Anna All Over

Anna Kendrick: Queen Bee of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

She parties like crazy with Lena Dunham in ‘Happy Christmas,’ and avoids a zombie uprising in ‘Life After Beth.’ How Anna Kendrick is winning Sundance ’14.

Last year’s edition of the Sundance Film Festival, the premier celebration of independent cinema, was all about the men. There was Michael B. Jordan’s heartrending turn as the wrongfully slain Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station; Miles Teller’s nuanced portrayal of a self-destructive class clown in The Spectacular Now; Sam Rockwell’s scene-stealing performance as a wacky water park operator in The Way, Way Back; and Daniel Radcliffe, who magically transformed into beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings.

But this year is all about the ladies.

Kristen Stewart wows as a rookie guard at Guantanamo Bay who suffers a crisis of conscience in Camp X-Ray, Keira Knightley impresses as a woman going through a quarter-life crisis in Laggies, Aubrey Plaza had audiences cracking up as a clingy zombie girlfriend in Life After Beth, and Shailene Woodley grows up before our very eyes as a tortured, rebellious teen in White Bird in a Blizzard. But, with three wildly disparate performances, one petite actress managed to leave her mark on Sundance ’14 like no other. I’m talking about Anna Kendrick.

On Sunday afternoon, I was standing outside of the Library Center Theatre in Park City, Utah, having just taken in the premiere screening of Life After Beth, an oftentimes hilarious zom-com about a young man, played by Dane DeHaan, whose dead girlfriend (Plaza) comes back as a zombie. It also featured Kendrick as the cheery foil to Plaza’s zombie. Earlier that day, at noon, The Voices premiered—a dark, dark comedy about a small town loner (Ryan Reynolds) whose talking cat convinces him to kill. It also featured Kendrick as the apple of Reynolds’ eye. And after Beth, playing at the very same theater, the Joe Swanberg dramedy Happy Christmas bowed, starring Kendrick as a hell-raising younger sister. Yes, that day, Kendrick had three films premiere back-to-back-to-back at Sundance. That has to be unprecedented.

“They should call it ‘Anna Kendrick Day,’” a high-level film exec said to me.

It’s not just the sheer volume, though, so much as the breadth of acting on display. The 28-year-old actress had been known primarily for playing fiery type-A scenery-chewing motor mouths, e.g. her no-nonsense high school debate stud in Rocket Science, Kristen Stewart’s cheery BFF in the Twilight films, and George Clooney’s preppy gal Friday in Up in the Air, which earned her a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

Over the past few years, however, Kendrick’s been evolving into a more versatile—and daring—actress. Her turn as the clumsy therapist to a young man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dying of cancer in 50/50 could have been a throwaway part in the hands of a less capable actress, but Kendrick, with her innate charm and infectious, teethy smile, made her a deeply sympathetic and eminently likable character. She rapped along to Cam’ron in the cop drama End of Watch, and showed off her considerable pipes as a Goth girl-cum-a cappella star in the addictive Pitch Perfect, which also proved she could carry a film as the lead. And her eclectic roles at Sundance prove she’s only getting stronger.

In Jeff Baena’s zom-com Life After Beth, she plays Erica Wexler, the virtuous family friend of Zach Orfman’s (DeHaan). Zach’s dead girlfriend, Beth (Plaza), has recently returned from the grave as the zombie girlfriend from hell. If Zach leaves her line of sight for a moment, she flies into a rage—smashing car windows with her fists, burning down beach huts and, in one scene, forcing her warm-blooded paramour to have sex with her. Erica is the foil to the unstable, decaying Beth—a kind, virtuous, smooth-skinned girl next door. And Kendrick, oozing charm, turns a prolonged cameo into a very agreeable supporting turn. In one of the film’s finest moments, she’s confronted by a jealous Beth in the parking lot of a diner and nails her character’s simultaneous sense of shock and annoyance. That the two actresses are off-screen BFFs only sweetens the deal.

She shows a different side in The Voices, filmmaker Marjane Satrapi’s (Persepolis) impressive dark, dark comedy. The movie centers on Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), a mentally disturbed loner who, when he’s not working a menial job at a bathtub factory, speaks with his genial dog and evil cat (the animals talk back). Jerry seems like a just another troubled, lonely soul—that is, until he murders his crush (Gemma Arterton), the self-proclaimed “office hottie” from accounting. Kendrick plays Jenny, another gal who works in accounting and harbors a secret crush on the “mysterious” Jerry, who ignores her. Eventually, the timid Jenny works up the courage to ask Jerry out, and what’s meant to be another kill transforms into a surprisingly touching trip to the weirdo’s childhood home. It’s a tough tone to nail but Kendrick does, helping the film achieve the right balance of horror and romance. Later, when she pops by Jerry’s place to surprise him, Kendrick does something extraordinary, shifting from excited, smitten girlfriend to horrified witness to desperate prey in the blink of an eye.

The most impressive performance of the bunch is in Happy Christmas. It reunites Kendrick with filmmaker Joe Swanberg, who directed her in last year’s underrated comedy Drinking Buddies. Here, instead of the prim and proper lightweight, she plays Jenny, the selfish—and self-destructive—younger sister of Jeff (Swanberg). It’s as if her character in Up in the Air quit her job and started hitting the bottle—hard. After a rough break up, Jenny crashes at Jeff’s house, and her hard-partying ways soon draw the ire of Jeff’s wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey). One night, she visits a house party with her partner in crime, Carson (Lena Dunham), and drinks so much she ends up passing out first on the hostess’s bed, and then on the floor. Later, when her new flame (Mark Webber) refuses to go home with her, she drinks an entire bottle of booze, smokes a bunch of pot, and almost burns the house down. Jenny is, like Jeff says, “a piece of shit.” She’s a largely vacuous, 27-year-old gal who abuses booze and drugs to numb herself, and doesn’t give a damn about anyone but herself. It’s a pretty reprehensible character, but Kendrick somehow makes us root for her. Despite her myriad faults and generally terrible behavior, we want her to get her act together, find love, and be a person of substance—as opposed to someone who abuses them. It’s the finest turn of the young actress’s career, and deserves awards consideration down the line.

So, if you have to single one actor out from this year’s Sundance, it’s Kendrick.

She seemed to be enjoying it, too, judging by this amazing photo of her and Plaza after-hours.