The Sundance Film Festival: Day six

Sunday, February 10, 2019 - 4:32pm

"Big Time Adolescence"

"Big Time Adolescence" Buy this photo
NOSELL

Things have quieted down a bit in Park City. The streets are not as crowded, a little less hectic. The hoards of Sundance-goers have dwindled to a meager smattering of people. With the decline in the temporary influx of the town’s population, the screenings are less packed. The celebrity guests have made their appearances, and some have already traveled back to the warm cocoon of Hollywood, with a few critics trailing behind. The makeshift studios where entertainment publications hosted exclusive parties have been broken down and emptied out. The downtown area starts to slowly resemble a ghost town, but one that maintains an unusual calmness.

With only four days left, I’ve passed the midpoint of the festival. While the nonstop watching and writing about the films I see have exhausted my brain cells and made me a tad restless, I’ve grown comfortable with the screening routine. Enough time has passed where the procedure before for every screening has become pretty simple and standard. Outside the theater, I enter a white tent, open up my jacket and backpack for the security guards and ask one of the volunteers, all of whom are dressed in puffy purple Kenneth Cole jackets, to direct me to a waiting line.

Once inside, a volunteer scans my press pass and stamps my hand. Sitting in the middle of the most middle row is absolutely key for a prime viewing experience. If I miss lunch, I’ll grab a small popcorn and an apple — will my stomach ever forgive me for what I’ve done to it? Before the projector starts up, a volunteer makes a brief introduction of the film and its running time. The lights then dim. Some stragglers make their way to their seats. A recap of the previous day at the festival plays before launching into a rapid-fire slideshow set to a tribal drum beat of images and words that express the mission of Sundance: Experiment. Challenge. Question. Break.

‘Big Time Adolescence’:

Sundance loves coming-of-age stories. From the critical and commercial smash of 2006’s, “Little Miss Sunshine,” to the 2015 Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” the festival can’t get enough of supporting movies that center around the awkward and endlessly relatable lives of teenagers. But how, then, does a coming-of-age film identify itself among the crowded slate of projects like it? With his hilarious and heartfelt Linklater-ian feature debut “Big Time Adolescence,” writer-director Jason Orley (“The Intern”) might have an idea.

While it may not be a total game-changer for youth-oriented cinema, “Big Time Adolescence” benefits from the intoxicating charisma of its two leads and a strong script filled with punchy one-liners and smart, sharp dialogue. The film’s opening voiceover, narrated by the protagonist Mo (Griffin Gluck, “American Vandal”), admittedly doesn’t inspire much confidence, being that it’s a very common, overused device used in coming-of-age films that prioritizes exposition over simply showing the action on its own (see: the 2013 Sundance favorite “The Spectacular Now”). Luckily, it’s the only time during the entire film where it occurs, dedicating the rest of the story to the kinetic relationship between Mo and his sister’s college dropout stoner ex-boyfriend Zeke (Pete Davidson, “Set It Up”).

The two have a friendship like any other: They grab burgers together, drive around town, shop for snacks and booze and talk about their romantic lives. The only difference is that Mo is still in high school, while Zeke is skating through his 20s with a carefree aimlessness. Mo prefers spending more time at Zeke’s bachelor pad than with kids his own age, a habit that irks Mo’s concerned dad Reuben (a wonderful Jon Cryer, “Two and a Half Men”). When Mo’s social climber classmate Stacey (Thomas Barbusca, “Searching”) propositions to start a drug-and-alcohol-dealing business at the popular high school senior parties, Mo asks Zeke, a former high school party king, for help. This situation leads the two friends on a hysterical journey of self-discovery and inevitably, a dramatic unraveling of sorts.

Though Griffin Gluck does a fantastic job, Pete Davidson is the real star of the show, delivering a career-defining performance for a role that was made for him. Exercising the witty, observational humor from his time as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” Davidson continues to justify why he’s one of the brightest and most entertaining comedians to grace the screen and the stage in a long while. With every setup to a joke, Davidson always manages to come prepared with a satisfying payoff, either in the form of a goofy facial expression or a snarky, gut-busting quip.

It’s hard not to recognize the obvious parallels between Davidson’s character and his real-life persona — they both smoke weed on a daily basis and have a wickedly vulgar sense of humor. Even his Hillary Clinton tattoo and love for “Call Me By Your Name” wunderkind Timothée Chalamet are referenced at one point. But what’s most fascinating about this blurring of worlds is how Davidson’s heavily publicized image almost color in the existential conflicts Zeke faces. He brings a pathos to Zeke’s lack of ambition that twists the lonely stoner archetype into something more melancholic and meditative. Zeke isn’t just drifting through the abyss of young adulthood, but rather navigating through the sadness of being unable to escape the days of high school, when life was simpler, responsibilities were less serious and the future less daunting.

