The highs and lows of being a member of the press at Sundance 2015

Feb. 6, 2015, 12:48 a.m.
Ine Wilmann stars in “Homesick” at Sundance. Courtesy of Maipo Films.

After seven blissful days in an unseasonably warm Park City, my time at the Sundance Film Festival came to a close last Wednesday — although I still felt like I was there in spirit until the festival’s close on Sunday, so busy was I catching up on screeners and coverage at home for the remainder of the festival. At the time of writing, I’ve seen 30 films from this year’s festival, and I did surprisingly well. The closest I came to duds were “Cronies,” “Dope” and “Strangerland,” and even those had merits, as well as directors — black or female — that don’t tend to be well-represented in Hollywood.

Having spent last year trying to have a quintessential Sundance experience, chasing American films with stars, I decided to aim for the lower profile films this year, especially from foreign or female directors. The result was a truly excellent festival, full of great films and discoveries of new talents. After seeing the terrific Norwegian drama “Homesick” on Day Two, I spent the remainder of the festival talking the film up to everyone I encountered, especially fellow journalists whom I hoped would help give it some recognition in the press. It’s one of my favorite films of the festival, and it’s one that almost nobody saw. Slightly better covered in the press was Chloë Zhao’s wonderful debut, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” about family ties on the Pine Ridge reservation in North Dakota. It’s a touching story of the bond between brother and sister and the many half-siblings they share.

"Most Likely to Succeed." Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
“Most Likely to Succeed.” Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

There were also several chance encounters with Stanford alumni, whether it was waving to the Stanford Daily Alumnus Scott Renshaw in the press line, or interviewing Stanford alumni attached to this year’s slate of films. When I went to interview director Greg Whiteley, whose documentary “Most Likely To Succeed” tackles the need for education reform in the 21st century, I also ended up meeting and interviewing the executive producer of the film, Ted Dintersmith, who happens to also hold a Ph.D. from Stanford’s department Management Science and Engineering, the department where I’m currently pursuing my Ph.D. Whiteley and Dintersmith were so excited about being interviewed by an engineering Ph.D. student — a detail I usually try to leave out of interviews lest I lose precious time with my subjects — that they ended up interviewing me for the first five minutes. Luckily, their next interview had been cancelled, so we spent an hour talking about Montessori schools, STEM education, the stupidity of the SATs, and of course, Stanford.

Other personal highlights of the festival included getting to meet and pet Body, the dog who starred in the remarkable Hungarian film “White God” as Hagen, an abandoned dog who winds up leading a dog rebellion against their human oppressors. I had the distinction of being first in line three hours early for the press screening of Noah Baumbach’s newest comedy — the wonderful “Mistress America,” co-written by and starring Greta Gerwig — the day after its world premiere, which had generated a lot of positive buzz. Needless to say, the screening was packed. And my review of Guy Maddin’s inventive but puzzling “The Forbidden Room,” which had the most walkouts I’d encountered at the festival, was quoted in The Irish Times.

Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke star in "Mistress America." Photo by Sam Levy. courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke star in “Mistress America.” Photo by Sam Levy. courtesy of Sundance Institute.

I did have a few mishaps. One director I interviewed was so impressed with the microphone attachment I had for my iPhone that he picked it up to examine it, accidentally turning off the recording in the process. It wasn’t until 10 minutes later — the best 10 minutes — that I discovered I’d lost precious audio, which I’d be forced to summarize instead of quote. I got extra time with him, but it just wasn’t the same the second time through. I was much more careful after that. The shoddy internet connection I had throughout Park City also meant a surprising number of names got misspelled on first publishing. Despite my best intentions, I never made it out to a screening before 10 a.m., so I missed out on a few films I’d really wanted to see — most notably, Bay Area filmmaker Jennifer Phang’s sci-fi film “Advantageous.”

The best part of the festival was, as always, the films and talking about the films. I finally got to meet other film critics from across the country with whom I’ve talked on Twitter but hadn’t actually met in person. That’s also how I discovered that New York Magazine has interns who type up your interview transcripts for you; I spent the next week daydreaming about having my own transcript monkey.

My favorite film of the festival was still “Girlhood,” Céline Sciamma’s third film, which I raved about at its world premiere in Cannes. I also fell in love with John Crowley’s “Brooklyn,” a story about a young Irish woman (Saorise Ronan) immigrating to America in the 1950s, based on Colm Toíbin’s novel. I was positively delighted by the British stop-motion-animated children’s film “Shaun The Sheep” by the makers of “Wallace and Gromit.” I left Park City excited about getting a chance to catch up with some of the festival’s biggest crowd-pleasers — from the horror film “The Witch” to the cancer drama “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” — when they get distributed in cinemas across the country later this year. I just hope that some of my under-the-radar favorites will get another chance to shine.

Contact Alexandra Heeney at aheeney ‘at’

Alexandra Heeney writes film, theater and jazz reviews. She has covered the Sundance Film Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival and her favorite, the Toronto International Film Festival. As a Toronto native, the lack of Oxford commas and Canadian spelling in this bio continue to keep her up at night. In her spare time, Alex does research on reducing the environmental impact of food waste for her PhD in Management Science and Engineering.

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