There can’t be very much quibbling about the selection of Ryan Coogler’s very impressive debut film Fruitvale as the winner of both the Sundance Dramatic Competition Jury Prize and the Audience Award. (Personally I might have gone with Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes–which didn’t win anything tonight–but Fruitvale would have been close behind.) Coogler, who wrote the film as well as directed it, has a fresh take on what could have been a by-the-numbers piece of social commentary, and delivers a bang-up job of filmmaking as well.
In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, a 22-year old man named Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan) was fatally shot by a transit officer at the Fruitvale station of the San Francisco BART line after a brief altercation on one of the trains. (The cop, who claimed he’d mistakenly shot Oscar with his gun rather than his taser, was convicted only of involuntary manslaughter, and sentenced to 18 months in jail.) Rather than dwell on the injustice of the shooting and its treatment in the courts, Coogler chooses, after a brief prologue that shows the actual camera-phone footage of the killing, to dramatize Oscar’s last day leading up to that fatal ride, and in doing so, he conveys a convincing portrait of the man’s entire life.
Oscar was no saint. He had sold weed, had cheated on his longterm girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) with whom he had a daughter, had been in jail and generally broken the heart of his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer). Shortly before the holidays, he was fired from his legitimate job at a supermarket for habitually coming in late. But he was trying to turn his life around, getting rid of his dope and attempting to do right by his girlfriend, daughter and mother. Would he have stuck to the straight and narrow had he lived? Fruitvale shows us the real tragedy is that with his life brutally cut off, we’ll never know.
From a dramatic point of view, the advantage of Coogler’s approach is that rather than being weighed down by impending death, Fruitvale is very much a movie about a vibrant, if difficult, life filled with strong ties to friends and relatives, about a man who could bond with complete strangers a minute after making their acquaintance. The story is set on a holiday, and features as much joy as sadness.
Coogler’s work is extremely assured for a first-time filmmaker. Working with cinematographer Rachel Morrison (whose credits include Sound of My Voice), he goes in the opposite direction from most “urban” dramas. Lengthy scenes are presented with little cutting, and there’s a minimum of cliched hand-held camerawork, allowing what could have felt like a piece of emotional manipulation to instead have a rounded, natural feel.
Coogler also gets great work from his actors. It will come as no surprise to viewers of The Wire, Friday Night Lights and Parenthood that Michael B. Jordan is a leading man with great range and charisma, but it’s satisfying to see him able to hold the big screen as well as the small. Spencer and Diaz are heartbreaking as the women in Oscar’s life, and even small roles, played mostly by unfamiliar performers, are filled with performers who convey a sense of absolute reality.
Fruitvale is a tragedy that proves all the more upsetting because it plays, for the most part, like an aspirational drama. It won’t be an easy sale (and Sundance prizes, as last year’s Like Crazy can testify, have no inherent boxoffice value), but it’s been bought by The Weinstein Company, and hard sales are what Harvey Weinstein lives for. With any luck, its night on the Sundance award podium won’t be the last time it hears applause.
Toy's House is a delightful Sundance surprise, a fresh take on adolescent boys coming of age. The conceit of Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film, written by Chris Galletta, is that Joe Toy (Nick Robinson), his best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso), and a very strange tagalong named Biaggio (Moises Arias) don’t just run away, they literally find an open space in the nearby woods (albeit not as far from civilization as they initially think) and build their own full-scale house, sort of a grand, low-tech man cave.
This could easily have been the pretext for an obvious, gimmicky comedy, but Vogt-Roberts and Galletta bring spins to the material at every turn, as the boys have to master hunting, hygiene and entertainment–and most of all, togetherness. It’s idyllic, scary and funny. Also, the story of Joe’s home life has surprising nuance, as Joe turns out to embody most of what drives him crazy about his own father (Nick Offerman). Offerman is sensationally within his Parks & Recreation irritably lovable sweet spot, and he’s matched by Robinson and by Alison Brie as Joe’s more level-headed sister. (It’s worth noting that the relationship between Joe and his dad here is far more believable and also funnier than the parent/child traumas in fellow Sundance comedy ACOD.) When in doubt, the movie can always get laughs from Biaggio, a great character because his absolute strangeness is never explained or given much of a backstory–he simply is.
