Sundance Film Festival 2015: Comedians get serious in new movies

Sarah Silverman, Shayne Coleman, Josh Charles and Skylar Gaertner star in “I Smile Back.”
Sarah Silverman, Shayne Coleman, Josh Charles and Skylar Gaertner star in “I Smile Back.”
(2015 Sundance Film Festival)

The Sundance Film Festival is often a place where film actors can try on new guises outside the high-pressure, pigeonholing world of mainstream Hollywood. But when the indie fest gets underway next month, it will bring a very particular kind of reinvention: comic performers with robust stage reputations taking on highly serious screen roles.

Sarah Silverman will star as a drug addict, Melissa Rauch will play a lost-soul former gymnast, Jack Black will try desperately to make his high-school past right and Jemaine Clement will play a struggling single dad, organizers said Wednesday.

“I think comedians are finding a lot of new ways to express themselves,” said Sundance programming director Trevor Groth.




Dec. 4, 10:38 a.m.: A previous version of this article stated the Sundance Film Festival ran from Jan. 22 to Feb. 11. It runs through Feb. 1.


The Park City, Utah, festival, which runs from Jan. 22-Feb. 1, has a high bar to meet this time. After generating just one Oscar best picture nominee in the three festivals between 2011 and 2013, the 2014 edition saw the premieres of “Boyhood” and “Whiplash,” two films currently in the thick of the awards race. Six documentaries that premiered at the festival earlier this year also made the Oscar shortlist earlier this week, including the Roger Ebert picture “Life Itself” and Proposition 8 film “The Case Against 8.”

Festival director John Cooper said he was “optimistic there’s going to be quite a few breakouts” at the 2015 edition.

Groth added, “I don’t think necessarily anything will follow in the footsteps of ‘Boyhood’ or ‘Whiplash,’ because those were singular films, but I do think there are films that you can envision what their life is going to be, and it’s an exciting one.”

Organizers unveiled the lineup on Wednesday in the first of a round of announcements over the coming days.

The U.S. dramatic competition, one of the festival’s most high-profile sections, will see the premieres of Adam Salky’s “I Smile Back,” in which Silverman plays a suburban mother dealing with a host of psychological and pharmacological issues. It will also bring Clement’s turn as a single dad and graphic novelist who finds himself in something of a romantic crisis in James Strouse’s “People, Places, Things.”

Black stars in Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel’s “The D Train,” a look at a 30-something man who tries to atone for high school ills. And Rauch co-wrote and stars in the former-gymnast tale “The Bronze,” directed by Bryan Buckley.

Indie-darling directors Andrew Bujalski and Kyle Patrick Alvarez will also unveil films in dramatic competition — the gym-set dramedy “Results” and fact-based period drama “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” respectively. The former stars Cobie Smulders and Guy Pearce and the latter features Ezra Miller and Olivia Thirlby.

Female filmmakers have also been a point of pride for Sundance. Cooper and Groth noted that women comprised about one-third of this year’s slate, a significant uptick over the Hollywood average. Some of the notable women directors include Kris Swanberg, who directed and co-wrote “Unexpected,” about a teacher and student who get pregnant at the same time, and Rania Attieh, who co-directed “H.,” about a meteor explosion over a small town.

Craig Zobel, whose harassment drama “Compliance” created a stir at the 2012 festival, is back with a new work: a post-apocalyptic love triangle titled “Z for Zachariah” that stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie and Chris Pine. The film is Zobel’s first in competition.

“Honestly, when I found out I was shocked,” said Zobel via email. “I had just sorta figured being in competition in Sundance wasn’t in the cards for me and had been at peace with it. So to find out we were not only accepted but invited to competition was a humbling surprise.”

The world dramatic competition, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, features a dose of star power as well, including Michael Fassbender in “Slow West,” a frontier romance set in 19th century America, and Nicole Kidman in “Strangerland,” a missing-child drama set in Australia.

Some 118 feature films — with 103 world premieres — have been selected from 29 countries out of more than 4,100 feature submissions, organizers said.

On the documentary side, the U.S documentary competition will showcase Matthew Heineman’s “Cartel Land,” a story about powerful drug cartels set on both sides of the U.S-Mexican border, and “Hot Girls Wanted,” Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus’ examination of the large number of young women who are joining the amateur porn industry.

Other U.S. documentary competition titles include Daniel Junge’s “Being Evel,” on daredevil Evel Knievel; Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s “Best of Enemies,” on the televised 1968 debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal; Louis Psihoyos’ endangered species investigation “Racing Extinction”; and Laura Gabbert’s “City of Gold,” on Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold.

Also in this first wave of announcements is the program for the section known as Next, which has been home to many of the buzziest films at the festival since the section’s inauguration in 2010. Among the selections playing Next this year looking to steal some thunder from the competition films will be Sean Baker’s “Tangerine,” Rick Alverson’s “Entertainment,” Josh Mond’s “James White” and Sebastian Silva’s “Nasty Baby.”

Sundance has also seen an increase in the number of formally adventurous films at recent editions.

The advent of smaller cameras and trend toward constant documentation has enabled filmmakers to capture footage in new and unexpected ways.

Two years ago, a first-time director named Randy Moore sent shock waves through Park City with “Escape From Tomorrow,” a scripted movie he shot on the sly at Disney theme parks with camera phones and other below-the-radar devices.

This year sees the pattern continue. In "(T)error,” Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe chronicle a government counterterrorism operation in real time. Nonfiction filmmaker Crystal Moselle documents a half-dozen teenagers who’ve spent their lives in a New York housing project, connecting to the outside world only via film reenactments. And Steven Riley’s “Listen to Me Marlon” is a film culled from the private audio archives of Marlon Brando.