Though Gluck and Davidson carry the story quite nicely and effectively, there are a few faults in “Big Time Adolescence” that prevent it from being a truly remarkable film. These flaws rest mostly with the main female characters, Mo’s love interest, Sophie (Oona Laurence, “The Beguiled”), and Zeke’s girlfriend, Holly (Sydney Sweeney, “Under the Silver Lake”). Both actresses do their best in squeezing some dimension out of their half-baked roles, but Holly’s relegation to a sexualized spectacle and Sophie’s use of sarcasm as a way of flirting feel a little old-hat and overdone. Considering the surprising number of female-led coming-of-age films at this year’s Sundance, it’s a bummer that “Big Time Adolescence” can’t seem to match the complexity of its male characters with its female characters.

Still, these imperfections aren’t as glaring as they seem. Zeke and Mo don’t always get away with the dumb hijinks they find themselves in, which sometimes involve both Holly and Sophie. By facing up to the consequences of their actions, Zeke and Mo learn that their unconventional friendship can only last for so long before it collapses onto itself. In the end, “Big Time Adolescence” comes out victorious as a loose yet sturdy hangout comedy that spins some thoughtful, clever commentary on the absurd highs and life-altering lows of adolescence.

‘Sweetheart’:

Survival movies are bent on one end goal: seeking a way back to the world from which we came. After being marooned far away from civilization, the main character of a survival movie — usually the only character in the story, unless you’re counting flashbacks or hallucinations of their loved ones — is forced to fight their way through the dangerous unpredictability of nature, either by sea (“Life of Pi,” “Adrift”) or by land (“Cast Away,” “Lost”). J.D. Dillard’s small but terrifying creature feature “Sweetheart” explores both scenarios, but differentiates itself from other survival narratives by examining the real malevolent forces that bring unwanted terror to our daily lives.

Beginning in the unknown depths of the ocean, “Sweetheart” opens on Jenn (a ferocious Kiersey Clemons, “Hearts Beat Loud”), a young woman washed ashore on a deserted island after what seemed like a shipwreck. She’s quick to see that no one else is there, with the exception of her two friends — one on the verge of death, the other already dead. The horror doesn’t stop there. After discovering a few items left behind by previous survivors, Jenn begins to trace the mysterious source responsible for their disappearance. In what is quite possibly one of the most magnificent antagonist reveals I’ve seen in a thriller, she realizes the cause comes from a menacing water monster that feasts on its prey at night.

As Jenn scrambles to protect herself while finding a way off the island, “Sweetheart” deepens into a stomach-churning slow-burn. The film’s constant switching between day and night is a classic yet somehow perfect way to build suspense, involving us in Jenn’s agony and helplessness but giving us enough room to breathe in between. Clemons’s fierce physical performance also anchors the nearly silent first act from drowning into a total bore. Known for more light-hearted comedies like “Dope” and “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” Clemons and her remarkable ability to swing from terrified and trapped to defiant and robust proves that she’s no one trick pony. At a certain point, though, it’s hard to tell where “Sweetheart” is going and what point it’s trying to make that hasn’t already been expressed in other films of the ilk.

During the taut second act, an underlying message does begin to emerge when Jenn’s boyfriend Lucas (Emory Cohen, “Brooklyn”) and friend Mia (Hanna Mangan-Lawrence, “Containment”) unexpectedly appear on the beach after floating in a raft for days. Jenn attempts to convince the two about the monster that lurks around the island, but Lucas dismisses her with a condescending, snarling “sweetheart ... ” Through this confrontation, “Sweetheart” makes it clear that Jenn’s journey is much more than just about the triumph of human adversity. The added struggle of getting Lucas to believe her is a clear reflection of how people who deny someone’s traumatic affliction, no matter how ludicrous it may seem, can be just as disturbing as the entity that causes the affliction. The emotional blow and social implications of Lucas’s thoughtless attitude is also a testament to the short but memorable performance of Cohen, who imbues his character with subtly and deceptively sinister motivations.

Despite this additional conflict, “Sweetheart” undercuts its wonderful escalation of tension with a third act that drags the film to the finish line. Some of the fresh limber pacing that came in the film’s first half gets lost in the final 30 minutes, where Jenn plots to defeat the monster once and for all. But even with a predictable ending, “Sweetheart” still comes out strong in its masterful final shot that amplifies the small-scale production into something (literally) larger and epic. What “Sweetheart” lacks in a powerful resolution for both its timely message and intense monster-versus-human action sequences, it makes up for with a solid sense of tone, a simple yet tight plot structure and a lead performance that drives the story to equally frightening and thrilling depths. More Kiersey Clemons in genre films, please.

