At last Thursday’s opening day press conference, Robert Redford responded to the threatened, Prop 8-inspired boycott of the festival by spinning Sundance’s key buzzword into a make-nice platitude: “Diversity is what we do. We've been there giving full freedom of voice to all kinds for years.”
Indeed, diversity has been very much a part of the festival’s brand ever since Redford and his Sundance Institute took over the former Utah/US Film Festival 25 years ago—in theory. Female filmmakers are still a rarity in indie film as a whole, and those who have launched careers at Sundance (Allison Anders, Miranda July, Rose Troche) have hardly become household names. Plus, the stereotypical Sundance Movie of the past decade (think Garden State) has tended to flatten its female lead into the Manic Pixie Dream Girls mold. So many quirky waifs who live to turn a sad-sack young man’s life around with her love, so many troubled beauties desperate for romantic salvation.
“Straight guys are the ones, if you’re going to use a broad stroke, who are most invested in everybody knowing that they’re straight.”
So imagine my delight to see that two of the standout titles of the first weekend of the 2009 festival were not only directed by women, but feature female leads who transcend the usual indie film clichés. One of those films, Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, is as of this writing reportedly the target of a four-way bidding war. The other film, Ry Russo-Young’s much smaller, more experimental You Won’t Miss Me, features Stella Schnabel (daughter of Julian) in a tour de force first leading role.
Humpday follows Andrew (played by Joshua Leonard, who knows from Sundance breakouts—he was one of the three leads in The Blair Witch Project) and Ben (Mark Duplass—ditto, he directed last year’s Sundance horror-comedy Baghead), two college bros who reunite after a decade and, after many drinks, make a pact to star in a homemade porn film. Once sober, sticking to the dare becomes a question of machismo—neither dude is willing to be the first to back out. It looks like they’re going to go through with it—once Ben gets the go-ahead from his baby-hungry wife Anna (Alycia Delmore).
This scenario may sound like prime grist for the Judd Apatow factory, and as far as it’s hilariously raunchy and also sincere and bittersweet, it is. But there are two things that set Humpday apart. Shelton shot the film without a formal script, putting her actors through extensive character work and improvisation, and finding her narrative documentary-style in the editing room. And unlike Knocked Up, which teaches that any dude who doesn’t willingly, totally submit to domestication is both a moron and a cad, Humpday treats adult relationships as the complex beasts that they are, and asks open-ended questions about the extent to which we can and/or should give up all the things we are in order to be with the person we want to be with. Humpday is as much about the realities of maintaining a relationship past the initial romance as it is about the reignited bromance.
At a cocktail party for the film, Shelton acknowledged that having a fully realized female at the tip of this triangle is integral to balancing both relationships. “The scenes with Anna, [like] the ovulation sex scene where she mounts him like a horse—all of those scenes [are] really vital to the way the film works.”
What Shelton bristles at is the suggestion, made by a member of the audience after the film’s raucous first screening, that Humpday could be read as homophobic. “For me, it’s not a gay-themed movie at all. It’s about being straight, it’s about the limitations of straightness and how absurd the extremities of straightness can be.” Again, it’s the women in the film, including a love interest for Leonard’s character played by the director herself, who throw that male absurdity into sharp relief. “Straight guys are the ones, if you’re going to use a broad stroke, who are most invested in everybody knowing that they’re straight. I just find that fascinating, because I don’t feel like that at all, and most women I know don’t feel that way.”
You Won’t Miss Me is the story of Shelly Brown (Schnabel), a 23-year-old aspiring actress who has just been released from a psychiatric hospital. Set mainly in a disappearing downtown New York of divey flats and druggy marginality, the film follows Shelly from the endless parties where she drifts between uneasy role-playing to outright social defiance, to a number of auditions for directors who seem to see the world through as oblique a lens as our damaged heroine. Employing five different shooting formats from Flip video to Super 8 film, and strung together with Schnabel’s extraordinarily intimate voiceover confessional, Miss Me trades traditional narrative structure for something more akin to a visual diary. As I wrote in my review, an obvious precursor in terms of subject, style, and approach is The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, photographer Nan Goldin’s slideshow documenting downtown debauchery of the late ’70s-early ’80s. And yet, Miss Me is very much a portrait of a very current kind of confusion.
“The character has a sense of doom and self-sabotage that I certainly relate to,” Russo-Young said after her premiere, citing communications technology as a particular source of anxiety. “There are so many possibilities, and yet we’re our own worst enemy much of the time.”
For her part, Schnabel (who is credited as Miss Me’s co-writer alongside Russo-Young, who she’s known since they were children growing up together in Manhattan) downplays any similarity between herself and Shelly, and stresses that the challenge of slipping into someone unlike herself was part of the appeal. “It is not really fun acting if you are acting yourself.”
In fact, the true nature of this film may come as a surprise those who have seen Schnabel’s name and picture in various New York gossip blogs, or who may have an assumption about her talent based on her last name. Why did Schnabel choose as her first leading role an experimental art film—and a part for which even a shred of vanity would have been the kiss of death—when surely there could have been an easier way to launch an acting career?
“I never really took the easy way in any way of my life, whether it was school, or working, or whatever it is,” Schnabel says. “It is probably a lot harder just because so many people are so bitter, negative, or whatever it might be. But if they want to use me because they like my dad, then they should cast him. They shouldn't cast me!”