Sundance: Comedies of Love

It wasn't all seriousness at the festival- we did manage to see 3 1/2 comedies, two of which ended being favorites of both of ours. Though A Prophet remains my favorite from the festival, the two films below were close contenders and I strongly recommend both of them. Notably again, both films were written and directed by women.

Diane Bell's debut feature Obselidia is one of those quirky, unique films that seem to exist in a world of their own creation, like Harold and Maude or Amelie. George (Michael Piccirilli) works at a library, believes love is a protein rendered unnecessary by scientific advancement and is busily devoting his life to compiling an encyclopedia of obsolete things- the "Obselidia." He doesn't drive a car though he lives in L.A., uses a rotary phone, and his apartment is a shrine to things long discarded. Of course he's typing out his life's work on a typewriter. Piccirilli is fabulous in the role, creating a unique character, perfectly nuanced in every scene and immediately charming. It's a subtle, brilliant piece of acting.

When George meets Sophie (the completely alluring Gaynor Howe), he senses a kindred spirit though she's way more adventurous than he is. Well, he isn't really adventurous at all. They meet as George interviews her for the Obselidia- she's a projectionist at a silent movie theater. She later knocks on his door and through conversation the ground is laid for them to take a road trip to Death Valley to meet a scientist who believes global warming is irreversible.

In the desert, their romance blossoms as they contemplate the destruction of humanity. Though Bell's script goes a bit overboard on this part, becoming a heavy handed on this theme, the characters keep developing through it and the story never gets derailed by the environmental agenda. This is really a tribute to the strength of Bell's overall vision and the ability of the actors.
Obselidia works so well because its characters are people you want to spend time with. They are warm, unique, funny and flawed. If you knew them in real life they might be hard to deal with at times but they'd probably be your most interesting and devoted friends. Bell's movie is a true delight, reminding me of Before Sunset in its ability to give its audience a warm glow as the film ends on an ambiguous note that seems just right.
We decided to get tickets to one of the "Surprise Premiers" and take our chances on whatever was playing. It turned out to be Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right. We were completely unaware that an earlier screening had led to one of those famous Sundance bidding wars for the film's distribution, but I think enough people had heard about it to make it a hot ticket. I should disclose that I know Lisa Cholodenko, so I'm predisposed to want to like her films, as I did the earlier High Art and Laurel Canyon.

So I'm going to try to be as objective as I can here, without resorting to hyperbole. Having issued that disclaimer, Lisa's film was really, really funny. In fact, it's one of the warmest comedies I've seen in a long time. The film features an outstanding cast of Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska (soon to be seen as the title character in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland) and Josh Hutcherson.

Bening and Moore play Nic and Jules, a lesbian couple who's relationship has hit a rough patch after being together for twenty years. They have two teenage kids, Joni and Laser. Joni is 18 and about to leave home for college. The kids were artificially inseminated into their mothers, who used the same sperm donor for both of them. Laser is 15 and wants to know who his biological father is and convinces Joni to make the call to the sperm bank to find out.

Ruffalo is of course the donor. I could go on at length about the plot but I won't. Let's just say the best comedies work because they come from a place that understands that people are flawed and those flaws can be the source of life's funniest (or saddest) moments. The movie has some terrific set pieces, my favorite being the dinner scene where Ruffalo meets the parents for the first time. It has some of the best laughs I can recall since Best in Show. The script, by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg gets some terrific laughs out of its lesbian mothers scenario, but it never feels pc or agenda-driven (thankfully) nor does it ever resort to low, obvious jokes. It's just funny and honest.

Though it took me awhile to accept Moore and Bening as an on-screen couple (at first their chemistry seemed off, but then you realize things are far from perfect for them) but by the end of the film the "moms" have won you over through great performances and a solid story. I really wouldn't be at all surprised if Bening is nominated for an Oscar. I've always been a bit indifferent to her, but in this film she's perfect. Moore, one of my favorite actresses, is always a joy to watch, but this is the first time in awhile, perhaps since Short Cuts, where she looks like she's having fun.
Waskikowska is really the center of the story and she's a memorable young actor. Cholodenko has brought some fine performances out of this ensemble. Ruffalo, who gets the film's best lines (and reactions), displays a sense of comedic timing I didn't know he had before. Okay, that's enough. When it comes out, go see Lisa's film. It's a laugh-out-loud funny movie about a family that may not be so much different than your own.