Surprises are a Sundance tradition: the moment a film breaks out of the program, sending audiences raving to their computers, their financiers, or their friends, is one prized by festival-goers. Those moments are precious because they simplify, even purify, the long-polluted process of building and selling a successful movie. Nothing can make virgins of a Sundance crowd, but being part of a great film's first audience—and the creeping, joyous sense of recognition—comes close enough to keep us coming back.
At the midpoint of this year's festival those moments have been lacking, despite lively receptions for films like Dear White People (review forthcoming), David Cross's Hits, the festival opener Whiplash, about a drumming student (Miles Teller) and his martial instructor (J.K. Simmons), and the Michael Fassbender peekaboo flick Frank. The biggest and most welcome surprises thus far have been planned: a sneak preview of Richard Linklater's Boyhood, and a 'secret' screening of part one of Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac, which took place on Tuesday evening. Boyhood screened at the festival's largest theater, the two thousand-seat Eccles, late Sunday and early Monday, with Linklater and his cast present at both events. It was the ticket to beat, and in the spirit of Boyhood's 12-year gestation, I persevered.
At almost three hours (“Two-forty,” Linklater corrected one audience member), Boyhood spans 12 years in the life of a Texas kid named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his family, including an older sister (played by Linklater's daughter Lorelei), mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke). The director and cast shot Boyhood roughly from 2002 to 2013, adding a little more to the story each year, with the idea of documenting in real time the maturation of its central character.
In a scene from the documentary Life Itself, about film critic Roger Ebert, Ebert introduces a young family member to the Seven Up documentaries, the series that has been returning to its subjects every seven years since the early 1960s, when they were seven years old. The idea has an instant, intuitive appeal: the youngster is amazed to learn the subjects are 56 in the latest installment. Linklater has taken up the same idea with the Before trilogy and now with this more dramatically concentrated presentation of the passage of time, in which the evidence of a young boy's growth (and the aging of his parents) add to the film's fascination and deepen its themes.
Almost impossibly ambitious, Boyhood is also accessible, with the look and feel (and some of the trappings, including a pop-inflected soundtrack) of an early millennium independent, though Linklater pointed out that it was one of the few 35 mm films at the festival—a format the last 12 years have pushed to the side. Boyhood has been one of the most exciting films of the decade for several years now, so strong are the attractions of its design. Now that it has officially entered the world, itself fixed in time, I can only say I look forward to watching it grow. As the credits rolled, the audience stood to give Linklater and his cast the only standing ovation I have witnessed at Sundance, and I was proud and very glad to join them on my feet.
Nymphomaniac: Volume 1, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Shia LaBoeuf, Stacy Martin and Stellan Skarsgard, played to a giddy crowd Tuesday night. A sign hung outside the theater said no one under 18 would be admitted, which was the first clue, according to Entertainment Weekly critic Chris Nashawaty, that they were not being treated to the new Wes Anderson. Nashawaty goes on to call Nymphomaniac “a pretentious howler,” which strikes me as a fairly standard response to von Trier's work. Nashawaty was unimpressed with the film's graphic sexuality, von Trier's insistence on filming actual sex acts, perhaps looking for the same element of reality coveted by Linklater. Other responses were more indulgent, also to be expected where von Trier is concerned. The point at which reflex ends and considered response begins seems to me one of von Trier's preoccupations; though I did not see Nymphomaniac, observing the reaction to it somehow feels like an extension of the film.