The Sundance film festival has become so large, powerful, and popular in recent years that they’ve begun shipping it on over to my neck of the woods, the United Kingdom. Only a couple of movies make the trip, presumably the best, or at least, the ones the yanks think we’ll like. I saw three while I was there. Here are my thoughts.
Touchy Feely (2013) | Written and Directed by Lynn Shelton
A massoo… masseue… woman who gives massages for money, suddenly develops a crippling fear of human touch. Her brother, a failing dentist suddenly develops a healing touch. Their lives are altered by this mysterious development. For instance, the dentist gains notoriety because a patient with a seemingly-incurable jaw issue claims he was cured there.
In a quiet moment after watching the film, I asked the director, for the sake of clarity, whether or not the dentist had actually cured the patient or if it was all in the patient’s head. She gave what is either the very best answer she could have possible given, or the very worst: “I don’t know.”
I’m still not sure what I think of that response. How do you not know what’s happening in your own film?
And that’s the problem with Touchy Feely. The whole thing just feels like a lazy attempt at making one of those vague, ‘smart’ comedy-dramas that most indie films aspire to be nowadays. Ones with some sort of ‘deep truth’ hidden in there somewhere (and in this case, the creator doesn’t even know what that truth is supposed to be).
The whole film plays out like something intensely interesting is happening, if only you could figure it out. Does the dentist have healing hands? When the status quo inevitably resumes, did his powers go away, or did he simply never have them at all? What was the point of him even being in the story? These questions are all left unanswered, as though we should be entertained enough that they were raised in the first place.
It’s not a bad movie, per se. All the performances are good, and a few of the scenes are fine to watch on their own—but these characters and scenes aren’t well connected to, you know, the story. Most blatantly so in the case of the main female lead, who appears to just sort of fall apart for no reason early on in order to make it look like there’s some sort of thematic link between her brother’s success and her own anxieties.
Would I recommend it? It depends. No wait, it doesn’t. I would not recommend this movie. Well not to anyone I’ve ever met, at least. But someone out there might enjoy this film, or see something in it that I can’t. So if you want to take a look and see for yourself, feel free. But why bother? These next two are better.
In A World… (2013) | Written & Directed by Lake Bell
In A World is about a vocal coach who wants to do trailer voiceovers, following in her father’s footsteps, who is one of the biggest voices in the industry. That synopsis alone, and the name, completely sold me. All the pieces were in place for this to be a fun thing to watch, something maybe even a little insightful about the voiceover industry.
But, just as you’re watching, getting into the story and finding each of the characters and their quirks interesting, suddenly, a chill will run down your spine. Oh no. This scene is one of those scenes. Those scenes you know already from every romantic comedy you’ve seen before. The scene where the character sleeps with someone who isn’t the primary love interest. The scene where the primary love interest doesn’t work up the courage to tell them they love them and then hilarity is supposed to ensue. The scene where one character almost has an affair but doesn’t, but then their spouse thinks they did, and kicks them out. The scene where someone tricks one of the characters into inadvertently saying something that reminds their spouse why they love them, and then they get back together. It just goes on and on, and each time, I hoped they would go somewhere else with it, like that perhaps the romantic comedy parts were actually parody, and that the whole thing were some sort of meta-narrative on what Hollywood does to original ideas. But, alas.
Like with Touchy Feely, it’s a decent film. However, the ideas it almost explores, and the jokes it almost tells, are far more interesting than the ones it actually does. And that’s a real loss.
I enjoyed watching some parts of it, but I wouldn’t watch it again. And I honestly wouldn’t recommend it unless your goal in life is to watch all possible permutations of the romantic comedy formula.
To put an optimistic spin on it, this is the writer-director Lake Bell’s first film. Who knows, maybe she’ll get better.
History of the Eagles Part One (2013) | Directed by Alison Ellwood
This is a documentary about the Eagles and the careers of each of their members. That’s all it is. And you know what? It’s by far the most fun I had at the festival. I knew nothing about the Eagles going in beside the hooks to their most famous songs, and by the end, I knew way more about the band, their music, and their lifestyles. It’s entertaining and interesting. ‘Nuff said, really.
It uses a lot of old archival footage and interviews from as far back as the start of their careers and onwards, and the band members are charismatic enough even in present day interviews, so there’s a lot of fun to be had just from the individuals involved. The members all touch on the band’s most interesting moments, and keep things moving and engaging. A lot of music documentaries are secretly a tract against a particular band member or outside influence or studio or manager (and that’s usually why so many of them suck) but this one appears to be completely about giving us a nice little peek into the band and their more interesting exploits.
The documentary acknowledges that the truth of any given situation may lie somewhere between the various sides of each story you are told, and that makes the whole package feel way more honest than most other documentaries today, especially ones about popular bands. It feels like the sort of documentary This Is Spinal Tap wished people were already making in the first place.
Was it anything special? Well, it did its job, and in a festival of movies like Touchy Feely that don’t even know what their job is, it’s my personal pick of the three. Go see it.