2015 Sundance Diary: ‘Don Verdean,’ ‘The Mask You Live In’ & ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’

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PARK CITY, Utah – HollywoodChicago.com’s coverage of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival is far from over. This is the latest batch of reviews of movies that I’ve seen there. One film was a triumph while the other two are titles that I wouldn’t want to be stuck talking to at a party.

StarDon Verdean

Don Verdean
‘Don Verdean’
Image credit: Sundance Institute

Running equal portions of dry goofiness and finite inspired storytelling, Jared Hess’ “Don Verdean” is a rewarding comedy about Biblical archaeology that’s necessary for times in which religious institutions crave sensationalism to get their good word across. For those who read “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven” before its child author said he made it all up, or those who saw “Heaven Is For Real” as a type of precursor to their own death’s aftermath, this movie is for them. It’s a brilliant take on the key issue that plagues religions as they fight for relevancy amongst the doubters — the problem is in the messengers, not the message.

Instead of taking on evangelists, Hess (with frequent co-writing collaborator wife Jerusha) plays the title character, a man known for collecting artifacts and attributing them as evidence from the Bible. A pastor who claims to be a modern day Lazarus (Danny McBride, perfect) offers to fund Verdean’s expeditions if he can use the discoveries to rein in parish numbers, which are dwindling (a Satanist next-door played by Will Forte has been scooping them up).

Verdean becomes a parish sensation when he delivers a giant rock and says that it’s Lot’s wife, even though it looks nothing like the picture he originally presented. He knows this, but he can’t back down from the pressure that is put on him to find these factors that provide tangible evidence of faith. With his success, Verdean devolves to conman, working with his Israeli accomplice Boaz (Jemaine Clement) while manipulating the good will of his assistant Carol (Amy Ryan). The rest of “Don Verdean” follows him as he searches for larger Biblical artifacts, putting himself into such a mess that he ends up trying to “find” the holy grail.

“Don Verdean” is constructed efficiently. Its fascinating center joke is in the entire concept of the story, which is then assisted with great visual cues (such as when Don holds up a small Bible as if it were a map). The karma of a Coen brothers film rings throughout, in which things get out of control for a person who started honest, but becomes a fabricator. “Don Verdean” shows the lunacy in the title character’s pursuits, but it has a crucial heart for him; he’s only trying to help with faith, and he’s just found the wrong way to do it.

Wonderfully mixed with Hess’ dry humor, “Don Verdean” stays engrossing even when its parable gets wacky. It’s chaotic for some, but in reflection it’s fate; dishonesty makes a fool out of a person by making their lies bigger and more grandiose. Clement and Ryan have a couple of scenes that don’t work as well, but their performances are both distinct with nuance.

With this title standing as my most anticipated for Sundance, “Don Verdean” did not disappoint, and no bias is needed. It’s the factor of these clean-cut yet cartoonish performances, a vital inspiring message, and an unabashed storytelling sense in the process. It’s a thrill to see Hess directing after five years since the similar dorky yet very inspired “Gentleman Broncos,” another tale about storytelling that is abused in the hands of others. With another on the way in 2015 (“Loomis Fargo,”) Hess’ films remain singular in their perspective and tone, with storytelling whose genuine nature can be believed.

StarThe Mask You Live In

The Mask You Live In
‘The Mask You Live In’
Image credit: Sundance Institute

The subject matter of director Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary “The Mask You Live In” is incredibly important. There is indeed a “boy crisis” in our society, in which young males are being raised with certain ideas about unattainable manhood that create grave insecurities, while also seeing femininity as second level, or a weakness. The effects ripple and lead into a male’s perspective throughout his life. Troubled sons become difficult-to-please fathers, and so forth. The film manages to posit this issue as a central problem that is holding back society as a whole, and makes a convincing argument. It loses the audience’s attention, however, when it freaks itself the hell out and starts preaching.

This documentary makes a specific choice in how it wants to present its information and to who. As someone looking to watching material of which to engage with, and not simply listen, I don’t agree with it. The film is prepared for display to a wide variety of different audiences, and machine guns statistics and graphs. Facts are delivered one-by-one, with key terms made large and in bold. Instead of investigating why this has happened, the movie asides with parental paranoia, eschewing a more subtle, and more interesting, degree of observation.

Suddenly an issue that is alarming becomes fear mongering. (To be fair, last year’s sugar conspiracy doc “Fed Up” takes the same approach, its general message not lost). However, it should be noted that this film must have a new world record for most fades to white in a feature film, as the transitional editing tool seems to be the only option for the film. Similarly, up-to-date, parenthetical references to music and movies range from clever to very on-the-nose, with the context of many images being lost in its Powerpoint-like fashion.

A project very curiously borne from six female executive producers, two female co-writers and one female director, the film’s subject is one that I can’t recall any other director (male or female) hitting so head-on. An inspired effort to turn around new generations on their skewed, impossible ideals of gender identity, “The Mask You Live In” is initially fascinating. By about its millionth fade to white and hundredth statistic about something parents may not know about their children, whether it seems relevant or not, it becomes a buzzkill all in its own hands.

StarMe and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and Dying Girl
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”,
Image credit: Sundance Institute

To paraphrase Amy Poehler’s “cool mom” claim in “Mean Girls”: “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is not like a regular indie movie. It’s a cool indie movie.

This film from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon packs a two-fold sleeper punch, or wants to, in that it’s a movie that mixes art-house movie literacy with drama involving a dying high schooler, the latter one previously thought to be a low culture concept reserved for sucker-punching blockbusters. There’s narrative ambition in this story, as it marries both very niche waters while treading through sensitives, nonetheless expressed by a young man who has more of an understanding of filmmaking than he does death. But aside from some strong jokes and one great dramatic scene, it has a nearly superficial relationship to both its love for movies and its center drama.

