Grow Girl

Sundance 2012: Pat Healy Commands Compliance

Originally posted at Los Angeles Magazine.

Sundance Star: Pat Healy Commands Compliance

Posted By: Heather Donahue · 2/2/2012 11:42:00 AM

Maybe it’s because I saw Craig Zobel’s Compliance around the same time as Eugene Jarecki’s award-winning documentary on the costs of the failed drug war, The House I Live In, that made it especially potent for me. Our acceptance of authority, of the way things are, seems to be butting right up against our desire for personal and economic agency these days. It’s difficult to sustain a sense of empowerment in an economic climate that only keeps squeezing, and that forces us to question everything that we’ve been told to respect. Compliance not only illustrates, but detonates this idea. When I saw it, the woman next to me gathered up her bags more than once, writhed in her seat, and sighed a lot, but didn’t leave. This, I think, is a testament to how well made this brutal but important film is.

In many ways, Compliance is an expansion of the famed Milgram experiment that tested people’s willingness to violate their conscience in obedience to authority. The press notes suggest, “As we watch, we ask ourselves two questions: ‘Why don’t they just say no?’ and the more troubling, ‘Am I certain I would?’” Compliance was picked up by Magnolia Pictures by the fest’s end, so you too will have the chance to feel incredibly uncomfortable in an illuminating way.

Pat Healy plays Daniels, who calls the fast food restaurant where the movie is set pretending to be a police officer. His call eventually causes Becky (Dreama Walker of Gossip Girl, in a very brave, very vulnerable performance) to be stripped down and raped by her co-workers and their friends, all on the pretense that she had stolen money from a customer’s purse. Daniels never sees what’s happening at the restaurant. He is not even in the same state. The plot is based on a true story.

Curious why Healy wanted to play this deeply unlikable man and what it was like to be at the vitriolic Q + A that followed the film’s Sundance premiere, I met up with him at the Work Hard/Play Hard lounge where he was wearing his signature black framed glasses looking excited, exhausted, and a little bit buzzed.

What was it like to be at that first Q + A? Did you expect such a strong reaction from the audience?
The woman that was very upset after the first screening, I understood where she was coming from. She said, “Rape is not entertainment, Sundance, shame on you. You should know better. This is the year of the woman. We should make films that empower women.”

Ann Dowd, our lead actress [who turns in a virtuosic performance: maternal, brutal, obedient and unsure, but always relatable], now I don’t speak for her, but to paraphrase, she said, “I think that this film shows how women’s power is taken away.” And there was a woman in the audience who has young daughters who spoke up and said she wants her young daughters to see this movie because if you see how it’s possible, the chances of you getting in that situation are less likely.

I’m not gonna get on a political soapbox saying that I’m out there trying to teach people a lesson. I’m just an actor and an artist and I’m just trying to ask the questions. But I think it can be empowering to see that this is possible, and to see how it did happen.

Compliance is based on a true story. Did you try to reach out to the man your character is based on as you were preparing for the role?

Did you want to?

But you had to have some empathy to play him, right?
 No. I think some people legitimately hate themselves. I hear actors always say you need to love the person you’re playing. Something has always struck me as off about that. This is a character who hates humanity, and those people hate themselves. Those are the people that most take it out on the rest of the world.

How did you summon up so much self-loathing?
The thing that informed the character most was a few days into it, the phone broke. And I had to go upstairs and read the lines off camera while I was looking at the other actors. And I was horrified and disgusted. I didn’t have that remove or distance that I had had on the phone. I thought, this must be the reason this guy did things the way that he did. He was on the telephone, he wasn’t watching, he was states away. And that’s the only way he could do it. If you think about it as a game or a prank with no real human consequences…

After your experience of making this film, what do you still obey? 
I’m very much a person who thinks that people should follow their dreams and their instincts, but I also believe in civilization and I believe in what we call the social contract. I think the reason certain morals and religion, which I don’t believe in, or the law, exists because there’s an assumption that without some sort of structure, people would fall apart and eat each other. These sort of experiments and these sorts of real life incidents indicate that that may be true. But you know what? It’s 65% of people in the Milgram experiment that did that. It’s shocking because it’s more than half of us. But there’s 35% that didn’t. And there was zero percent compliance when he said, ‘you have no choice.’ Then no one followed.




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Sundance 2012: Party Like a Plebe in Park City!

From Los Angeles Magazine:

The actress and writer (her memoir, Grow Girl, was released last month) reports from the Sundance Film Festival

I believe the best way to gain access to a party—any party—as a plebe is to imitate a starlet to the best of your ability. There are not so many badges around at night, so just waft a little “do you know who I am?”

Three things you’ll need to pull this off are: youth, a great blow out, and totally impractical shoes, maybe a faux-fur Marilyn coat, because that never gets old. I, being too old for that shit, hitched a ride to Sundance with a one-time co-worker whose film is all abuzz.

