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Sundance 2013: Sex and comedies dominate competition

By Anthony Breznican,EW
November 29, 2012 -- Updated 1648 GMT (0048 HKT)
The Sundance Film Festival spawned several critically acclaimed films in 2012.
The Sundance Film Festival spawned several critically acclaimed films in 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sundance will run January 17-27 in Park City, Utah
  • Festival director sees "a trend in the way sexual relationships are handled, across all the programs"
  • Other announcements of programming set to come

(EW.com) -- Daniel Radcliffe in a murder story involving the icons of the Beat Generation. Keri Russell in comedy about a woman obsessed with Jane Austen. Kristen Bell as a lifeguard in a dangerous relationship. And the return of the filmmaker behind the sci-fi indie classic Primer.

These are among the films making their debut in the competition category at the Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 17-27 in Park City, Utah.

Other announcements — such as those for the Midnight Movie and Premiere sections — will come in the days ahead, but first the festival likes to highlight those films that will be competing for the jury prizes this year.

As for trends, this year ... ?

Sundance 2012: Get the latest news, photos, and more

Sundance Festival director John Cooper and Trevor Groth, the chief programer, share a look before venturing forward with slight smiles.

"We did see a trend in the way sexual relationships are handled, across all the programs," Cooper says. "Meaning, the head-on approach the filmmakers are taking to explore sexual relationships in our modern society. Also, I think, it's interesting to show sex both as power and sex as a human need and desire. And we see the perspective of both men and women. It permeates the whole program — bold and clear and authentic."

"Historically, we've always had a film or two that really delved into this," adds Groth. "Even last year with The Sessions, it was like that. But this year it came in a wave that we really felt. I find that interesting, to analyze: What was out there in the filmmaking community, and the world, that triggered this exploration of where we're at with sexual relationships?"

Among the competition films that fit that group are Afternoon Delight, with Kathryn Hahn (TV's Parks and Recreation) as a housewife who hires a stripper (The Dark Knight Rises' Juno Temple) as her nanny; Kristen Bell in The Lifeguard, as a woman sleeping with a high-school kid, and Concussion, with Robin Weigert (TV's Sons of Anarchy) as a woman who wakes up from an accident determined to shake off her old life. It also comes into play with Touchy Feely, the latest from Humpday and Your Sister's Sister filmmaker Lynn Shelton, with Rosemarie DeWitt, Ron Livingston and Josh Pais in the story of a massage therapist who develops an aversion to human contact.

Harry Potter star Radcliffe continues to move away from The Boy Who Lived by taking on the role of Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings, which co-stars Dexter's Michael C. Hall and Boardwalk Empire's Jack Huston (this time without the half-mask) in the story of a murder involving the founding writers of the Beat Generation.

And Russell, who had the indie hit Waitress at the festival in 2007, returns as a lovesick woman looking for love in 19th century places in Austenland, from director Jerusha Hess, the co-writer of Napoleon Dynamite.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's Rooney Mara co-stars with Casey Affleck in the lyrical Ain't Them Bodies Saints, about a pair of escaped prisoners fleeing the law in the hills of Texas, while Octavia Spencer, the best supporting actress Oscar-winner from The Help, turns up opposite Chronicle's Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale, based on the true story of a young man's final day before being cut down by police.

Among the straight-up comedies, Groth said, include Smashed director James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now, starring Miles Teller (Project X) as a high school kid trying to rescue a shy girl, played by Shailene Woodley (The Descendants); and Toy's House, about three runaway boys, co-starring Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, and Alison Brie — among several others that walk the line between darkness and humor. "There were some years when I'd say we didn't have a single comedy in our competition," Groth adds with a shrug.

"I know ..." Cooper groans. "How did we make it through?"

Fans of Sundance past will be eager to see Upstream Color, the first feature from writer-director Shane Carruth since his low-fi but deeply beloved time-travel story Primer. It's hard to tell what it's actually about, based on the vague description in the programming announcement, but it sounds like another variation on a sci-fi theme, about a man and woman "entangled in the life-cycle of an ageless organism."

Descriptions of the U.S. Dramatic Competition, pulled straight from the Sundance program announcement:

Afternoon Delight

In this sexy, dark comedy, a lost L.A. housewife puts her idyllic hipster life in jeopardy when she tries to rescue a stripper by taking her in as a live-in nanny. (Director and screenwriter: Jill Soloway) Cast: Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple, Josh Radnor, Jane Lynch.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

The tale of an outlaw who escapes from prison and sets out across the Texas hills to reunite with his wife and the daughter he has never met. (Director and screenwriter: David Lowery) Cast: Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Nate Parker, Keith Carradine.

Austenland

Thirtysomething, single Jane is obsessed with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice. On a trip to an English resort, her fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman become more real than she ever imagined. (Director: Jerusha Hess, Screenwriters: Jerusha Hess, Shannon Hale) Cast: Keri Russell, JJ Feild, Bret McKenzie, Jennifer Coolidge, Georgia King, James Callis.

