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Sundance 2013: ‘Concussion’ looks at lesbian prostitution

Robin Weigert, the star of "Concussion."
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

When Abby, a 42-year-old mother of two, gets knocked hard on the head with a ball, something inside her is shaken loose. And it’s not a tooth.

Maybe it’s the recognition that she’s stuck in a sexless marriage to another woman (Julie Fain Lawrence). Perhaps it’s the dawning of middle age, or professional boredom, and the panic that comes with that realization. Or maybe Abby (Robin Weigert), the central character in “Concussion,” playing at the Sundance Film Festival, has lead a life of quiet desperation for too long and just needs to do something different—dangerously different.

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Whatever the motivation, Abby’s escape is extraordinary: She becomes a lesbian prostitute, making hundreds of dollars a day by having sex with other women. What starts as some sort of personal test suddenly becomes a compulsion, threatening not only Abby’s marriage but also her own mental health.

“You just need to like something,” Abby’s partner tells her, not knowing what’s really happening when she leaves their suburban home for a Manhattan loft. The problem for Abby: In some way, she really enjoys what she’s doing—she has rediscovered desire, acceptance and meaning.

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SUNDANCE: Full coverage

Writer-director Stacie Passon’s dramatic competition entry is as provocative as any Sundance film so far this festival, no small feat in a lineup overflowing with stories about sex, but Passon isn’t interested in titillation. The sex scenes in “Concussion” are shot intimately, not pruriently, and are designed to dramatize how much is missing in Abby’s life.

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Passon, making her feature debut, said the movie was inspired by her own minor head injury, when one of her kids beaned her with a baseball. She awoke in a “haze,” she said, which “threw me into this headlong mid-life crisis.”

Passon said the lesbian prostitution at the film’s center “does exist…It is real and it is evolving.” Yet the movie isn’t about prostitution, she said. It’s about growing up and growing old, especially with another person.

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“It’s impossible to know when you’re 25 years old what marriage looks like when you’re 40,” Passon said. “Marriage is hard. And things happen.”

Passon said directing the sex scenes was made easier by the courage of her actors. “I think the best directing in this case is casting,” Passon said. “What was really important to me was what these very brave women were comfortable with. I was as disarmed by Robin as you were.”

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Weigert, best known for playing Calamity Jane in “Deadwood,” said she spent three months training in a gym “with a vengeance” for the role so that she would have “very little thought about how I might look” on camera and could “drop down into something I wasn’t totally in command of.”

In one scene that called on Abby to be roughed up, Weigert explained to a co-star, “Let’s try this and don’t be afraid to hurt me.”

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Weigert said in her mind Abby is “a starving person that you’re seeing, and someone who didn’t know she was starving for a long time.”

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