sundance countless times before, i.e. a coming-of-age high school movie about a loner outcast who meets someone who has a significant change impact on their life.
In this case, it’s Thomas Mann’s Greg, the “me” in the title, a high school senior who is pressured by his mother to spend time with a classmate named Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has been diagnosed with leukemia, thinking Greg’s presence will lighten her mood. Then there’s Earl (RJ Cyler), who Greg has known since they were both children, and while he doesn’t consider him a “friend,” the two of them have been working on spoofs of classic films.
The results are a quirky movie that straddles the line between Be Kind Rewind and something like The Wackness (a huge Sundance hit that didn’t get the attention post-festival it deserved), one that feels fresh and original despite the familiar setting.
I’m not that familiar with Thomas Mann’s work–I’m sure I’ve seen him in movies, but this role is a real gamechanger for him as an actor, because Greg could have been played like a other typical teenager, but Mann gives him so much personality. Like the director, Olivia Cooke has been doing a lot of horror-based stuff in recent years, so to see her taking on something that shows so much more range and emotion is marvelous. RJ Cyler is also a fantastic find who brings a lot of humor despite having less lines—when he opens his mouth, it’s usually significant.
One would think having comedy ringers like Nick Offerman (as Greg’s father) and Molly Shannon (as Rachel’s mother) in your movie would offer quirky characters that can make up for the lesser-known younger cast. (Offerman certainly played that role in 2013’s The Kings of Summer, which failed to hit the same marks this film does so easily.) They’re certainly funny, but in this case it’s not even necessary, because the three younger actors are so good. The most surprising adult character is Jon Bernthal, who is playing away from type as the boys’ tattooed teacher McCarthy.
There’s a possibility I have too much of a personal connection to leukemia to ignore one of the major things the movie botches, showing Rachel surrounded by flowers both at home and in the hospital. (Patients being treated for leukemia would not be allowed anywhere near plants.) That minor quibble is easily forgiven though as the way cancer affects those afflicted and those around them is handled perfectly.
As funny as the movie gets, things take a more serious turn leading to a last act that bears more of a resemblance to The Fault in Our Stars. It’s great that the film rarely goes in the direction you might expect and every element that has been established earlier, no matter how odd or quirky, does pay off in the last few minutes. It’s a payoff that’s well earned as well.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one of those Sundance movies you know will have a significant impact on anyone who watches it, regardless of whether they’ve been personally affected by cancer. It is one of those rare films that handles the disease in such a respectful way rather than using it solely to manipulate emotions. I would not be surprised if it wins at least two awards in competition as it is easily the best thing I’ve seen at this year’s festival.
Kris Swanberg’s Unexpected is a small independent film with a simple premise perfectly suited for Sundance audiences with Cobie Smulders playing Samantha, a science teacher at an inner city Chicago school, who learns she’s gotten pregnant by her boyfriend at a time when she needs to find a new job. She also finds out that one of her top students, Jasmine (Gail Bean), has also gotten pregnant, and the two of them bond as Samantha tries to help the teenager make the decision whether to go to college.
Like I said, it’s a fairly simple character piece that takes advantage of its Chicago setting to contrast the two women’s financial situations and how it affects their decision making that can have an impact on their future. It very much as the feel of another teacher-student drama that played well at Sundance, Half-Nelson, with Smulders and newcomer Gail Bean both giving phenomenal performances. Anders Holm has less to do as Samantha’s boyfriend who marries her when he learns she’s pregnant, but he does have some great scenes with Smulders.
The film is clearly more of a scripted filmed with prepared camera shots than her well-known filmmaking husband’s work, which keeps it from feeling too low budget, although she does borrow his music supervisor Chris Swanson, who creates a very different score for the film along with composer Keegan DeWitt.
While the film is by no means groundbreaking, Swanberg has created a lovely film that it’s hard to find anything to not like about it, but it also never tries to be anything more than what sets it out to be.
I’ve long been a fan of Sarah Silverman, both as a comedian and as a talented and highly-underrated actor, so it’s nice seeing her get a showcase role in a drama like I Smile Back, adapted by Amy Koppelman from her novel along with Paige Dylan.
Silverman plays Laney Brooks, a mother with two young kids and a wealthy husband (Josh Charles) who we watch snorting coke and sleeping with a friend of her husband’s (Thomas Sadoski) for reasons we’ll discover later. After a bad incident, she’s put into rehab, which is where the film should start to get interesting, but it basically glosses over that part of her journey to instead put her back into the domestic situation. As we learn during a session with her doctor (Terry Kinney), her father left her when she was young which started the “daddy issues” that led to the use of drugs and promiscuous sex.
It was kind of amusing to end a day that started with a couple trying to have a baby and then seeing a movie about a couple who get unexpectedly pregnant to a movie about a mother who can’t cope with that lifestyle. It’s a great no-holds-barred role for Silverman who hasn’t had anything this significant since Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, and Laney makes for an interesting character mainly because one imagines her life has gone in a very different direction than she expected.
Unfortunately, the screenplay isn’t that fantastic and does little to convey the nature of Laney’s addiction, and the woman’s biggest hurdle is the weak direction by Adam Salky (Dare), because the film might have fared better being directed by a woman who might be able to give the audience more empathy for Laney’s situation. Few of the actors in the film can hold their own against Silverman, something that’s evident in every scene, especially those with Charles and the kids, which tend to be overly dramatic and feel false.
Some may hope for some sort of happy ending or at least a little bit of redemption for Laney’s actions, but that’s not meant to be and things just get worse and worse for her.
I Smile Back is a grim and depressing movie that’s painfully dull, making it hard to recommend it even for fans of Silverman who want to see her stretch her dramatic acting muscles. Silverman isn’t the problem though as much as everyone else in front of and behind the camera.