Dramas at the Sundance Film Festival for a long time came in two shades — dark and darker. At this year’s gathering, though, filmgoers are being treated to a cluster of very different movies: risque, female-driven comedies that would make the women of “Bridesmaids” proud — or blush.
A film about three young women indulging in drugs and all manner of debauchery before the wedding of a disliked high school classmate? Check. A sometimes off-color look at two sisters with differing attitudes toward monogamy? Certainly. Two financially desperate twentysomethings who start a phone sex line from their apartment? Start dialing.
“Sundance has always been pretty good about promoting female directors, but what we’re seeing this year is women as protagonists, driving the plot,” said festival director John Cooper. “The comedies go to all levels, from glossy to raunchy.” Cooper said that programmers didn’t actively seek out women behaving badly; they were simply well-represented among the thousands of submissions the festival received this year.
The new movies follow in the path of established young female writers such as Diablo Cody and Liz Meriwether. But at least a portion of the credit goes to “Bridesmaids,” the Kristen Wiig movie that became a cultural phenomenon last year and has sent strong ripples through not only Hollywood but also, more improbably, independent filmmaking.
Though many of the directors with female-driven pictures in Sundance this year were working on their movies long before Universal Pictures released “Bridesmaids” last May, nearly all were aware of the Paul Feig-directed film, which spent years in development before reaching the big screen. In the case of the pre-wedding debauchery comedy “Bachelorette,” the filmmakers even used the success of “Bridesmaids” to secure financing for their movie last summer.
“Bachelorette” writer-director Leslye Headland, who penned the script in 2008 based on an off-Broadway play she created, bristles at the comparison to “Bridesmaids,” even going so far as to issue a director’s statement that lays out the differences. (Others here don’t like having their indie films being compared to the Hollywood hit either; it is Sundance, after all.)
Still, Headland acknowledged that her movie, which is being produced by Will Ferrell, was greenlighted this summer and has gained a higher profile due to the success of “Bridesmaids.”
“I look at it a little like ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ in 1967,” said Headland, who’s in her early 30s. “You have a movie that gets everyone’s attention and all these comparisons are drawn and they’re not always right. But then it’s like, ‘Thank God, let’s make more movies like that.’”
Lauren Miller, who co-wrote the phone-sex film “For a Good Time, Call . . .” — which is based on the experience of her co-writer, a friend and college roommate named Katie Anne Naylon — said that the pair encountered a lot of resistance when they tried to set up the film at a studio (pre-”Bridesmaids”). They eventually decided to finance it independently with the help of Miller’s brother, who works on Wall Street.
Paradoxically, the result is a film that would have slotted in nicely on any studio’s post-”Bridesmaids” wish list. “We wanted it to be a girl’s story that followed the traditional romantic comedy format, but with females,” she said. “It’s about us falling in love as friends, not falling in love with our boyfriends.” (Miller has until now been known to the public as the wife of Seth Rogen; the actor has a cameo in “For a Good Time, Call . . .”)
Just as Wiig and Feig did in “Bridesmaids,” filmmakers and actors say that they believed all of the Sundance movies (all of which are seeking theatrical distribution at the festival) are willing to explore female characters in a way a previous generation wasn’t: by showing them to be as flawed, base and, yes, funny as men. Female characters can also screw up things just as royally.
On top of that, they say, women can just make for better entertainment. “I actually think women’s particular insanity is more interesting to watch,” said actress Lizzy Caplan, who stars in “Bachelorette” and another femme-centric film at Sundance, “Save the Date,” about two sisters who fight over how to navigate their romantic relationships. “Our neuroses make us better characters.”
Michael Mohan, 32, who directed “Save the Date,” said that the indie “Bridesmaids” boom is the result of filmmakers who want to tell a story in a way that studio films usually don’t — it’s a reaction, essentially, to the happily-ever-after endings of big-budget romantic comedies.
We’re basically “the first generation to have their parents’ marriage end in divorce,” he said. “That puts a gray cloud of skepticism over our relationships as we enter them, and I think you’re starting to see that in the work.”
Though the raunch factor can vary, other movies premiering here also put women front-and-center: There’s a high school dramedy called “The First Time” (directed by Jon Kasdan, son of writer-director Lawrence Kasdan); a breakup story titled “Celeste and Jesse Forever” starring and co-written by Rashida Jones; and the sometimes-risque “Hello I Must Be Going,” about a thirtysomething woman who strikes up a relationship with a 19-year-old.
Of course, it is Sundance. There are still plenty of difficult films — in the coming days, documentaries about hunger, rape in the military and AIDS unspool. And even the raunchy female comedies are more subtle than broad.
“I’m happy that ‘Bridesmaids’ will get [butts] in seats,” Caplan said. “But what I’m also excited about is that people will come in to see a movie because they hear it’s about female friends at a wedding. And then they’re going to be very surprised to see it’s something totally different.”
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-- Steve Zeitchik in Park City, Utah
Photo: A scene from "Bachelorette." Credit: Jacob Hutchings