Audiences love watching psychological duels between manipulative madmen and sober, but vulnerable, authority figures, don't they? Why else were viewers so captivated with "The Silence of the Lambs" or Season 3 of HBO's "In Treatment"? Okay, so maybe the former was far more widely popular than the latter, but what can I say? Those scenes between Paul and Sunil still haunt me, even if Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling are the better remembered mental partner/combatants.
In many ways, tapping into a territory somewhere in between those two genres -- the crime thriller and the psychotherapy drama -- seems to be what director Charles Biname's "Elephant Song" is trying to do. Based on a stage play by Nicolas Billon, the film stars Xavier Dolan (who just picked up a "best director" Canadian Screen Award for his film "Mommy" Sunday) as a clever young psychiatric patient named Michael, and Bruce Greenwood as Dr. Toby Green, the psychiatrist who gets pulled into Michael's games.
The problem is that "Elephant Song" can't quite seem to decide in which camp it will ultimately fall. At first, it looks to be going in the crime thriller direction, with a mystery at hand in a 1960s Canadian psychiatric hospital about where Dr. Lawrence, Michael's regular psychiatrist, has gone. We learn that Dr. Lawrence had a session with Michael a day before and hasn't been seen since. Dr. Green, who is a hospital chief of staff and not used to working directly with patients, must try to tease out the truth from Michael, who claims to know what happened to Dr. Lawrence.
But before too much tension can build about what evils Michael might have committed, clue after clue is dropped that Dr. Lawrence is at the very least still alive, if not perfectly okay. It's hard to give a proper sense of the plot and script problems that are the downfall of "Elephant Song" without also giving away bits of information that will spoil the movie; however, suffice it to say that we learn the truth about Dr. Lawrence's plight earlier than is good for us if we're to stay fully engaged on that count. And the climax of the film, which is acted beautifully by Greenwood and an impeccable Catherine Keener -- who plays Susan, Michael's nurse and Dr. Green's ex-wife -- is ultimately something of a let-down because it is based on such a surprisingly mundane turn of events.
Now, there's nothing wrong with dramatizing the ordinary or the common place. Had "Elephant Song" chosen to take this route from the beginning, it might have succeeded in being a haunting and graceful study of human relationships, along the lines of "In Treatment." It certainly had the cast to work with. What I wouldn't give to see a movie just about Keener and Greenwood's characters, who still share considerable tenderness and pain after the accidental death of their daughter and their subsequent divorce. Their scenes together evoke that recognizable human sting of love and blame that only the closeness of a lost marriage can create, and only blessedly subtle performances can convey.
But the movie chose to cast itself instead as a story about a disappearance and a disturbed man with a mysterious past. And unfortunately, Michael, and his back story with an emotionally neglectful opera star mother, feel nearly as clunky and contrived as Dr. Green and Susan feel real. I'd like to let Xavier Dolan off the hook for this since he's not given a particularly refined bill of goods to sell us. Michael's lines seem meant to be as showy as Hannibal Lecter's but are simply not as entertaining. And they're certainly not anywhere near as delicate as Sunil's.
Ultimately, though, Dolan must shoulder some of the blame for the fact that in the end we're not really very interested in what makes Michael tick, let alone what happens to him. In fact, we're just as likely to find him slightly annoying as we are to love, loathe or fear him. And you can't build a great movie madman around irritation.
After screening the movie, I had the good fortune to be able to listen to a Q&A session with Bruce Greenwood, in which he discussed some of the many thoughtful creative choices he and the rest of the cast and crew had made in filming "Elephant Song." It was a reminder of just how much effort, vision, and care goes into such a movie. Which made it that much more frustrating that the whole ended up being less than the sum of its considerably masterful parts.
Go see this one for Greenwood and Catherine Keener. Just don't expect to remember much beyond them once you leave the theatre.
"Elephant Song" opened in Canada on February 27.
Written and directed by Robert Eggers
Starring Anya Taylor Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
This eerie supernatural film, which chronicles a paranoid Puritan family in 1630s New England, gives the horror genre more hope than any film released in the past decade. First-time filmmaker Robert Eggers won the festival's directing prize for the bone-chilling take on terrors both real and imagined. A24 and DirecTV acquired
the breakout movie in a seven-figure deal. (Read our review.)
Directed by John Crowley
Written by Nick Hornby
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters
After reports of "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" selling for a record-breaking $12 million proved to be overblown, it looks like "Brooklyn" is the most lucrative distribution deal
of this year's festival. Fox Searchlight snatched up the movie for about $9 million, and Saoirse Ronan became one of several names bandied about as contenders for the 2016 Oscar race. Based on Colm Toibin's novel of the same name, Ronan plays an Irish immigrant who must choose between her homeland and the romance she's found in the United States. (Read our interview with Ronan.)
Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa
Starring Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Blake Anderson, Zoë Kravitz, A$AP Rocky, Kimberly Elise, Chanel Iman and Keith Stanfield
Thought by some to be the definitive breakout movie of Sundance, "Dope" is a clever look at three high school nerds who get caught up in a drug dealer's vicious ring. Come for the infectious central trio (Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons) and "Yo! MTV Raps" nostalgia, stay for the Bitcoin high jinks and Macklemore jab. "Dope" snagged an impressive $7 million deal
with Open Road Films and Sony Pictures, which outbid The Weinstein Co. and Fox Searchlight. (Read our review.)
