Courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

The Michigan Daily film writers love to watch and discuss films at the cutting edge of storytelling and there is no place better to do so than the Sundance Film Festival. After two years attending the festival only online, writers and editors for the Film Beat have trudged through snow and taken planes, trains and automobiles to arrive at Park City, Utah. Our coverage will include the premiers of dramas, romances, documentaries and everything in between. Welcome to our discussion on films made with Oscar winners and first-time filmmakers alike.

Moments before seeing “Eileen,” a quip sprang to mind that I jotted down to include if the screening went south: “Come on, ‘Eileen.’ You can do better than that.” I was pretty proud of that one. Unfortunately (fortunately, really), it’s unusable — “Eileen” blew me away. Kind of like that song does. We’ll see if I can manage a Dexys Midnight Runners reference elsewhere. 

“Eileen” — a simple story at face value — is intoxicating, hilarious and remarkably clever. The film, set in the 1960s, follows 24-year-old Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie, “Last Night in Soho”), who works at a youth prison and looks after her hostile father. Her monotonous life is given color and intrigue when she becomes enamored with her glamorous new co-worker, psychologist Rebecca St. John (Anne Hathaway, “Armageddon Time”). Feminine relationships, rage and curiosity are explored through the bond Rebecca and Eileen share, forming the backbone of this period-drama-meets-thriller that delivers comedy, romance and madness. 

Rebecca’s femme fatale persona challenges and draws out Eileen’s own femininity and assertiveness. Hathaway is magnificent as Rebecca, the audience taken by her sense of self as much as Eileen is. Hathaway is sharp-tongued, self-posessed and positively regal in the film, reminiscent of her performance as Catwoman in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012). While Rebecca holds herself with confidence, Eileen seems girlish for her age, speaking quietly and never out of turn. Eileen is fresh-faced and doe-eyed, McKenzie projecting youth through her body language, posture and even the way she chooses to move her mouth with restraint while speaking. McKenzie is just as believable as Eileen when the power dynamics shift.

Eileen is a curious, lonely and impulsive young woman with a certain naiveté about her — someone we are amused by, relate to and even scrutinize. In the opening scene, she watches a couple share an intimate moment and, in her sexual frustration, shoves a handful of snow down her pants. Later, she admires a prison guard and fantasizes about him embracing her passionately. She frequently gazes at one particular inmate in the prison yard, once watching him sleep through the glass panel of his cell door.

The relationship between Eileen and her father (Shea Whigham, “Gaslit”), or rather their revealing dialogue, also plays a large role in the film. He tells her bitterly: “Get a life, Eileen. Get a clue.” Her father, though cruel, has a point. Eileen lacks agency and conviction — she seems a shadow of a person, a ghost that lurks and overindulges in fantasy. This barbed remark sets the stage for the film’s veiled premise: the discovery of womanhood and lust for life. Eileen’s perception of and interactions with Rebecca that take a dark, criminal turn breathe the life into Eileen that was chronically missing initially. “Eileen” is an unconventional story of delayed coming of age — verging on dirty (I told you I’d find a way to make a reference) and dangerous. 

Equally astonishing as a pair, McKenzie and Hathaway are wonders as Eileen and Rebecca. Not a single movement, sound or word feels rehearsed — their thoughts and decisions belong entirely to McKenzie and Hathaway. Oddly enough, it is the strange exchanges of dialogue resembling involuntary word vomit that make this script delightful. Drunk outside of a bar after a night of dancing, Rebecca describes Eileen’s face as “Plain, but fascinating. It has a beautiful turbulence hidden in it. I love it. I bet you have brilliant dreams. I bet you dream of other worlds.” The screenplay feels anything but manufactured, reflecting the same lack of filter possessed by both Eileen and Rebecca. I couldn’t get enough of it. 

“Eileen” is a gift wrapped neatly in just 97 minutes, a film that makes all the right choices. It has a superb sense of humor, a daring and exceptional script, tremendous performances and not a single dull moment. I haven’t seen a film as simultaneously thrilling and cinematically romantic as “Eileen” in a long time, and I hope it receives the praise it deserves in this season of cinema. 

Daily Arts Writer Maya Ruder can be reached at mayarud@umich.edu.