‘Jawline’:

Do painfully superficial social media influencers deserve their own documentary? It’s a question that came to mind while watching Liza Mandelup’s “Jawline,” an equally fascinating and depressing cinematic study of a group of teenage boys who spend their precious years of youth building online platforms through live-broadcast outlets like YouCast and Instagram. These kids belong to the worst kind of Internet subculture, where flashy dream-guy appeal and Justin Bieber-like charm matter more than actual talent and capitalize on the lustful sensibilities of impressionable teen girls across America.

In an era where influencers, the lesser-known figures of the celebrity world, are taking over the online landscape one Tik Tok video at a time, “Jawline” intends to paint a sympathetic portrait of its subjects, showing us that they’re more than just a pretty face. And while the film is successful in capturing the complexity of their motivations and the poignant reality of the fans who worship them, the absence of commentary on the corrosive rise and impact of influencer culture detracts from giving us a fully layered picture.

“Jawline” primarily follows Austyn Tester, a 16-year-old from rural Tennessee with a business-minded drive to leave his working-class home for the Hollywood lifestyle. With its fly-on-the-wall style filmmaking, “Jawline” hones in on Tester’s experience and that of other like-minded boys his age to showcase the lengths they go to stimulate their hustle, whether it’s recording inspirational YouCast videos every night, traveling across states to perform at pricey conventions or venturing to meet-and-greets at the mall. Tester’s case is particularly intriguing, as he attempts to make something of himself despite not really having anything to show other than his consistently buoyant personality. As he suppresses his melancholy, Tester spreads love and positivity toward his hungry subscribers on his YouCast account, repeating over and over his mantra — “Sadness is worrying about what you don’t have” — in order to accumulate more social currency.

Part of the irony about making “Jawline” a cinéma vérité documentary is that the format is supposed to avoid passing judgment on its subjects. But in fact, Mandelup merely reveals and reinforces the artificiality of the characters she conveys. During one endearingly awkward sequence early on, Tester hangs out with a gaggle of his fans at his local food court. They fawn over him and trail behind him as he walks around, his phone in hand. Once outside, they plow him with requests — a picture, his phone number, a kiss on the lips — and being ever the gentleman, Tester reluctantly indulges in their desires. Frustrating as it is to watch this uncomfortable transaction unfold, “Jawline” treats this tension as a sincere reflection of the kind of tricky parasocial relationship most faux-celebs have with their admirers, where fame and desire are conflated into an experience that’s more fake and performative than authentic.

While traveling with Tester on his quest for stardom, “Jawline” doubles down on the troubling nature of this millennial phenomenon through depictions of the other major players in the influencer industry. Beside Tester, the biggest name in the film is Michael Weist, the monstrous, hyper-demanding 22-year-old manager of a group of other aspiring social media influencers based in LA. Like an Ari Gold incarnate for the Instagram Age, Weist is ruthless and cutthroat in his pursuit of supporting his clients, whom he treats with utter contempt. Despite being totally abhorrent and fussy, Weist is the most compelling aspect of “Jawline.” His unfiltered thoughts about building an illusory brand for these kids is as startling and mesmerizing to watch as his off-putting demeanor and corrupt mindset. It’s no surprise that he was also one of the co-organizers behind the infamous TanaCon, which was essentially the Fyre Festival for YouTube stars.

Despite the contrast in Tester and Weist’s personalities, “Jawline” seems to draw a dichotomy between their shared impulse for creative aggression. On the spectrum of opportunity, Tester is on the positive end, chasing his dreams with the hope of escaping the boredom of normal life, while Weist is on the negative end, with only money on his mind.

In addition to this juxtaposition for success, “Jawline” attempts to fill in the gaps of its rather aimless narrative by interviewing a series of fans, whose experiences with self-harm and bullying led them to look up to these boys, who offer them nothing but unadulterated love and support. Even with these disheartening glimpses into the psychological appeal of a rising teen influencer, “Jawline” still feels repetitive and incomplete in its messaging. Are we supposed to feel sympathy for these kids or relish in the absurdity of the emptiness in their endeavors? Perhaps both. Perhaps neither. Either way, “Jawline” does an adequate job of bringing a timely, widespread topic to life — even if the ends don’t always justify the means.