Back in my day, if you wanted to see the chilling thriller “Wind River,” the lovably goofy comedy “Brigsby Bear” or the moving documentary “STEP,” you had to walk uphill in the snow, survive almost daily blizzards or single-digit temperatures and, in one case, an Uber driver who missed the entrance to a theater and then proceeded to drive in reverse a thousand feet or more in the turn lane.
By “my day,” I mean January at the Sundance Film Festival.
Now, all you have to do is buy a ticket, as all three movies, some of my favorites of the entire fest, hit local theaters this weekend.
To be honest, though, along with rewatching these films, I wouldn’t mind revisiting some of those freezing temperatures.
“Wind River” A
Taylor Sheridan writes men who feel like they could crawl off the screen, mop the floor with you, steal your popcorn and your girl, and get right back to work without missing a beat.
After scripting “Sicario” and the Oscar-nominated “Hell or High Water,” Sheridan makes his directing debut with “Wind River,” the conclusion to his unofficial trilogy about the modern American West.
Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a tracker employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to hunt wildlife that endangers livestock in the brutal terrain in and around Lander, Wyoming. During one of these hunts, he discovers the frozen corpse of his late daughter’s 18-year-old best friend. When rookie FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, Renner’s fellow Avenger) flies in from Las Vegas, overmatched and underdressed in just a windbreaker, she asks Cory to help her hunt a different type of predator.
The first thing he does is get her into some real clothes. The weather is nearly as frigid as Cory’s relationship with his ex-wife (Julia Jones), whose family still lives on the Wind River Indian Reservation where the body was found. Since the only way to reach the crime scene is a five-mile ride on a snowmobile, without the proper gear, Cory tells her, she’d be dead by the time they made it there.
As “Wind River’s” mystery unfolds, it’s accented by sudden bursts of suspense. And its remote, atypical setting feels as though it’s a part of a different world.
Still haunted by the loss of his daughter three years ago, Renner’s Cory seems nearly as out of place in the 21st century as Agent Banner does in the frozen wilderness. He’s a cowboy, a sharpshooter, and he even makes his own bullets. The only modern thing about him is that he’ll talk about his feelings, to an extent, as the grief slowly escapes from him like air from a leaky life raft. It’s as good as I’ve ever seen Renner, including his Oscar-nominated turn in “The Hurt Locker.”
He’s aided by a strong performance from Olsen and terrific supporting work from Graham Greene as Ben, the tribal police chief who has a total of six officers to patrol an area the size of Rhode Island.
“Wind River” was one of the best movies I saw at Sundance. Seven months later, it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2017.
“Brigsby Bear” B+
James (Kyle Mooney, “Saturday Night Live”) is an extremely sheltered 25-year-old who lives in a bunker with his parents, Ted (Mark Hamill) and April (Jane Adams), and obsesses about the children’s educational series “Brigsby Bear.” James has Brigsby sheets, posters and action figures, an ever-present “It’s Brigsby” T-shirt and all 736 episodes on VHS.
Then one night, law enforcement officers raid the bunker, arrest Ted and April and return James to his birth parents, Greg (Matt Walsh) and Louise (Michaela Watkins), from whom he was abducted as an infant.
His teenage sister, Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins), has no idea what to make of this weird manchild, who’s basically what would happen if Napoleon Dynamite and Garth from “Wayne’s World” had a baby, then that baby was abducted and raised in a bunker.
But she and her high school friends ultimately relate to James and his passion for Brigsby more than their parents, who take him to a psychiatrist (Claire Danes) to help him get over his obsession. “You know,” Greg says, “there’s a bunch of other shows that we can watch on our television right now.” James is clearly baffled. “So they make other shows?” he asks.
When Greg takes him to the movies, James asks if the same person makes every movie. Told that anyone can do it, James begins storyboarding a Brigsby movie, which he films with his new friends.
On the surface, it’s as though Mooney, co-writer Kevin Costello and director Dave McCary were watching “Room” and collectively said, “You know how we can make this hilarious?”
There’s a sweet innocence to James that makes the comedy feel more human than the outrageous premise would suggest. It helps make “Brigsby Bear” a triumphant celebration of the outsider in all of us.
Cori Grainger dreams of attending Johns Hopkins University, with its annual cost of $60,000, despite the fact that her stepfather just lost his job. “It’s not the first time the power’s been off,” she says matter-of-factly. “It happens.” Once, she reveals, she was homeless and didn’t even know it.
“My community is pretty poisonous,” Blessin Giraldo admits. “I’m not gonna lie.” There’s no food in her refrigerator, and the food stamps are still days away. “But it’s OK,” she says. Blessin is more worried about her young nephew eating than herself.
These are the situations for which the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women was founded. Not just to make sure all of its students graduate, but that they get accepted into college to help break the cycle of poverty. And it’s through the school’s first graduating class and these members of its dance team that “STEP” finds its footing.
Unfolding in the shadow of the riots over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, “STEP” shows Cori, Blessin and their teammates balancing college and financial aid applications, interviews and essays with rehearsals for a multistate competition.
Parents may be unreliable, boyfriends may be unsupportive, but the step team is always there as an escape from the daily struggle of being poor, black and female in today’s America.
Raw, emotional, yet ultimately uplifting, director Amanda Lipitz’s documentary won the Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at Sundance. And if there’s ever been a weekend in need of some inspirational filmmaking, this is it.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.