Sundance: Female Leads Struggle with Mid-Life Crises in Trio of Sundance Premieres

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This was a very good year for women at the Sundance Film Festival. Besides there being lots of new and returning women filmmakers to the fest, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements were very much a part of the conversation, leading up to and following the 2nd annual Womens’ March on Saturday in Park City.

There were also many films premiering that centered on strong female characters, although three of them stood out for the interesting way women were depicted. THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER, WILDLIFE, and JULIET, NAKED all followed women in their mid-to-late 30s going through mid-life crises.  In all three cases, an unhappiness with their husband or significant other leads to making some questionable choices, but only two of the characters came across unscathed by their decisions (I’ll try to resist some of the bigger spoilers for two of them).

The Kindergarten Teacher is the only one of three films written, directed, and produced by women with filmmaker Sara Colangelo making her return to Sundance after 2014’s Little Accidents. Adapted from an Israeli film of the same name, it stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lisa Spinelli, the teacher in the title who discovers that one of her young students has the knack for writing beautiful poetry. At the same time, she’s experiencing unhappiness at home with her husband (Michael Chernus) and has been taking night classes in poetry from a charming teacher played by Gael Garcia Bernal. At first, Lisa “borrows” her young ward’s beautiful words, claiming them as her own, but she then becomes obsessed with the young boy, beginning a rather inappropriate relationship with her student. I’ll get more into this in a bit.

Based on Richard Ford’s 1990 novel, Wildlife is also actor Paul Dano’s directorial debut, which he co-wrote with his significant other Zoe Kazan.  It stars Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jerry and Jeanette Brinson, a couple who have moved to suburban Montana for Jerry’s job, which he loses early in the film. When Jerry goes off to help fight fires, much to the protest of his wife, Jeanette and their 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) fend for themselves, sending her into the arms of the older Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a wealthy local car magnate.

Juliet, Naked is based on Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel, which ironically, I first read when I interviewed him for An Education, another Sundance premiere that helped Carey Mulligan breakout. Directed by Jesse Peretz (New Girl), the film stars Rose Byrne as Annie, a British woman living in a seaside town whose boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) is obsessed with American musician Tucker Crowe, who has mysteriously vanished leaving his fans wanting more music. By chance, Crowe (played by Ethan Hawke) reemerges by emailing Annie (whose relationship with Duncan has soured) after she left a negative review of Crowe’s music on Duncan’s blog. Annie and Tucker become pen pals, talking about the difficulties within each of their lives, and things go to gradually more interesting places from there.

Maybe it was because I was familiar with Hornby’s book that I was already more sympathetic towards Byrne’s character. In many ways, you never blame her for giving up on Duncan, because his obsession with Tucker has clearly overpowered their relationship.  The script for Juliet, Naked has been in development for quite some time, but both Tamara Jenkins (The Savages) and Evgenia Peretz (who co-wrote Peretz’s comedy My Idiot Brother) were actively involved with what ended up on screen. Also, Juliet, Naked works due to the impeccable casting of Byrne, O’Dowd and Hawke, who are perfectly suited towards their respective roles.

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The casting of Mulligan and Gyllenhaal in Dano’s movie should have given it a similar boost, but Gyllenhaal’s character disappears for a lengthy portion of the movie, and the story is mostly viewed through the eyes of his son Joe. It puts a lot of pressure on young Ed Oxenbould (The Visit) to give Mulligan the proper sounding board for her portrayal of his mother, but much of his role involves standing there watching his mother go further down the spiral of what seems to be a nervous breakdown.

One would expect that The Kindergarten Teacher would be the strongest of the three films in the way their female leads are depicted, mainly because there are more women behind the camera. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a terrific actor and brings a degree of emotion to her character that makes her perfect for the role.  As much as you try to empathize with Lisa, her actions are so questionable and almost deplorable at times, that it becomes more difficult as the film goes on. You probably can’t blame her for falling for her poetry teacher and having a short tryst, but when he finds out the true author of the poems, he boots her from the class.

Carey Mulligan’s character in Wildlife also makes some questionable decisions, but in this case, the way she acts, especially towards her son, makes her very unlikeable to the point where it ruins an already dull and listless movie. Oddly, Mulligan’s Jeanette is also the woman who makes the most questionable choice when it comes to men, because Bill Camp, while a great actor, does not seem like the type she might fall for. Her decision is possibly just an act of desperation due to her family’s financial troubles, but she is also constantly picking fights with her husband and son.

In some ways, Byrne doesn’t necessarily have to carry Juliet, Naked because once Hawke’s Tucker is introduced, the film splits its time between the two of them. I appreciated how faithful the writers kept to Hornby’s novel while also developing other aspects of the characters beyond what Hornby did in the novel, such as Annie’s job at the museum and Tucker’s extended family of illegitimate children. The movie also retains the Britishness of Hornby’s story, something that has been lost in other adaptations such as High Fidelity (a personal favorite) and Fever Pitch (It was also fun to see two of the stars from Bridesmaids, who didn’t have many or any scenes together, playing off each other).

In all three cases, you can understand the women’s dissatisfaction with their lives or partners, but it’s easier to relate to how Byrne’s Annie deals with it, maybe because she seems the most stable of the three women. Without giving the plot away, Gyllenhaal’s Lisa goes from inappropriate behavior and plagiarism to outright criminal behavior, and the movie doesn’t end in a satisfying place in terms of resolving her moral dilemmas. Similarly, Wildlife tacks on an ending that tries but fails to satisfy those who may want answers to where the Brinson family goes after what happens in the movie.

Because of this, Juliet, Naked is easily the best of these three offerings, a commercially-viable and entertaining film that’s sweet and funny and romantic, something that’s easy to relate to on many levels. Maybe it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that it’s produced by Judd Apatow, who also produced The Big Sick, the highest-grossing film from last year’s Sundance.

The Kindergarten Teacher is generally enjoyable for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance, even if the premise at the center of the film might be a little too strange for anyone other than arthouse crowds.

The same can be said for Wildlife, although it’s hard to imagine many “normal” moviegoers appreciating what Dano has done as a filmmaker, unless they’ve already read Ford’s book. I understand that like Juliet, Naked, this film is also faithful to the original work, so any problems I have might have come from the source material.

Personally, I’ll be more interested in reading what some of the women critics and movie writers out there (like Tracking Board columnist Sabrina Cognata) think of these three movies. Mileage can certainly vary when it comes to Sundance movies, but especially for films that might be as divisive as these three, which few will get a chance to see in such a short span as I did.

  | East Coast Editor
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Still quiet here.sas

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