C.O.G.

In the first ever film adaptation of David Sedaris' work, a cocky young man travels to Oregon to work on an apple farm. Out of his element, he finds his lifestyle and notions being picked apart by everyone who crosses his path. (Director and screenwriter: Kyle Patrick Alvarez) Cast: Jonathan Groff, Denis O'Hare, Corey Stoll, Dean Stockwell, Casey Wilson, Troian Bellisario.

Concussion

After a blow to the head, Abby decides she can't do it anymore. Her life just can't be only about the house, the kids and the wife. She needs more: she needs to be Eleanor. (Director and screenwriter: Stacie Passon) Cast: Robin Weigert, Maggie Siff, Johnathan Tchaikovsky, Julie Fain Lawrence, Emily Kinney, Laila Robins.

Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes

Emanuel, a troubled girl, becomes preoccupied with her mysterious, new neighbor, who bears a striking resemblance to her dead mother. In offering to babysit her newborn, Emanuel unwittingly enters a fragile, fictional world, of which she becomes the gatekeeper. (Director and screenwriter: Francesca Gregorini) Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Jessica Biel, Alfred Molina, Frances O'Connor, Jimmi Simpson, Aneurin Barnard.

Fruitvale

The true story of Oscar, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family and strangers on the last day of 2008. (Director and screenwriter: Ryan Coogler) Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Ahna O'Reilly, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray.

In a World...

An underachieving vocal coach is motivated by her father, the king of movie-trailer voice-overs, to pursue her aspirations of becoming a voiceover star. Amidst pride, sexism and family dysfunction, she sets out to change the voice of a generation. (Director and screenwriter: Lake Bell) Cast: Lake Bell, Demetri Martin, Rob Corddry, Michaela Watkins, Ken Marino, Fred Melamed.

Kill Your Darlings

An untold story of murder that brought together a young Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs at Columbia University in 1944, providing the spark that led to the birth of an entire generation -- their Beat revolution. (Director: John Krokidas, Screenwriters: Austin Bunn, John Krokidas) Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHann, Ben Foster, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston, Elizabeth Olsen.

The Lifeguard

A former valedictorian quits her reporter job in New York and returns to the place she last felt happy: her childhood home in Connecticut. She gets work as a lifeguard and starts a dangerous relationship with a troubled teenager. (Director and screenwriter: Liz W. Garcia) Cast: Kristen Bell, Mamie Gummer, Martin Starr, Alex Shaffer, Amy Madigan, David Lambert.

May in the Summer

A bride-to-be is forced to reevaluate her life when she reunites with her family in Jordan and finds herself confronted with the aftermath of her parents' divorce. (Director and screenwriter: Cherien Dabis) Cast: Cherien Dabis, Hiam Abbass, Bill Pullman, Alia Shawkat, Nadine Malouf, Alexander Siddig.

Mother of George

A story about a woman willing to do anything and risk everything for her marriage. (Director: Andrew Dosunmu, Screenwriter: Darci Picoult) Cast: Isaach De Bankolé, Danai Gurira, Anthony Okungbowa, Yaya Alafia, Bukky Ajayi.

The Spectacular Now

Sutter is a high school senior who lives for the moment; Aimee is the introvert he attempts to "save." As their relationship deepens, the lines between right and wrong, friendship and love, and "saving" and corrupting become inextricably blurred. (Director: James Ponsoldt, Screenwriters: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber) Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kyle Chandler.

Touchy Feely

A massage therapist is unable to do her job when stricken with a mysterious and sudden aversion to bodily contact. Meanwhile, her uptight brother's foundering dental practice receives new life when clients seek out his "healing touch." (Director and screenwriter: Lynn Shelton) Cast: Rosemarie DeWitt, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, Scoot McNairy, Ellen Page, Josh Pais.

Toy's House

Three unhappy teenage boys flee to the wilderness where they build a makeshift house and live off the land as masters of their own destiny. Or at least that's the plan. (Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Screenwriter: Chris Galletta)Cast: Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Alison Brie.

Upstream Color

A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives. Director and screenwriter: Shane Carruth) Cast: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins.

NEXT Category

"For me, there's a stand-out section that I think will generate a lot of conversation at the festival and that's the Next category," says Groth. "The last few years we've had it, there have been a few films that popped out of there, and this year, we're 10 deep. We expanded from eight to 10 based on the passionate response to these films by our programer. The section was conceived as a way to find a place in the festival for lower budget films, but as it evolved we got away from even thinking about budget of a film. It's more about the attitude of the film. These are very singular visions. When you watch the films, you know there was something dying to get out, and that's what's on screen."

For a look at those films, including Blue Caprice, starring Isaiah Washington in a drama inspired by the 2002 Beltway sniper shootings, and Computer Chess, filmmaker Andrew Bujalski's comedy about geniuses battling a computerized chess opponent, go to the official Sundance page.

You can also go there to find the festival's U.S. Documentary competition, and World Cinema dramatic and documentary fields.

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