From left: Emily Nussbaum, Kristen Wiig, Jenji Kohan, Lena Dunham, and Mindy Kaling at the Sundance Film Festival.
By Ty Burr
Because independent cinema is - in theory, anyway - more open to a diversity of voices than are mainstream movies, female filmmakers, characters, and issues have always been well represented at the Sundance Film Festival. (Leave aside, for a moment, the fact that half of all humanity is the mainstream.)
This year's festival, however, seems more focused than usual on what women are doing behind the camera and in front of it. Sundance can be as much of a boys' club as Hollywood, but starting with the opening-night offerings - a documentary about singer Nina Simone (Liz Garbus's "What Happened, Miss Simone?") and "The Bronze," a raunchy comedy about a has-been gymnast co-written by its star, a dynamo named Melissa Rauch - Sundance 2015 has been celebrating and contemplating what it means to be part of the girls' club.
The topic turned explicit during the festival's most in-demand panel discussion, " Power of Story: Serious Ladies," in which Mindy Kaling ("The Mindy Project"), Lena Dunham (HBO's "Girls"), Jenji Kohan (creator of Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black"), and actress-comedian Kristen Wiig mixed it up on the stage of Main Street's Egyptian Theatre, under prompting from Emily Nussbaum, TV critic for The New Yorker.
The free-ranging conversation covered the limits of public persona
(Wiig: "I go to a dinner and people say, 'Do a funny voice.' Like I walk around New York in a funny wig punching people in the stomach"), personal confidence (Kaling: "I have this personality defect where I'm unable to see myself as the underdog. My parents raised me with the entitlement of a tall, blonde, white man") to the importance of building an industry network of women creators (Dunham: "We stalk every woman who works in television and force them to have long dinners with us. Actually, that would be nice, if guys complained, 'It's so hard to break into Hollywood, there's such an old girls' network' ").
Elsewhere, issues faced by women in the larger society were raised in films that demanded responses from audiences. "The Hunting Ground," a documentary by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering ("The Secret War," 2012) about the epidemic of campus rape, premiered to a standing-ovation Park City crowd that included US Senators Barbara Boxer and Kirsten Gillibrand. The film amasses stories and statistics to devastating effect, relying on on-camera testimonies from women in dozens of colleges across the country (including many in the Boston area), and building a shameful portrait of administrators and police departments systematically blaming the victim. A CNN Films coproduction, "The Hunting Ground" will air on TV after a possible theatrical release; it needs to be see
There are, of course, plenty of boy movies at Sundance, and good ones too. "The End of the Tour" succeeds at the unlikely mission of dramatizing a 1996 road trip involving Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and legendary author David Foster Wallace (a surprisingly moving Jason Segel). The unstoppable James Franco has two movies at the festival; the buzz on "True Story" is strong, but "I Am Michael," in which the actor plays a gay activist turned anti-gay Christian pastor is muddled and turgid. The Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, are usually here with projects they've directed and/or are acting in; this year, they're just content to have produced three festival entries, "The Bronze," "The Overnight," and "Tangerine" - and then have topped things off by announcing a four-picture deal with Netflix.
But the excited word-of-mouth that always starts circulating by day two or three of the festival has mostly to do with actresses, women directors, and feminist themes, some of them arriving in genre clothing. "The Witch," a horror-suspense film that takes place in 1630 New England among a Puritan family riven by paranoia, has been the buzz of early Sundance, with packed screenings, hourlong wait-lines, and praise for the central performance by Anya Taylor-Joy as the daughter accused of sorcery. (The film sold to the adventurous distributor A24 for $1.5 million on the third day of the festival.)
Another hot ticket is "The Diary of a Teenage Girl," based on Phoebe Gloeckner's 2002 graphic novel and featuring a raw, funny, and risk-taking lead performance by British actress Bel Powley as a 15-year-old cartoonist coming of sexual and emotional age in 1976 San Francisco. The film costars Wiig as the heroine's mother (perhaps the actress's most successful serious role to date) and Alexander Skarsgard as her much older lover, but the film's primarily a triumph for first-time writer-director Marielle Heller and for Powley, whose face eerily evokes Gloeckner's wide-eyed drawing style and who portrays youthful female passion and sexuality with a blunt honesty rarely seen onscreen.
Rauch has now landed in the indie consciousness with the cheerfully rude farce "The Bronze," in which she plays a onetime Olympic gymnast experiencing the after-burn of fame. (Think of it as "Tonya Harding: The Later Years.") It's a hit-or-miss affair, with a few indelible moments (a sex scene that would earn a 10 from the Romanian judge, for one) and the lingering sensation that we'll be hearing more, and better, from Rauch in the future.
After "Bachelorette" divided Sundance audiences in 2012 with its caustic comedy of gal-pal dysfunction - it was like "Bridesmaids," only meaner - some were wondering if we'd ever hear from writer-director Leslye Headland again. "Sleeping With Other People" brought this ribald talent back to the festival with a vengeance: an acridly charming (and at times very dirty) romantic comedy about a friendship between two serial cheaters (Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie of "Community" and "Mad Men"), "Sleeping" subverts the cliches of Hollywood rom-coms with edginess and unexpected warmth. In the post-screening Q & A, Headland described the film as "'When Harry Met Sally. . .' with [jerks]," which both encapsulates her sense of humor and the marketing challenge her movie faces.
On the other hand, the woman sitting next to me at the screening was crying happy tears at the film's conclusion, a testimony to Headland's successful reinvigoration of a tired genre. She seems to have heeded the words of the women on the Serious Ladies panel when asked what advice they'd give to the young women coming up behind them. The answers were unanimous and they apply not just to women: Do it yourself. Keep working. Trust your voice. In the words of Dunham, "Tell the story you want to tell. We're all so less weird than we think we are."