It’s particularly impressive when a movie whose premise alone seems to have been written with the intention of incurring heavy gasps can actually conjure up something rather genuine. Whereas Starred Up’s central maneuver — sticking a delinquent teenager in adult prison right alongside, as it just so happens, his no good father (“Oh my!”) — seems like the kind of contrivance that entails thick melodrama and Oscar reel-friendly climactic scenes, the movie plays everything close to the ground. It favors kindling over explosives, a paced climb over vertical leaps, and — most importantly — criminal men over criminal monsters.
In fact, the victory of the film is just how reasonable its characters seem from the get-go. While the crime and prison genres more often than not approach their antiheroes with the mission of giving audiences an unexpected look at the humanity within bad men, Starred Up takes the reverse — more original and perhaps more valuable — approach: slowly waking its viewers up to the badness that inflicts these humans.
Yes, we have an immediate understanding of how the malicious and unpredictable Eric (Jack O’Connell) wound up in prison ahead of his years, but at no point are we dealing with a character whose erraticism drags him all the way south of empathetic comprehension. Though a more patient and poised man, Eric’s father Neville (Ben Mendehlson) is too understood from all fronts: he’s a survivor whose Machiavellian instincts would have more than likely landed him in prison at one point or another. It’s this intellect and wisdom, though, that endears him to us. And to Eric.
We’re not forced to wade through a marshland of temperate drama before we see Eric and Neville “finally make up.” Right off the bat, we’re given the relationship the movie wants us to see, steeped in the conversation it wants us to have: one about masculinity. Between the two men, within the contexts of Eric’s mandatory group therapy sessions with counselor Oliver (Rupert Friend) and a collection of seasoned inmates — don’t worry, this flick never goes that false and sappy route that most therapy movies employ — and scattered throughout various corners of the prison, we witness talk of masculinity. But once again, Starred Up isn’t hitting us over the head with gaudy exclamations. The power of this movie is in its lack of interest in the dramatic and its preference, instead, of the humane.
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At last year's Sundance Film Festival, 26-year-old director Tony Bui scored a monster victory when his debut offering "Three Seasons," took three awards, including both the Grand Jury and Audience prizes for best picture. But despite being the toast of Park City, Utah, the film about post-war Vietnam opened quietly in May with a $47,000 debut weekend at the box office. It topped off its theatrical run in August with little more than $2 million in ticket sales.
Despite the assumption that Sundance success equals box-office success, the reality shows that more often than not, the films that win the festival's top awards have a tough time finding audiences in the real world. "I think it's just the nature of the types of films shown at Sundance," says Paul Dergarabedian of box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. "Generally, these films are not intended to be blockbusters and are more artistic in nature. The whole notion of the festival is quality of the work."
The Cinderella story of "The Blair Witch Project" filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez is often cited as the ultimate Sundance success. They were the guys with the $40,000 film that went on to gross more than $140 million. But what many fail to realize is that despite debuting at Sundance in 1999, "Blair Witch" didn't win a single prize there. It wasn't even a film in competition.
"'Blair Witch Project"'s are the Halley's comets of films," says Hollywood Reporter film writer Dana Harris. "They come every few years, and people don't realize how many indie films that do nothing come and go in between."
One of the films that fell through the commercial cracks was "Judy Berlin." The film won Eric Mendelsohn a directing award at the 1999 event. But while the film went on to work the festival scene, it never had a theatrical run in the United States.
"A lot of these films [that debut at Sundance] don't have distribution," Dergarabedian says. "And the reward of Sundance is that you might get a distribution deal, and your film gets seen. [But] a lot of movies go in and will not get distributed."
The argument that award winners at Sundance might not be representative of the general moviegoing community is a powerful one. Unfortunately, it fails to explain one of the strangest epilogues to the 1999 festival.
First-time filmmaker Gough Lewis made headlines last January with his documentary about a 22-year-old Singaporean honors-student-by-day/hard-core porn actress by night. To some, "Sex: The Annabel Chong Story," even more than "Blair Witch," was the talk of the festival. Its reach was strong and immediate: People were enthralled, outraged, disturbed and/or disgusted. But despite all the attention (and it received far, far more than either "Three Seasons" or "Judy Berlin"), the film has yet to see a domestic theatrical run. (It is finally slated to open in a limited release early next month).
In the case of "Sex," all the buzz may have actually hurt the film's chances -- as word eventually leaked that director Lewis had at one time been romantically linked to his subject. With his objectivity called into question, some believe Lewis destroyed any chance he had at making a legitimate, compelling feature.
"It didn't surprise me that ["Sex"] didn't get distribution," says Harris. "The film was a bit of a disappointment in that it was intellectually bankrupt and kind of broke the code of documentary filmmaking."
In the end, it really is the luck of the draw. Audiences are fickle, the fates are tricky, Hollywood's tough. Even some of Sundance's most-well-known alumni ("Clerks," "The Brothers McMullen" and "El Mariachi") couldn't summon the broad appeal to top $10 million at the domestic box office.
"At Sundance, you're lucky to get in at all," Dergarabedian says. "You're even luckier if you win and get a distribution deal. The formula you need at Sundance is not the same for a box-office hit.
"I don't think that's really the emphasis. The emphasis is on the quality and artistry of the work."