The young man at the center of this story is Thomas Mann’s Greg, a strong talent that gained sympathy even in “Project X.” It’s exciting to see him at the center of a project that takes advantage of his gangly angst, playing a teenager who tries to become clique-less by getting to know everyone (a type of characteristic that fades away as the story progresses). He has a friend that he calls a co-worker named Earl (RJ Cyler), who sits with him during lunch in a teacher’s office (played by Jon Bernthal) as they watch clips from the “Fitzcarraldo” doc “Burden of Dreams.”

The title not-so-healthy girl Rachel (Olivia Cooke) comes into play when Greg is given a juvenile errand by his parents, which the story makes him handle with strange, earnest childishness; hang out with Rachel at least once, because she’s sick. Greg takes on this task like it’s homework he wants to avoid, which is strange and not believable for the simplest reasons. 1.) Greg is a bored heterosexual male 2.) Rachel is a charming girl, and not made out to be the least bit uncool from the start.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t take long for Greg to realize that he actually might like being friends with another outsider, and he begins a friendship with Rachel. When not hanging with Rachel, Greg makes films with Earl, which are goofy tributes to cinema classics, made with the production quality of a movie inside a Michel Gondry movie.

Before getting into what doesn’t work, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” deserves its due. Its rampant movie-loving nature can make for some great comedy. Werner “Burden of Dreams” Herzog is an efficient reoccurring punchline, proving alongside his recent cameo in “Parks & Recreation” that popular culture is ready to fully embrace his nonpareil presence, even if taken out of context as a crazy old German dude. A joke about the hologram in “Star Wars” blindsided me, and the pun-ny titles from Greg & Earl’s array of tributes are sporadically amusing.

True to “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” even with this easy target the film gets greedy. The amount of films that Earl and Greg make, as Greg shares with Rachel and us in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” makes it a quirky comedy contrivance at most, this side of Max Fischer’s hit plays or the entire new video story in “Be Kind Rewind.” This idea is endemic of the movie’s movie attitude, which toes the line between obscure shout-outs and pandering. The story certainly demands attention to every movie title or poster shown, but it gets most obnoxious when placed amongst actual DVDs. When the film’s camera is taken into a record store, it specifically takes attention away from characters and onto the DVD racks as they thumb through directors’ last names. Whereas previous indie films wanted cred by making mixtape soundtracks, “Me & Earl and the Dying Girl” speaks in Criterion Collection, in a fashion that is borderline obnoxious in spite of its niche-ness.

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” earns points for focusing on something that is avoided when narratives go big on their emotional bids — it’s not about a romance, or a forever love, but about a friendship. Nonetheless, the moments that could round Gomez-Rejon’s film never connect, sans one extended, emotionally-gripping take in which Greg & Rachel argue about her chances of survival. The movie tries to take backdoors to the types of scenes you expect, and it doesn’t make them any exceptional than what could have been if “The Fault in Our Stars” had more gusto.

Different from other tales that it might be compared to, the story is told strictly from the perspective of Greg, but even when based from his conceptions the characters that he interacts with are lazy creations. Though he’s made to be disarmingly dorky, Earl is a dead-end fictional being, whittled from lazy stereotypes of black physical and sexual aggression, and someone who lives in the dangerous part of town. (Why does he have to be any of these things?) Then there’s the title female who is not doing so well, who spends a lot of time in the eyes of Greg, but isn’t ingrained with a personality that could make her interesting, or in turn her mortality something of particularly extreme high stakes. The film does creates an emotional arc out of her, but a final scene about her bedroom feels like a last-chance to articulate why this character is special outside of her tragic conditions.

This all creates bad juju for “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” which is not challenged by the movie’s visual style. A film that tries to make friends with name-drops then takes on a derivative nature; if “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” were made fifteen years ago, its craftiness could be considered inventive, instead of cutting-and-pasting from the typical shot list of an alternative movie post-“Rushmore.” Aforementioned quirky titles divide the movie into segments (“500 Days of Summer,” cough) and whipping pans from character-to-character are used from conversations while center framing remains a sacred ground. In general the story is told with showy cinematography, constantly garnering attention to what the latest camera move is, instead of letting its story speak for itself. A movie that gets its distinctive flavor from its rampant and diverse movie references does not find a liveliness in continuing the dry visual quirk of many a successful indie project before it, only a stale calculation. To make matters more tired, there’s the film’s framing device, which is another heartfelt college essay that provides voiceover (“The Spectacular Now,” sigh). When watching the film with very little knowledge about the project, I never thought I was in the presence of a unique talent. Instead I was firmly convinced that I was watching a first-time filmmaker with supportive producers, trying to prove that he too has watched movies before. (I was wrong, it’s his second film.)

Packaging all of these elements into the same product, these borrowed components make its needy heart and mind overwhelming, and limit its potential to be naturally special. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” deals in hipness more than it does any type of distinct beauty. It’s a cute indie movie at best.

StarRead our 2015 Sundance coverage of ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’, ‘The Bronze’ & ‘The Amina Profile’
StarRead our 2015 Sundance coverage of ‘A Walk in the Woods,’ ‘Eden,’ ‘Knock Knock’ & ‘Z for Zachariah’
StarRead our 2015 Sundance coverage of ‘Digging for Fire,’ ‘Entertainment’ & ‘Results’

HollywoodChicago.com editor and staff writer Nick Allen

Editor & Staff Writer

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