WORST OF THE FEST (RUNNERS-UP)
It’s no great feat to spot influences and even individual scenes that appear and reappear in film after film, but it’s rare to see a movie’s entire plot transposed into another. Yet Bart Freundlich’s indie drama lifts its entire B-story, of an English professor and inveterate gambler (Michael Shannon) whose personal connection to a key player could save or end his life, from The Gambler (and its 2014 remake). The primary narrative is no less moldy: a high school basketball sensation, desperately trying to figure out his future and be a better player/man. Yes, there is a down-to-the-wire big game. Yes, there is a pregnancy scare. Yes, there is a one-on-one with his small, petty father. Freundlich gets at the occasional moment of truth (like the feeling, as you become an adult, that you may not know your parents at all), and Shannon manages to put together a fully formed character – you get how he’d draw people in, and would abuse that closeness. But it’s the kind of movie that clearly doesn’t know how far ahead of it we all are.
The only thing worse than a prototypical “Sundance movie” – full of familiar faces, strained quirk, comings-of-age, and precious little flourishes – is one that clearly got the pass from Sundance, and ends up occupying your time elsewhere. Such is the case with this story of a rudderless piano player (Johnny Simmons, from Scott Pilgrim) who falls for an older woman (Amy Landecker) as his long-term relationship is falling to pieces. Scene after scene plays like masturbatory fantasy, though the script has an oddly retro worldview where a sexually aggressive woman is either terrifying or comical; it’s tempting to say writers Robert Schwartzman and Benjamin Font don’t write women well, but the truth is they don’t write anyone particularly well. Landecker does the best she can with her reheated Mrs. Robinson role, but even she can’t rescue it. Schwartzman, making his directorial debut, is the brother of Jason and Talia Shire (who both make brief, effective appearances); he’s thus the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, and the cousin of Sofia and Roman. What can I tell you? Not everyone can go into the family business.