Toy’s House weakens a bit in its third act, as the action gets goosed forward with some forced melodrama involving the girl (Erin Morarity) both Joe and Patrick like. But the movie recovers beautifully with a series of climaxes and reunions that really work.
In a Sundance marked by some ugly looking comedies, Toy’s House is also notable for its assured, textured look. Cinematographer Ross Riege has made handsome use of Ohio locations, and the house itself, created by production designer Tyler B. Robinson, is a marvel that manages to look remarkably convincing as a structure teenagers who know next to nothing about construction might build and miraculously get to stand up.
Toy’s House doesn’t embark on new cinematic territory–it’s tonally similar to Stand By Me, albeit without the dead body–but it packs a great deal of genuine laughter and convincing emotion into its running time. The film has been acquired for theatrical release, and while a small-scale comedy with no major stars is difficult to promote (Son of Rambow, which admittedly had the additional hurdle of being British, disappeared at the boxoffice after a strong festival reception a few years ago), Toy’s House is sturdy enough to find an audience if it can get some traction.
When Joseph Gordon-Levitt decided to make his feature writing and directing debut with Don Jon's Addiction (starring in it as well), his attitude was clearly Go Big Or Go Home. To a large extent, he’s pulled off his audacious comedy, although in keeping with its theme, this may be the kind of movie people prefer to watch at home rather than out in a crowd.
Gordon-Levitt plays Don Jon, the “don” being an honorific to salute his ability to land every hot woman he sets his cap for in his corner of New Jersey. Jon’s secret, though, is that no matter how gorgeous the women who have sex with him may be, his true preference is pornography. In a lengthy, and graphically illustrated, narration that begins the film, Jon explains that real sex just doesn’t compare to the acrobatics, versatility and sheer willingness of the women in porn.
That changes–sort of–when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who’s as shrewd as she is gorgeous. In classic romcom style, Jon strives to become a better man for Barbara, taking classes in night school, introducing her to his family (father Tony Danza, mom Glenne Headly, and sister Brie Larson), and otherwise following her guidelines for improving his life. There’s just one thing she wants him to stop doing that he can’t quite make himself obey…
Gordon-Levitt’s script has a few more tricks up its sleeve, and although the Jersey Shore-ish milieu and nonstop sex jokes may feel crude at times, the plotting is actually fairly surprising and well-considered, including the late entry into the story of Esther (Julianne Moore), a fellow night student of Jon’s. If it all ends up in a sentimental place, the movie feels like it’s earned its little victories. Similarly, his direction is consistently funny and well-paced, although it does rely heavily on repeated motifs and montages (typical Sunday mornings with the family at church and weekly confessions, days at the gym, nights out with his pals, his other regular time spent in front of the computer screen–some of the latter may have to be edited, in any case, if the film is to achieve an R rating, event though he stays just this side of the flat-out explicit). Gordon-Levitt effectively works out variations in these repeated gags, but they do get a bit repetitive after a while.
Unsurprisingly, Gordon-Levitt is great with the actors, starting with himself. Although he’s played a wide variety of roles in his career, it’s not clear that any other filmmaker would have thought of him to play a muscled, thick-headed minimum-wage guy, but he was right to think that he could pull it off. Johansson, both lightly parodying and making use of her sexpot image, is very deft as Barbara, and Moore brings great warmth to Esther, even though her role is the least developed of the leads. Danza’s loudmouth father is worthy of being compared to DeNiro’s turn in Silver Linings Playbook, Headly has her best role in years, and although you’d think the repeated gag of Larsen constantly texting would wear thin, Gordon-Levitt has given a great button to her character. Jon’s buddies, played by Rob Brown and Jeremy Luke, are more familiar characters, but still very funny.
Don Jon’s Addiction would be an impressive debut for any director, but Gordon-Levitt’s achievement in successfully broadening his own perceived acting range as well as working in an unexpected genre and setting is particularly notable. The film wasn’t just bought (by Relativity), but is certain to receive a wide release, with a reported $25M marketing commitment from the studio. It has a chance of being the rare Sundance buy to find a mainstream audience.