"The Hunting Ground"
Directed by Kirby Dick
In spite of all the attention being paid to universities' systemic cover-ups of sexual assault, the most shocking thing about "The Hunting Ground" is just how shocking it is. Specifically, it's a rage-inducing sobfest that raises too many troubling questions about the priorities of those steering the schools that purportedly nurture students' interests. Radius-TWC will release the film on March 20
"The Stanford Prison Experiment"
Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Written by Tim Talbott
Starring Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons, Olivia Thirlby, James Wolk and Nelsan Ellis
The slow-burn chiller about the infamous 1971 social experiment in which Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) split male undergraduate volunteers into prisoner and guard roles morphs into one of the festival's most intense films. Despite an excellent supporting cast and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, "The Stanford Prison Experiment" is still awaiting a distribution deal. (Read our interview with Crudup.)
"The End of the Tour"
Directed by James Ponsoldt
Written by Donald Margulies
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner
Add Jason Segel to next year's Oscar odds, too. As David Foster Wallace, his quiet mannerisms speak volumes about the author's simultaneous resistance to fame and longing to be liked. By chronicling Foster's intimate road trip with a Rolling Stone journalist, James Ponsoldt ("The Spectacular Now") teaches us more about the Gen X sensation than any cradle-to-grave biopic could hope to. A24 secured rights to the film
before its premiere. (Read our review.)
"The Diary of a Teenage Girl"
Written and directed by Marielle Heller
Starring Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig and Christopher Meloni
One of Sundance's surprises, this adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner's inventive novel, which features hand-drawn illustrations that factor prominently into the film, is like a mea culpa for all the coming-of-age tales that fail to capture the messiness of adolescence. Bel Powley, playing a 15-year-old who begins an affair with her mother's boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård), is one of our next great young stars, imbuing a fussy energy into her emotionally immature character in a way that reminds anyone of their own teen years, regardless of gender or generation. "Diary" also gives us one of two excellent Kristen Wiig performances (the other being "Nasty Baby"). Sony Pictures fetched the film for $2 million
. (Read our review.)
"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Written by Jesse Andrews
Starring Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon and Nick Offerman
The runaway hit of the festival, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" garnered
the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film. A high school wallflower (Thomas Mann) befriends a classmate diagnosed with leukemia (Olivia Cooke) in the quirky, "Fault in Our Stars"-esque weeper. Initial reports put "Me and Earl" on track to yield a record-setting $12 million distribution deal, but Fox Searchlight teamed up with Indian Paintbrush for what resulted in a still-impressive mid-seven figures
Written and directed by Josh Mond
Starring Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi, Makenzie Leigh and Ron Livingston
Josh Mond, who produced "Martha Marcy May Marlene," crafts a surreal portrait of a restless New Yorker (Christopher Abbott) whose aimlessness is compounded by his cancer-stricken mother's (Cynthia Nixon) final days. Winner of Sundance’s NEXT Audience Award, the movie is still seeking distribution. When it does, it'll spotlight career-best work from its two stars. (Read our interview with Nixon and Abbott.)
Directed by Sean Baker
Written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch
Starring Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O’Hagan, Alla Tumanian and James Ransone
Shot primarily on an iPhone 5s, "Tangerine" is the energetic story of a transgender sex worker who treks around Los Angeles with a friend in search of her unfaithful pimp boyfriend. Hailed for its uproarious but grounded take on an under-represented group, "Tangerine" went to Magnolia Pictures
for a deal in the upper six figures. (Read our review.)
Written and directed by Patrick Brice
Starring Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling, Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche
Anyone who's moved to a new city knows what it's like to make friends. In "The Overnight," Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling learn it the interesting way when they're invited to have dinner at another couple's (Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche) Los Angeles home. It's billed as a playdate for their children, but we soon learn there is much more on the itinerary once the kids' bedtime has arrived. The explosive comedy, which involves Scott and Schwartzman prancing around wearing prosthetic penises
, was one of Sundance's funniest, earning a reported $4 million bid
. (Read our review.)
"Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief"
Directed by Alex Gibney
If your Scientology obsession is on point, you've already marked your calendar for March 16. That's when HBO will broadcast Alex Gibney's juicy exposé based on Lawrence Wright's buzzy book of the same name. There isn't a ton in the film that can't be found in print, but hearing former high-ranking members of the church discuss the abuse and manipulation that goes on inside was worth the wait to get into one of Sundance's hottest titles. (Read our review.)
"Z for Zachariah"
Directed by Craig Zobel
Written by Nissar Modi
Starring Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Chris Pine
Based on Robert C. O'Brien's 1974 post-apocalyptic novel, "Z for Zachariah" could be one of 2015's blockbusters. Not everyone at Sundance adored it, but those who did agree Craig Zobel's sleek direction makes Margot Robbie a movie star and reminds us why Chiwetel Ejiofor is becoming one of Hollywood's best leading men. Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions bought the film before the festival, with no release date established. (Read our review.)
"I Smile Back"
Directed by Adam Salky
Written by Amy Koppelman and Paige Dylan
Starring Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles, Thomas Sadoski, Mia Barron, Terry Kinney and Chris Sarandon
We see a new side of Sarah Silverman in "I Smile Back," which finds the comedian going dark with the tale of a suburban mother battling a depression that threatens to send her down a spiraling recklessness. The movie hasn't found a distribution deal yet, but pay attention when it does. (Read our review.)