The biggest thrill of the Sundance Film Festival is getting beyond the hype and the star sightings and the parties and the big premieres, and digging deep into the catalog to find some excellent smaller films. Yesterday I found the first one of this year’s fest in to.get.her, Erica Dunton’s striking ensemble-based character drama in the festival’s “NEXT” category.
to.get.her’s secrets are revealed slowly. A teenage girl is leaving for a weekend at the beach with her soon-to-be-stepfather and four friends who they’ll pick up at the airport. There’s domestic tension evident on several levels. The girls get to the beachhouse, kick the stepfather to the curb, and vow to embark on The Night of No Consequences. That’s about as far as it’s prudent for a plot summary to go. Suffice to say that sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll ensue, strange things begin to happen, and by the time you’ve left the theater you’ve been on a wild emotional ride.
Some of the critical reaction so far has been puzzling, even nonsensical. One review from a major industry publication was written by a critic who very clearly didn’t see the end of the film. Others have made ridiculous comments—a character is badly written because that character is morally reprehensible? Really? Like those poorly executed roles turned in by Bale and Hopkins in American Psycho and Silence of the Lambs? But there has been positive feedback, as well.
to.get.her is not a perfect movie, by any means. The character arc of one of the five girls feels a bit underwritten. The gauzy feel of the cinematography takes some getting used to. And some of the acting is a bit flat, although only by a few adults—the five lead actresses range from good to excellent, and Jazzy de Lisser and Adwoa Aboah, in particular, seem poised for long careers. The beautiful de Lisser demonstrates a remarkable ability to play behind and beneath the lines that often obscure her characters’ motivations, as well as emanating a deep sadness without resorting to the pouting and sulking that many young actresses hide behind. And Aboah has a natural gentleness and goodness that create an immediate affinity with her character, as well as a lithe, light body language that adds a physical dimension to her softness. It’s like casting Siena Miller and Cate Blanchett in a little indie film, except that these two actresses, longtime best friends, are only 18 years old and playing their first film roles. Remarkable.
The camera work is both visually interesting and innovative (most of the film is shot with a 600mm lens, which means the camera was generally two blocks away during filming). Matthew Petersen and Andrew Sleet’s production design, especially in several dreamlike sequences in a seaside bar, is gorgeous. And the film explores some issues—abuse, suicide, trust, broken families—that are crucially important for adults and their children to be able to talk about. Dunton has given us a deeply moving and important film, on many levels. There’s a two-minute scene in a club bathroom whose emotional impact alone justifies the ticket. The film holds many rewards for the viewer. Especially when you see the whole thing.