It has been 15 years since the charming and carefree romantic comedy, Adventureland, was showcased at the Sundance film festival. For the devoted group of millennials who deeply connected with the film, this may seem like just a short moment, but its two lead actors recently reunited in snowy Utah to highlight the passing of time. With a total of four films premiering separately, Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg were the center of attention at this year’s festival. Eisenberg, at the age of 33, presented Stewart with the Visionary award for her outstanding career achievements at the opening ceremony.
While it may seem too early to award Stewart with a gold watch, she proved herself worthy by presenting the most striking film at Sundance. Love Lies Bleeding, the highly anticipated second film from British filmmaker Rose Glass, is a bold and intense fever dream set in 80s America, complete with mullets and muscle trucks.
The main actors are Stewart and Katy O’Brian, who was previously a bodybuilder and is now an actor. They play characters who live in a small town and ultimately find love in an unlikely place – a gym filled with muscular men in the desert of New Mexico. Together, they try to escape from dangerous men who are trying to keep them down, including the strange and unsettling Ed Harris with his unique hairstyle resembling that of an Afghan hound. The film is a mix of Titane and Thelma & Louise, and just as wild and thrilling as Glass’s first movie, Saint Maud, was intense and controlled. This film also allows Stewart to fully embrace her openly queer identity and rebellious attitude.
Stewart’s previous film at the festival paled in comparison to this one: Love Me, a meticulously crafted romance about artificial intelligence, stars her and Steven Yeun as two androids who form a bond billions of years into the future. However, their relationship is represented through videos of an idealized Instagram influencer couple. This overly grandiose premise ultimately leads to a cliched commentary on the superficiality of social media. Both Stewart and Yeun deserved a stronger script and thankfully, Stewart found it in Glass’s film.
Eisenberg made an appearance in another one of the festival’s most unusual and bold films, although he was hardly recognizable. In “Sasquatch Sunset,” a film by brothers Nathan and David Zellner, he and Riley Keough portray members of a Bigfoot family in the beautiful wilderness of California while wearing full-body prosthetics covered in hair. The film lacks a strong storyline and dialogue, instead focusing on the daily routine of the Sasquatch with a blend of tranquil Malick-esque scenes and graphic bodily functions.
The outcome is surprisingly moving despite its heavy use of crude humor about primates. However, Eisenberg’s own directorial debut, the bittersweet road movie A Real Pain, proves to be more successful. In the film, he and Kieran Culkin from Succession play estranged Jewish cousins who go on a Holocaust tour of Poland to reconnect with their heritage. This premise allows for a thought-provoking and darkly humorous exploration of faith, family, and the uniquely American view of sacred European culture. It pairs well with director Nathan Silver’s charming comedy Between the Temples, featuring a fantastic performance by Jason Schwartzman as a struggling synagogue cantor who helps an elderly music teacher (played by Carol Kane in a delightfully eccentric but also touching role) prepare for her bat mitzvah later in life.
Searchlight Pictures, Disney’s independent division, acquired the rights to A Real Pain for $10 million during the festival, which was a significant achievement at Sundance where there was less deal-making than usual. The largest purchase at the festival was made by Netflix, who paid $17 million for It’s What’s Inside – a cleverly conceptualized horror movie from first-time director Greg Jardin that received little pre-festival buzz. Critics were warned by anxious PR representatives to keep the film’s premise under embargo. However, it was also announced that the film would not be released in theaters and would go directly to the streaming platform. Despite the festival’s promotion of the communal cinema experience, there were indications that the future of theatrical releases was uncertain.
The Sundance film that stood out to me this year was made even more powerful by the reactions of the audience. A Different Man by Aaron Schimberg, which will also be shown at the Berlin competition next month, stars Sebastian Stan in his best performance yet as a shy New Yorker with facial neurofibromatosis. After undergoing experimental treatment, he is miraculously cured and gains a conventionally attractive appearance. However, he soon realizes that he is still an outcast, and his situation becomes even more complicated when a charming British man with the same condition (played hilariously by Adam Pearson, who was previously seen in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin) enters his life and starts taking it over. The film cleverly and satirically tackles the current controversial topic of representation and ableism in media, without being preachy or self-important.
The most outstanding presentation at the festival was, in the end, a more traditional one. The Outrun, produced by BBC Films and directed by Nora Fingscheidt, may appear to be a typical story of addiction and recovery, but it is elevated by the unique beauty of its Orkney location and enhanced by Saoirse Ronan’s exceptional performance as an alcoholic struggling with isolation and finding her way to healing with unpredictable outcomes. In a Sundance lineup filled with bold and controversial works, this film was a reminder that there is still value in more conventional indie films.