Considering the prevailing cliché of the “Sundance movie,” which promises quirky coming-of-age narratives and feel-good/hard-fought personal breakthroughs and/or political actualizations amped up to a transcendental credit-reel sendoff, it can be disorienting to find among the Festival’s 100 odd features an equal amount of atypical offerings—knotty, unexpected, ambitious films that defy the stereotype. Foremost among these are literary adaptations, films that due to the built-in distancing effect of interpretation—an auteur solving for the intentions of an author—tend to at least steer clear of self- (if not of every) indulgence. Looking over the literary adaptations of Sundance 2013, the most contentiously received—Two Mothers and Austenland—seemed to depart considerably from their sources (a Doris Lessing story and Shannon Hale’s young adult novel, respectively), while the below three wore their literariness on their sleeve, contending with voice, tone, tense, and formal devices to more persuasive, if not uniformly successful, ends.
Director and screenwriter: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Author: David Sedaris
One of the most eagerly anticipated films of the Festival, C.O.G. (originally a short story that appears in David Sedaris’ collection Naked) represents the first and to-date only work by David Sedaris to receive the big screen treatment. According to director Kyle Patrick Alvarez, the author’s longstanding resistance to filmic adaptation yielded to the young director’s personal investment in this particular essay, rather than in the Sedaris personal mythology. “I didn’t seek out to make a David Sedaris movie, I sought to make C.O.G., and I think that’s what appealed to him,” he told an effusive crowd late in the Festival, a few days after Sedaris himself saw the film and called it good. Yet what appealed to the author about the treatment may have actually robbed the story of its experiential power, making C.O.G. a fascinating study in the perils of adaptation. Though voice-over is often used as a crutch in adaptation—a too obvious attempt to retain the language, personality and perspective of a page-bound narrator—here it proves to be a crucial omission. Without that wryly misanthropic, subtly rueful Sedaris voice, we’re left with the underlying, and inadequately interrogated, problems—the classism, the narcissism, the inadequate empathy—of the Sedaris project. Without the elder author taking the piss out of his younger self’s ill-fated imbroglio into the wilds of working-class Oregon, we’re left with a kind of gathering revulsion for both the character of young David (despite actor Jonathan Groff’s considerable charm) and his interloped-upon co-workers and associates, whose wounded pride too easily curdles into bigotry. Alvarez commendably encourages us to respond to his characters’ behavior without any cloying intervention, yet without it the film feels uncertainly pitched, looking back at a formative experience without any formal encouragement for identification.
The Spectacular Now
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenplay: Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter
Author: Tim Tharp
Though it dispenses with voice-over for the bulk of its running time, The Spectacular Now does employ a classic cheat in order to endear us to its protagonist: a direct-address framing device. But as such it’s a cleverly and effectively employed one, with high school senior and resident party animal Sutter Keely (Miles Teller, in a star-making turn) tapping out a college application essay that alters drastically in-between drafts thanks to the life lessons accrued over the course of the film. Director James Ponsoldt didn’t pen the film’s script, but he did transpose action from Tim Tharp’s Oklahoma City to his native Athens, Georgia, an implicit conflation of his own boozy adolescence with Sutter’s—which the director made explicit during post-screening talks at the Festival. Although the framing device helps put us in Sutter’s head, and even though the camera stays close to him throughout, we’re nevertheless allowed to scrutinize and distance ourselves from his self-destructive behavior, to empathize with his frighteningly unguarded girlfriend, Aimee (Shailene Woodley), to approach it all with a measure of perspective—the kind of perspective offered by distance (adaptation, i.e. someone else’s story) and time (age). Based on a source text, and a voice, that’s less iconic than C.O.G., The Spectacular Now succeeds in solving for form without sacrificing an ounce of feel.
Director and screenwriter: Alicia Scherson
Author: Roberto Bolaño (“Una Novelita Lumpen”)
Perhaps most fascinatingly of all, Chilean filmmaker Alicia Scherson makes cinema of Roberto Bolaño while preserving his writerliness, his deadpan opaqueness, his deadbeat grandiosity. Based on a novella as-yet-untranslated into English, The Future follows a young woman and her younger brother in the days following the vehicular deaths of their parents. After virginal Tomas (Luigi Ciardo) lets two thuggish personal trainers live in their Roman flat, insouciant Bianca (Manuela Martelli) gets talked into a scheme in which she plays prostitute to a blind, washed-up ex-movie star (Rutger Hauer) in order to thieve his considerable fortune. Scherson employs voice-over only for Bianca’s flights of philosophical and apocalyptical musings, quick monologues that don’t function structurally as much as they offer emotional and psychic grounding—even when they come on like a bog of goth-girl indulgence. Yet what makes The Future truly fly is a doubling down on influence, coupling a literary source (Bolaño) with a cinematic one: the nimble, genre transgressiveness of Pedro Almodóvar. With its accents of noir, hints at sci-fi, dollops of long-take absurdist humor, and surprisingly tender heart (thanks to Hauer’s silken-robed, sandwich-making sweetie), the film borrows liberally from two spiritually syncopated fathers to create something that works completely on its own terms.
Eric Hynes is a New York-based film critic and reporter. He writes regularly for the Village Voice, Time Out New York, and Slate.com, among other publications, and is a staff writer for the online film journal Reverse Shot.