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At Sundance, sexual themes take center stage, even in comedies




“Diary of a Teenage Girl” was directed and written by Marielle Heller. It's a comedy that features a girl obsessed with owning her sexuality.
“Diary of a Teenage Girl” was directed and written by Marielle Heller. It's a comedy that features a girl obsessed with owning her sexuality.
Sundance Institute

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The Sundance Film Festival is the nation’s top showcase for movies made outside the studio system. And the movie that really put the festival on the map was Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape.”

In that 1989 movie, James Spader can only experience sex alone while watching videotapes of women talking about their sex lives.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RI5MKaE4aGc

Well, there’s no more videotape at this year's Sundance, but the filmmakers are showing sex in any way they can think of. Festival director John Cooper says it’s been a growing movement.

“I think it’s been happening for a few years. When you look back to 'Don Jon’s Addiction' and a few films like that, there’s been a trend towards looking at sexuality — the human experience, human nature. I think it is part of our human story,” Cooper says.

While sexual themes in festival films isn’t new, this year’s particular — and ever present — brand of sex is. In the narrative features playing at Sundance this year, you get to see scenes of gay sex, straight sex, group sex, trans sex, sex with yourself and sex with minors. But what’s really noticeable is that many of these depictions are really comedic.

“That’s a new trend we’ve seen," Cooper says. "The sex scene in 'The Bronze' is one of the funniest sex scenes ever. I can't believe we haven't seen it before." He's referring to a scene involving gymnastics and highly acrobatic sex in a very small hotel room.  

Another Sundance comedy that’s filled with sex and people talking about sex is “Sleeping With Other People.” It stars Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie as former college classmates who reconnect in a meeting for sex addicts.

The film’s writer and director, Leslye Headland, says she has noticed the preponderance of sex and comedy at Sundance films this year.

“I think that in comedy, sex has become more and more a subject as opposed to just a punch line,” Headland says. “At least for me, it's becoming more and more a part of a conversation. But as far as a zeigeist-y Why-is-this-a-theme-this-year?, I'm not quite sure.”

Sex for comic shock value is a big part of the Jack Black film, “The D Train.”

During its Sundance premiere, when two characters engaged in an unexpected sex act, the audience went wild with laughter.

Another film that plays sex for comedic value, but also with sex very much woven into the fabric of the story, is “Tangerine.” It’s a story about transgender prostitutes in L.A., where two characters have sex in a drive-through car wash.

The filmmaker, Sean Baker, says the trans-actress had a say in the tone of those scenes.

“It was really Mya Taylor, and one of the first couple meetings we had, she told me, ‘I'll make this film with you, but I want you to make this thing real. Brutally real, number one, and number two, I want you to make this funny,’” Baker says.

Some of the Sundance sex comedies are notably directed by women, including “Diary of a Teenage Girl”— a comedy that features a girl obsessed with owning her sexuality with fearless candor. The coming-of-age sex comedy was directed and written by Marielle Heller.

“I do think for female filmmakers and female writers, this is a little bit of a domain that I think we're very interested in exploring," Headland says. "Not that male filmmakers don't, but I think it's something that we feel like we would like to have a say on exactly what our experiences have been.”  

Unlike many male filmmakers, Headland is not interested in gratuitous shots of womens' naked bodies — what’s known in film criticism circles as "The Male Gaze." While her movie is very much about hooking up, it’s one of the rare Sundance movies that doesn’t have any nudity.

“For me, nudity takes me a little out of the story," says Headland, "and when I see an actor nude, I think about the actor just very briefly. Even if it's just for a split second, I think, Oh, the actor's naked. That's a blip that I never want my audience to have.”

While Headland specifically avoids nudity “Sleeping With Other People,” the writer and director of “The Overnight,” Patrick Brice, can’t get enough of it.

In “The Overnight,” a comedy about a dinner party that goes into some unexpected directions, there’s an extended scene of full frontal male nudity with Adam Scott and Jason Schwartzman.

“The freshness of that scene — I realize I haven’t seen that kind of scene, even in all the amazing television there is now and uncensored television, I haven’t seen that penis-size joke as yet,” Cooper says.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that “Tangerine” is about trans-prostitutes, the sex and nudity isn’t so much graphic, though it easily could have been. 

“It was really scene-by-scene of how much we wanted to show and how much was appropriate to show," says director Sean Baker. "The sex acts [are] not graphic, but I did allow them to play out in real time.” 

Cooper says the way Sundance directors are wrestling with, and depicting, sexuality is exactly in alignment with the festival’s mission.

“Filmmakers know that independent film is a safe place to do that and I think that they know that they can use it in creative ways,” Cooper says. “It’s just part of the fabric of what independent film is now.”



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