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Sundance Film Festival 2013: Lovelace and The East

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Sundance Film Festival 2013: <em>Lovelace</em> and <em>The East</em>

With Lovelace, directors Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein have attempted to bring the definitive story of porn icon Linda Lovelace to the big screen, starring Amanda Seyfried in the title role. With a script penned by Andy Bellin, the film has approached the complexities of Lovelace’s early career and later anti-porn stance by generally glossing over them, relying on camp humor and an overly stylized aesthetic. The result: a flashy biopic filled with celebrity cameo after celebrity cameo, but very little substance.

The movie doles out Lovelace’s story quickly, jumping frantically from her days as a naïve and sexually conservative teen to her awkward courtship with future husband, manager, and abuser Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), to her lessons in the art of oral sex (unseen on screen, of course) and her fleeting post-Deep Throat stardom and later denunciation of her former life. While the supporting cast, featuring James Franco, Sharon Stone, Chris Noth, and Chloë Sevigny (the list literally goes on and on), is amusing simply for the novelty of seeing them dressed in kitschy ’70s getups playing the likes of Hugh Hefner and Harry Reems, the revolving door of familiar faces is just one example of the film’s lack of focus. The tone that Freedman and Epstein want to hit is never clear, with the sexual elements of the film handled with humor, and the adult-film industry of the ’70s presented as cheap parody complete with artificial-looking pornstaches and over-the-top, skeevy directors. The light tone would be fine if it were consistent. When claims of abuse and exploitation arise later on, the film takes on an only slightly darker tenor that doesn’t make an impact due to its whimsical attitude toward Lovelace’s exploits earlier on.

The film sheds no new light on Lovelace’s ordeal, and indeed seems unwilling or unable to go to deeper and darker places. It fails to thoroughly explore Lovelace’s abuse, or what made her and Deep Throat such phenomena to begin with. Though the wide-eyed Seyfried carries the film to the best of her ability, offering up more complexity in her performance than the script offers her, not even her turn can bring the emotional weight that the film sorely lacks. Lovelace revels in its cameos, ’70s clichés, and bad costuming, but fails to make a compelling critique of the industry that Lovelace claimed destroyed her life. It’s all sensationalism, which is far too expected an approach.

After the critical success of Sound of My Voice, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij reunite for The East, an eco-terrorist thriller that’s part spy flick, part cerebral drama. Marling plays Jane Owen, a corporate spy hired to gain access to an organization that calls itself the East, an environmental terror sect determined to bring down the global corporation that she works for. Taking on the cover name of “Sarah,” she infiltrates the dilapidated mansion where the group plans its biggest attack yet, lead by their charismatic and shrewd leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård). She works to gain the trust of the group, including Benji’s right-hand woman, Izzy (Ellen Page), who’s the most dedicated to the cause and the most suspicious of Jane’s motives. As Jane becomes more indoctrinated into the cult-like group, she begins to question her alliance to her corporate employers.

Both the movie and the role are Marling’s most accessible to date. Marling is less ethereal here than she has been in the past, a refreshing and welcome change. This is a stronger and far more complex female characterization, reminiscent of Clarice Starling or Homeland’s Carrie Mathison in its mix of vulnerability and grit. There are some plot inconsistencies that appear just for the sake of convenience (the group live a DIY, freegan lifestyle in a crumbling house, but later reveal they have state-of-the-art satellite technology in their basement that rivals the Bat Cave), but overall Marling and Batmanglij seem wary of getting too conventional.

Where they most excel in that respect is by infusing shades of gray into the script: the members of the East are just as sympathetic as Jane, and yet the validity and morality of their actions is constantly called into question. With no concrete heroes and villains, the tension of the film builds to a final scene that’s as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. While lacking some of the nuance that made Sound of My Voice so distinct, Marling and Batmanglij have managed to produce one of the most smartly written undercover thrillers in recent years. The East doesn’t redefine the genre, but a strong cast, polished direction, and absorbing story make it an impressive effort nonetheless.

The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 17—27.