January 27, 2017

ShowbuzzDaily Sundance Film Festival Reviews: “Sidney Hall,” “To the Bone,” “The Little Hours” & “Beach Rats”


SIDNEY HALL (no distrib):  Shawn Christensen’s literary drama (written with Jason Dolan) is initially engaging as a modern-day sort of J.D. Salinger story, told simultaneously across three time periods, with Sidney Hall (Logan Lerman throughout) presented as an arrogant but troubled teen, an acclaimed novelist, and a middle-aged man who’s run away from the world.  The mystery of how Hall got from A to B to C is kept tantalizingly unclear for a while, as we follow his halting romance with a neighbor (Elle Fanning, luminous as always but having some trouble when her character ages out of her teens), and his strange partnership with a jock (a very creditable Blake Jenner).  Sadly, once the pieces start being filled in, Sidney Hall becomes increasingly implausible and overwrought–or as Salinger might have put it, “phony” and “lousy.”  A plot twist involving Kyle Chandler as a mysterious investigator on the track of the adult Sidney is, shall we say, unfortunate, and other strong performers like Nathan Lane, Michelle Monaghan and Tim Blake Nelson either have not enough or all too much to do.  The fictional Sidney may not have needed an editor to oversee his genius, but the filmmakers of Sidney Hall definitely did.

BEACH RATS (no distrib):  Sundance has always been a thriving market for stories of closeted teens agonizing over their sexuality, and Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats is the latest to join the ranks.  Its protagonist Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is having a particularly difficult time, having grown up in a working-class Italian-Catholic neighborhood in Coney Island, among friends who are pure macho.  He pretends to desire the mostly clueless Simone (Madeleine Weinstein) even as he’s trolling gay chat and dating websites and setting up surreptitious assignations, and also has to cope with the recent death of his father.  He’s miserable, all right, and Hittman makes sure the rest of us are too.  Dickinson gives an effectively neo-Channing Tatum sensitive hunk performance, and Hittman aptly captures the look and feel of the local citizenry.  None of it, though, carries the film beyond Indie 101.

TO THE BONE (Netflix):  The veteran TV writer/producer Marti Noxon’s first project as a big-screen filmmaker can’t fully avoid the tropes of its genre.  Noxon is telling a very personal story here, but we nevertheless have a troubled young woman (Lily Collins as Ellen) with a serious disorder (anorexia) placed into a group home by an unconventional doctor (Keanu Reeves as Dr. Beckham) as a last-ditch chance to save her life, said home including a conveniently cute guy (Alex Sharp as Luke)–and we’ve all been here many times before, on screens large and small.  There are moments in To the Bone that feel overly familiar and even predictable.  For the most part, though, Noxon keeps the focus on the dynamics within that group home, and much of that feels fresh, aided by Noxon’s sharp writing.  Collins, who has discussed her own eating disorders, is almost scarily committed to her performance, a mass of hostility and terror that captures Noxon’s view of living with that disease.  Reeves fully redeems his unexpected casting, and the supporting players includes Carrie Preston and Lili Taylor as Ellen’s step- and biological mothers, as well as Liana Liberato as her supportive half-sister and Leslie Bibb as a fellow patient, all of their characters well drawn.  While not a conceptual reinvention of its form, To the Bone is an unusually strong entry.

THE LITTLE HOURS (Gunpowder & Sky):  Jeff Baena’s comedy claims inspiration from Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” and the basic plot is built around one of its stories (another likely inspiration was the Court Jester sketch from Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex), but mostly it’s an exercise in watching medieval nuns say and do naughty things in the service of some giggles.  The central nuns are played by Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, and Kate Micucci, their mother superior is Molly Shannon, the abbey’s priest is John C. Reilly, and the local bishop is Fred Armisen, so there’s plenty of good company here.  (Nick Offerman, Adam Pally, Paul Reiser and Jemima Kirke are among those who turn up in smaller roles.)  The plot hinges on a studly commoner (Dave Franco) who takes refuge at the abbey in the guise of a deaf-mute, and the mischief that the nuns get into with and around him.  It serves as excuse enough for lots of rude language and ruder sex.  Baena, whose previous films include Life After Beth and Joshy, isn’t much of a storyteller, so the gags don’t really build even when they’re intended to, but his script provides ample material for his wicked cast to romp for a somewhat too-extended 90 minutes.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."