Around 7:30am on the third day of Sundance, I boarded the shuttle to the Eccles Center, where The End of the Tour was screening. It's hard to explain how nervous I was about this film, based on David Lipsky's book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, because it stars Jason Segel as the author David Foster Wallace, whose work is very important to me. I must have told dozens of people that it would either be tremendous, or horrific. Early reports from the previous evening's screening were positive, but I was still holding my breath.
And at the end of the film, I let it out in a shuddery, exuberant sigh. James Ponsoldt (who also made one of my favorite films, The Spectacular Now) knew exactly what to do with this one. What we get is mostly Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky, a Rolling Stone reporter who joined Wallace on the last leg of his Infinite Jest tour, right when Wallace's fame was at its apex but before he'd been canonized.
Segel nails Wallace's peculiar state of being, from his lumbering bear walk to the bandana and scruff. I've been listening to recordings of Wallace reading his own work; apparently Segel has too. But more importantly, the screenplay captures everything that makes readers fall in love with Wallace, particularly his nonfiction: the almost crippling self-awareness mixed with a pleasantly affectionate desire to please. Wallace is a writer obsessed with his reader, obsessed with empathy and cconnection, something he finds, tentatively, in Lipsky.
And so it's those moments when Eisenberg's Lipsky crosses protocol—he is a journalist, after all—and reminds Wallace that this is really all for a profile of him, one where he can be portrayed any way Lipsky wants that his face falls, and it breaks your heart. But the film also functions as a reminder of how much power journalists can have, and of the responsibility, terror, and corrosive effect on your soul that kind of writing can have. (Note: being a critic is very similar.) The film has been picked up for distribution by A24.
Then I ran off to I Am Michael, the first feature from Justin Kelly, which stars James Franco as Michael Glatze, a gay rights activist turned evangelical pastor (who repudiated his former identification). Zachary Quinto is great in it as Glatze's boyfriend. This is bound to be a fraught film for any religious audience; the film is based on the New York Times article “My Ex-Gay Friend” by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, in which the author tells Glatze's story and wonders what exactly is going on here.
It will probably be marketed as a film about gay rights and identity, which it is, but it works much better as a film about the dangers of public self-disclosure, particularly on the Internet. A great deal of Glatze's turmoil comes from the need to tell his blog readers about his development, and it seems at least reasonable to imagine that his struggle with panic attacks and with figuring his life out comes from needing to write about it online.
But that's not the central story: really, I Am Michael—you can tell from the title—asks an important question: where do we get our identities from? And is that good? At the beginning of the film, Glatze talks about the line between being attracted to people of the same sex and taking on the “gay identity”; later, after his conversion and his announcement that he is now heterosexual, he has a similar run-in at the Bible college he's attending. He eagerly wants to learn about the Bible and follow the paths of righteousness he finds there, but takes umbrage when a professor tries to tell the class that they need to fear themselves.
For Glatze, the struggle is between following one's own path and being part of a group that has rules for itself, and that's an old question worth considering. It's also worth noting that with a (quite) different sort of filmmaking, this very story could almost have been made as a classic Christian/faith-based inspirational tale of conversion, which means its story is unsettling, no matter who the viewer is. (The film does not yet have a distributor.)
My last film of the day was Mississippi Grind, the latest from Sundance regulars Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, who also made Half Nelson and Sugar. This one stars Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds in some cross between a gambling flick and a road trip buddy movie, where Mendelsohn is a sort of sad-sack middle-aged gambling addict near the end of his rope and Reynolds is the devil-may-care younger man who waltzes into town and suggests he start really living.
Everything about Mississippi Grind is great fun, and it ends much better than I was expecting (though one could perhaps make the argument that the film ought to have been a little firmer on gambling addiction). It's shot in the pair's characteristic style, all darks and saturated color, and with a shaky handheld camera sometimes to put you inside the character's state of mind. And its core is a sweet, moral story about how our vices are our vices, but the world is also full of love, and even trust.
That said, there isn't anything particularly heavy to Mississippi Grind. At the Q&A after the screening, Fleck said they'd originally written the film as a comedy, but wound up striking most of the jokes and ended with something more like a dramedy. So I expect it will be a great crowd-pleaser, but there aren't a lot of great life lessons. Most of the fun comes from watching two great actors bounce off each other marvelously. And that's a good thing to watch. (The film does not yet have a distributor.)
Interesting note: fully half the films I'd seen by the end of the day on Saturday were talky road trip buddy comedies starring two guys (A Walk in the Woods, The End of the Tour, Mississippi Grind). Make of that what you will.