Prior to this year, the world’s most celebrated film festival for independent cinema had previously confined itself to the US, and predominantly Park City, Utah. However, in March 2011 Sundance founder and screen legend Robert Redford announced that the inaugural Sundance London would take place this past weekend at the O2 Greenwich featuring some of the highlights of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival proper and would also feature some special concerts and the usual selection of industry panels and workshops.
Rather than spend a whole weekend at the soulless O2, I opted instead to see a few choice films and have a more relaxed festival experience. From looking at the films selected to be screened, it was quickly obvious to anyone familiar with the line-up from Park City that there was a huge omission. Ben Lewin’s The Surrogate picked up the audience award and the special jury prize at Sundance in January and is already tipped for Oscar success next year. For unknown reasons it was conspicuously absent from the London line-up but despite this there was still plenty to excite lovers of independent cinema. Here’s a short summary of the three films I saw:
Anyone familiar with hit US sitcom How I Met Your Mother will recognise Liberal Arts’ writer/director/lead actor, Josh Radnor, who plays Ted Mosby in the show. In Liberal Arts, Radnor plays Jesse a NY university admissions tutor who is invited to his former university for the retirement party of his second favourite professor. Whilst there he meets Zibby, a beautiful, literate sophomore student. They instantly make a connection and before you know it, they’re exchanging long rambling letters (the old fashioned kind) on the contents of a classical music mix-CD that Zibby gave Jesse.
This set-up will have set alarm bells ringing in the more cynical amongst you but after a shaky start, the tone is warm, affectionate and witty and the performances are immensely likeable. Elizabeth Olsen as Zibby once again proves that she’s a terrific actress and all the proclamations of her as a future star look to be right on the money. Radnor, whose face is a slightly rougher combination of Johnny Depp and John Cusack is an extremely likeable screen presence and Richard Jenkins and Alison Janney provide scene-stealing support.
Lena Dunham is one of the hottest names in TV at the moment with her new show Girls proving to be a hit on HBO, she also wrote and directed a very well received feature called Tiny Furniture that had a small UK release at the end of March. So upon hearing that she had co-written Nobody Walks (with director Ry Russo Young) my expectations were high, perhaps unreasonably high as the film was my one disappointment of Sundance London.
Olivia Thirlby plays Martine, a conceptual artist who travels to LA to stay with Peter (John Krasinski), a sound recordist, and his family as he helps her finish her latest project. Her presence quickly upsets the welcoming atmosphere as she instantly sparks some kind of sexual energy in Peter. You can see where the plot is heading and it gets there with very little in the way of surprises. There’s some revealing insights into the hipster population of Silver Lake and the sound design is interesting but the film has little else to say. The affable Krasinski (Jim from the US office) is miscast and Thirlby struggles to convince as the sexually open, Martine.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Comfortably my highlight of Sundance London 2012 was Safety Not Guaranteed. Made for “well under $1m” according to director, Colin Trevorrow, the film features a brilliant comedy cast, who will surely be graduating to lead roles in comedy films with much larger budgets. Aubrey Plaza, whose stock expression is worth more than twenty clever putdowns, plays Darius, a put-upon intern at a Seattle newspaper. When the opportunity to investigate a classified ad stating ‘Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me’, she jumps at the chance to get her hands dirty. Accompanying boorish reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson), Darius goes undercover to win the trust of the source of the ad, oddball grocery store worker, Kenneth Connelly (Mumblecore hero Mark Duplass).
What follows is a surprising, touching and very funny tale full of optimism and warmth. It never condescends its lead characters and despite the more fantastical elements of the plot, it feels real. It hasn’t yet been picked up for distribution in the UK but that surely can’t be far off, especially after the rapturous reception it received after the screening.
One final point, a Q&A followed each film and unlike many Q&A’s I’ve sat through were a pleasure to be present at. The director’s were charming, articulate and spoke with real passion and humility, each one managed to enhance the film they were discussing.
So, one poor, one good and one very good film. Not a bad return for the first Sundance London and if they can find a better venue than the O2 (Hackney Picturehouse anyone?) Sundance 2013 could be unmissable.