Sundance 2015: 'Dope,' 'Earl' and the festival of many bets

'Dope,' 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' and 'Diary of a Teenage Girl' are some of the breakouts of Sundance

The coming-of-age movie is as natural a sight at Sundance as traffic, late-night screenings and James Franco. But this year the festival seems to be doubling down on the stuff.

As the 2015 edition of the preeminent U.S. film gathering wraps up this weekend, the two movies that have emerged as the clear breakouts — Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" and Rick Famuyiwa’s "Dope" — both fall squarely in the coming-of-age genre.

The movies garnered some strong distributor buzz and bids, a $7-million sale for "Dope" (to  Open Road and Sony) and mid-high seven figures for "Earl" (to Fox Searchlight).

Nor do their similarities end with big checks from Hollywood entities. Each movie is about a male high school senior coping with unexpected trauma (a friend with cancer in "Earl" and an entanglement with drug dealers in a gritty part of Los Angeles in “Dope).

Each features a prominent black character and ‎touches on race issues.

And each also has a kind of light and offbeat touch, with plenty of Sundance styling like animation or split screens or clever voiceovers, despite its serious setting.

Meanwhile, another sideways coming-of-age movie, Marielle Heller’s 1970s-set “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” has taken its own place in the Park City limelight.

The Kristen Wiig-starrer features a dose of the taboo (young woman has affair with mother’s beau) and offers its own artiness. The main character (Bel Powley) is an aspiring comic book artist, and the film is derived from Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel. Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film for a couple million; it will join the coming-of-age brigade.

If a festival is judged by its breakouts, this year's Sundance will be evaluated by how the wider world likes this trio of films.

That wider world will have plenty of chances to see these and other movies. The talk among the industry community at Sundance this year has been of pricey buys, which translates into robust rollouts down the road.

The highest dollar total was for “Brooklyn,” John Crowley’s immigrant love story starring Saiorse Ronan, which was purchased for $9 million by Fox Searchlight. The sale was a far cry from the doldrums of the last few years, when anything more than $5 million was a rarity. (Last year no sale topped $3.5 million.)

All of this is hardly a guarantee, of course, that Sundance movies will actually succeed in gaining those broader audiences. Some of the high prices had as much to do with new buyers hungry for films and willing to open up their wallets (see new distributor Orchard shelling out a surprising $4 million for the Adam Scott comedy “The Overnight”). After all, the most successful commercial release for a Sundance acquisition last year was "Whiplash," which has yet to even reach $8 million in ticket receipts.

But the movie mix may in fact be a little different this year, broader and more commercial, for better and/or worse. “Brooklyn” is the kind of audience-friendly prestige drama that in another era a studio would have made itself (and for a lot more than $9 million).

In fact, the project was floating around Hollywood for a while, looking for a studio home. Searchlight executives passed on producing it, waited to see how it turned out as an independently financed production, then pounced on it after they saw how well it turned out.

A similar dynamic for a very different film was at work for “The Bronze,” Melissa Rauch's raunchy comedy about a washed-up Olympian. Because Rauch isn’t Seth Rogen, she and husband/writing partner Winston Rauch couldn’t get the green light as a traditional $20-million comedy at a Warner Bros. or Sony. They were able to get it financed independently, though, and took it to Sundance. After it screened last week, Relativity Media stepped in to scoop it up for $3 million, a veritable bargain.

“Brooklyn” and “The Bronze” are movies that easily could have debuted somewhere other than Sundance, perhaps a Toronto or Berlin for the former and a studio screening room for the latter. But they are here, giving the festival either a more diverse or less traditional feel, depending on your point of view.

Either way, it ensures there will be a lot more Sundance bets out there, testing the viability of a lot of different Hollywood rules and careers.

Of course, a market does not a festival make. To wit: Documentaries, less prone to big deals, have this year shown their usual wide range. "The Russian Woodpecker" (Ukrainian artists go on hunt for Chernobyl conspiracy theory) and more traditional bio-films such as "Being Evel" and "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” all received strong receptions. Look for some of these and others to make the Oscar grade and/or become art-house and VOD hits in the months ahead.

One of the most notable docs was Crystal Moselle’s "The Wolfpack," about six boys who grow up in an apartment in a low-income neighborhood, held there by their father with little to do but watch and reenact movies.

The boys were raised by the Quentin Tarantino and Peter Jackson movies that became their companions, which in a sense makes it a coming-of-age movie too. Is prominence at the festival ensure that Sundance, for all its expansions, found ways to stay close to those coming-of-age roots.

Other films put further twists on the form. In James Ponsoldt’s well-received “The End of the Tour,” a young journalist played by Jesse Eisenberg becomes who he is thanks to key interactions with David Foster Wallace. (Wallace is played by Jason Segel, who gave one of the breakout performances of the festival, as did Sarah Silverman as an addict in “I Smile Back,” a "Cake”-like moment of reinvention for the comic performer. As for Franco, he was getting good reviews for his turns as an anti-gay activist in I Am Michael" and a multiple murderer in “True Story.")

Nor is the maturation process limited to the young. In "I'll See You in My Dreams," a tour de force vehicle for Blythe Danner (put her in the Oscar race this year and she’d be nominated), who plays a woman reconciling to her station in life. It's one of several movies at the youth-oriented festival focusing on older characters in their own coming-of-age stories. Sundance this year did some of the things it did before. It just did them a little differently.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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