In it, Melanie Lynskey plays a 35-year-old newly divorced woman who, having no place to go and no skills to get there, ends up back in her childhood bedroom living with her dad and her high-tension wire of a mother (Blythe Danner). In Sarah Koskoff's script, Lynskey brings into that same bedroom the 19-year-old Oberlin-bound son of a potential client of her lawyer father. Dad needs that client in order to restore his retirement plan, wrecked by the collapse of the market. That's sort of the trifecta of what's going on in the films here: ingratiating characters in vehicles that almost pass for situation comedies, knocked off their pins doing their best to reinvent or restore the status quo after the storm — financial or physical — that has lowered the boom on the American outlook.
Jonathan Kasdan's THE FIRST TIME is cute about suburban teens nervously circling their virginity. There's a little of another Sundance hit, the Diablo Cody–written Juno, in Kasdan's characters, as they let out a slipstream of stylized teen jargon for audiences to eavesdrop on. Britt Robertson plays a high- school junior named Aubrey, who crosses paths with Dave (Dylan O'Brien), a Columbia-bound senior who wants to be a teacher and ends up learning a thing or two about the inner life of teenage girls. Inviting him up to her room, Aubrey reassures the nervous Dave, "It's not like I'm going to doink you or anything." Kasdan gives some of the best banter to a 250-pound linebacker of a kid everyone just refers to as Big Corporation (Lamarcus Tinker).
LIBERAL ARTS, written and directed by Josh Radnor, features him in the lead as a 35-year-old college admissions officer who — like everyone else in these movies — is newly divorced. Returning to his alma mater to celebrate the retirement of his old professor, played by Sundance fave Richard Jenkins, he runs smack into Elizabeth Olsen, playing a 19-year-old sophomore. Sound familiar? Time for another July-April affair!
Olsen, who landed on the indie radar last year with Martha Marcy, etc., was back in Sundance in a second film, Rodrigo Cortés's RED LIGHTS, as part of the largest star vehicle cast of the year, including Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy playing academic sleuths who specialize in busting showbiz mentalists as frauds. The film builds to a crescendo with the takedown of Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), a Uri Geller-style spoon-bender on his comeback tour. But the film, even with Sigourney doing the strong embattled woman thing, is a Twinkie load of empty calories.
A film that finds yet another way of working the unlikely-loves angle is Ben Lewin's THE SURROGATE. Set in Berkeley in 1988, it's based on the true story of an affair between poet Mark O'Brien, who lived his entire life in an iron lung following childhood polio, and a sexual surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene. Despite the West Coast setting, both O'Brien and Cohen Greene were Boston-area natives, here brought to life by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, and the accent in paradise is as thick as chowda. Walking out on stage post-screening on a crutch resulting from his own bout of childhood polio, Lewin (Georgia, Paperback Romance) at 65 is one of the older directors to make a Sundance debut, but he's made a crowd-pleaser in a genre that usually ends sadly (The Sea Inside, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, etc.). Though the circumstances are unique, the story about the one that got away is pretty universal, and the cast (including Sundance perennial William H. Macy playing a priest who all but pulls down the sheets for O'Brien) was cited by the jury for its work as an ensemble. It was snapped up early by Fox Searchlight.