Sometimes, one film in a festival lineup can help to reveal another in sharper relief. To wit, one of the loveliest entries in Sundance 2013's U.S. Dramatic Competition, James Ponsoldt's deeply felt coming-of-age drama The Spectacular Now, looked even better after the premiere of The Way Way Back, a deeply insincere coming-of-age comedy from writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash--a movie that has so far generated the festival's biggest sale (to Fox Searchlight, for close to $10 million).
If Faxon and Rash's names are familiar, it's because last year they shared the stage on Oscar night with Alexander Payne, collectively winning the Adapted Screenplay award for The Descendants. But Payne made it clear in interviews that Faxon and Rash had written an early draft of the script, little of which survived his rewrite, and now The Way Way Back offers some clues as to what their version of The Descendants might have looked like. Virtually every line in The Way Way Back, which follows a socially awkward teenager (Liam James) over the course of a proverbial life-changing summer, is a cheap punchline; every character a strategically flawed caricature whose skin-deep problems are smoothed away by journey's end.
Toni Colette and Steve Carell star as our young hero's mom and potential stepdad, casting that caused The Way Way Back to be heralded as this year's Little Miss Sunshine even before the first screening. A more relevant point of comparison may be both films' sneering contempt masquerading as compassion.
There are also two films at Sundance that riff on Luis Buñuel's classic Belle de Jour, giving us bored housewives who flirt with prostitution as an escape from the mundane. And where one of them, Jill Soloway's Afternoon Delight, is a tone-deaf catastrophe, the other, Stacie Passon's Concussion, is a happy surprise.
Passon's film--her first after a career as a commercial producer--is precisely the kind of discovery you come to Sundance hoping to make: When the opening credits roll, you scarcely recognize a single name in the cast or crew, and by the time the end credits appear, you can't wait to see what everyone does next. The central figure is Abby (Robin Weigert), an interior designer turned soccer mom who wakes up one day--after suffering a bad bump on the noggin--to the feeling that the spark has gone out of her life, sexually and otherwise. So she goes back to work, renovating a Manhattan loft, and tries paying for sex, first with a low-end Craigslist hooker who skeeves her out, then with a high-end one who suggests Abby consider giving the world's oldest profession a try. Thus, from pied-à-terre to maison de plaisir.
At this point, I should probably mention that Abby is a lesbian, with a divorce-lawyer wife and two young kids. The clients she entertains are women too--some of them gay, some merely curious. But one of the quietly revolutionary things about Concussion is that it takes Abby's sexuality and her domestic situation as givens and proceeds from there. (The Kids Are Alright 2 this isn't.) The movie's true subject is a problem--the loss of passion--that can happen in any relationship, and Passon addresses it in a series of smart, funny and surprising ways.
Key to this is the fearless performance of Weigert, best known for playing Calamity Jane on Deadwood, and the kind of actress unlikely to be offered major roles by Hollywood unless she first hires an assassin to take out Meryl Streep. There's been a lot of talk about the large number of Sundance competition movies by and about women this year. Here, at last, is one worth crowing about.
Follow Scott Foundas on Twitter at @FoundasOnFilm and read more of his stories here: Foundas on Film.