Obnoxious women dominate this year’s Sundance festival, and not always for the good. Landline, Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate’s follow-up to the abortion comedy Obvious Child, totally misjudges Slate’s charm. Here she plays newly engaged Manhattanite Dana, who gets second thoughts about her sexually repressed fiancé, Ben (Jay Duplass). She burps and yells and snort-giggles and vomits in her sleep. Ben can’t even say “pussy.” Dana is annoying, but Landline is convinced she’s adorable. Instead of rooting for romance, I found myself praying for sterilization. At times, the film comes close to defending infidelity, but, ironically, can’t commit to that or, really, any point of view. Instead, Robespierre is most infatuated with setting Landline in 1995, a year in which she gets easy giggles from pay phones and cassettes and dial-up voicemail and rollerblades and floppy disks and CD stores and VHS tapes of Curly Sue. None of the younger characters feel natural in the period — they’re millennials in Gen X cosplay — but Edie Falco (playing Dana’s mom) rocks a spot-on Hillary Clinton blonde bouffant and pink power suit, just like the one Clinton danced the Macarena in during the following year’s DNC.
The midnight movie Bitch had a bold name and solid hook. After a mental breakdown, a suicidal mom (writer-director Marianna Palka) decides she’s a dog. Her cheating husband (Jason Ritter) already is one. When he’s suddenly forced to drive their four kids to school, he doesn’t even know where they go — and the mom in the cellar, naked and smeared in feces, isn’t telling. Wait, not even dogs live that miserably? Palka is channeling something closer to a rabid ferret. Like Palka’s mom-dog, the movie is a mess, clicking back and forth between shadowy horror, suburban melodrama, and the kind of slapstick family comedy in which I half-expected Eddie Murphy to burst through the front door in a fat suit. Fitting the cliché, Bitch is all bark and no bite.
Thank god for the reemergence of The Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams, who popped up in a bright yellow print sweater to introduce Jim Strouse's romantic comedy The Incredible Jessica James. “I just got my braids redone and my edges did,” she grinned. “Ask a cocoa girl what that means.” Williams has a right to preen. Jessica James is her first lead role, and she’s earned it after making do with bit parts like Coffee Shop Crier, African-American Spa Worker, and Jamaican Damsel. Now she’s in a movie written, and named, for the sole purpose of making her a star. Mission accomplished.
Williams plays a mid-twenties wannabe playwright wrecked by breaking up with her boyfriend (Keith Stanfield). We get why they split. Jessica takes up a lot of space. She’s 6 feet tall and Strouse makes her look even bigger than that. She leans into the camera and, in the opening credits, dances up the stairs to her apartment roof, grabbing a neighbor’s laundry and flinging it like a sash. He doesn’t dare say a word, and even if he wanted to, she wouldn’t let him. Jessica is obsessed with her own misery, which is really narcissism rebranded as “truth.” No one else’s truth registers, especially not the newly divorced tech geek (Chris O’Dowd) that her best friend (Noël Wells) shoves her into a blind date with.
Jessica has nothing in common with this nerd. She goes home with him anyway. And when he calls her for a second date, she groans, “Just ’cause you catch a unicorn in the world doesn’t mean you get to tap it whenever you want.” Yet O’Dowd, who here seems to hunch his shoulders in order to give Williams more room, matches her zinger for zinger — though where her humor is a cannon blast, his jokes amble along like a soccer dad until they suddenly make a nasty U-turn. O’Dowd hasn’t had a role this good since Bridesmaids. He pairs wonderfully with loud women, whether they’re a drunken mess like Kristen Wiig or a snot like Williams, who blurts, “I’m frigging dope.” Still, Williams lets us hear the insecurity under her bluster, and that hollow quaver is what convinced me she’s the real deal. I just wish Strouse’s film hadn’t been quite so bowled over by her magic — even the script can’t resist giving Jessica everything she wants.
Luckily, the festival goddesses also gave us Salma Hayek in Beatriz at Dinner, Miguel Arteta’s agonizing comedy about a vegetarian healer (Hayek) trapped at an awkward dinner with three corporate creeps and their Barbie-doll wives. Hayek’s Beatriz is off-puttingly sincere. Ask her why she’s upset and you’ll get a monologue about her dead goat. The other guests ignore her like a ghost. So she guzzles white wine and forces the table to listen to her for a change, until a showdown with a rhino-hunting billionaire (John Lithgow) does so much damage, even a hippie with her powers can’t heal it.
And then there’s Melanie Lynskey in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, a violent crowd-pleaser about a nurse named Ruth who literally fights for the right to be nice. Like Beatriz, every day she suffers jerks: air-polluting cars, creeps who cut in line at the grocery store, mansplainers who spoil the twist in her book, dog owners who let their mutts ruin her lawn, and an old crank who dies hollering, “Keep your gigantic monkey dick out of my fucking pussy!” (When the dead woman’s son asks if his mom had any dying words, Lynskey pales.)
Lynskey (Togetherness, Happy Christmas) has mastered the art of playing a mouse. She’s a perfect pushover. But after her house gets robbed, her Ruth finally finds her voice. “Everyone is an asshole,” she whispers. “And dildos. And fuckfaces.” It felt so good to hear her get mad, the theater exhaled. And that’s before director Macon Blair gives her a gun — and a rat-tailed, Big Red–chugging, ninja star–throwing partner played by Elijah Wood. Lynskey and Wood are on slightly different frequencies. She’s living an indie revenge drama; he’s a fun cartoon.
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore is Blair’s directorial debut after being both star and muse to thriller filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier in Blue Ruin and Green Room. Blair has Saulnier’s love for bloody noses and broke depressives who drink too much Coors Light, but where Saulnier is stripped-down and tense, Blair enjoys a slight touch of the absurd. In one scene, Lynskey and Wood tiptoe into a slummy resale shop looking for her grandmother’s silver and walk past a raccoon. Wood does a friendly double-take — “What are you doing, little guy?!” — and the film marches on.
Of course, on Saturday morning, Sundance had a literal march, too. Despite the heavy snow — a symptom of our evaporating oceans, just as Al Gore explained in An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power — protesters, and one Sasquatch, happily trudged down Main Street wearing much-needed pink knit hats. A little over 8,000 supporters showed up, more than the non-festival population of Park City, so many that when the parade reached the stage to hear Chelsea Handler and Jessica Williams speak, the overflow crowd climbed up a hill covered in foot-deep snow and shivered as the trees dumped ice on their backs.
It was a march as fun and full of loud women as the hundreds of others around the world. But it had its own Sundance frills. Between chants of “Hey, hey! No way! We don’t want no hate!” people chatted about distribution deals. An actress whose film premiered at noon worried she wouldn’t get back in time for her blowout. When a drone flew overhead, the crowd waved big to make sure they could see themselves in the future documentary. And one protester wore the perfect Sundance protest sticker: “I’m With Meryl.”