Velvet ropes give me hives, even when they’re not velvet. We work through his lack of a plus one to the Bing Bar Cinetic bash by him flashing his badge with his movie’s title on it while I quietly add the penetrating eye contact. Plebe better work!

Once inside we wait in line for the coat check which is attended by a platinum woman that looks like the inverse of one of those eighties Robert Palmer girls. Coat check. Fancy. I’m on a budget, so my jacket stays on. Extra dollars are reserved for tipping bartenders. I have my priorities. I am introduced to what are no doubt an assortment of important people. They seem very nice.

There are a lot of L.A.-grade good-looking people here, but dressed like they live in San Francisco. Way to keep it indie! There is a gentleman’s equivalent of the starlet’s entry kit. It includes: fur lined ear flap hat (worn with a jaunty mix of irony and pragmatism), a shirt with some kind of stripe, and glasses that make you look objectively more attractive. I would add a note of caution about replacing the hat. Eight out of ten times an anachronistic hat (porkpie, fedora) gives a certain assclown-y air, but if you’re one of the twenty percent that can make it work, it really, really works.

Hors d’oeuvre trays are circulated with various organizations of tuna tartare as well as a delightful chorizo thing on toast that I kind of want to hoard. The DJ plays “Sweet Dreams” and a smoke machine billows. But what do you want? It’s the Bing Bar.

Overheard: “Last night I was at a party downstairs, which is a much bigger venue. Then there’s also the basement. You can tell how much money a company spent at a party by what level it’s on.” It’s not so much a party as an anthropological field study. There’s a large poster on one wall that illustrates the “Development of Life.” This party is off that chart.

The first person here that I recognize sees me writing and positions herself in my line of vision. Her hand gestures become more adamant. She looks over at me, performing. Yes, I see you. Yes, I’m writing about you. No, I’m not going to mention your name because your behavior is embarrassing. This is not such an exotic gathering except the drinks are free and the people more self-conscious.

“I wanna feel the heat with somebahdeeee….” I’m wondering if the song choices are deliberately meant to match the early nineties inspired pop art. The place feels like it was put together by a gallery owner who was huge in ‘93 but then ran into some substance abuse problems and after several stints at Promises is now doing things like decorating the Bing Bar for Microsoft.

Really though, a smoke machine? Couldn’t you just trust the effects of the open bar?

There’s a marijuana moment somewhere between midnight and 12:30. Short lived. “Girls just wanna have fuh-hun…” As the musical selections would suggest, this party is largely populated by white people. White people finally drunk enough to dance.
I venture downstairs to the larger venue. I have no idea whose party this is. Some girls are giddily posing for pictures taken by their friends in front of the Bing wall. Posing as celebrities posing. The music is live and the bartender has a handlebar moustache and white-framed glasses. Everything down here feels fresher. The art has an adorable, Portlandian quality. A nebbishy dude is flanked by starlets. “You guys want it straight up?” He asks them.

They nod in unison.

“Can I have a lime?” one asks.

He nods.

“Oh, that’s a very small lime,” she says, with an invisible wink.

Cagey little dreamers take pictures of each other on the sofa under a blue-lit American flag. They have a film they hope will play here nextyear. American something. When I ask how they got in tonight they tell me it was an “inside job.” They won’t elaborate. They slip me a DVD of the trailer for their film, as a security guard approaches and tells us this section is for VIPs only now. It’s promptly roped off and two people sit on the couch. That’s it. Just two people sitting on the couch under the flag. The two big chairs remain empty and a guard with a curly, old school telephone cord shunted down his collar stands before them. It’s like a diorama at the self-important douche museum.

When I tell the American something guys what I would be calling this story they say, “I think we’d rather not be mentioned in that context.” Nobody likes to be thought of as a plebe, especially plebes. But then who’s left to make the world go round while crazy kids are making movies? If everybody was a superstar, who would make lunch? Or teach Pilates? Plebes need parties too. And free drinks, for sure. Cheers!

P.s. A high-altitude hangover feels a little like a grapefruit sized brain tumor has burgeoned overnight, so remember also to drink approximately three times more water than you think you need. At least. See you next year!

Photo: Art at Bing Bar

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Sundance 2012: Smashed

Originally appeared at  HuffPo:

So many addiction narratives make it easy to say, “That’s not me. I might drink a lot, but it’s not that bad.”Smashed acknowledges why anybody drinks in the first place: because it’s fun. Until it isn’t. Sober is pretty well synonymous with boring and who wants to be boring?

The urge to keep getting up and failing and trying again even if it means failing all the more spectacularly and painfully makes for a good story. The kind that can change you, and your own way of seeing the world.Smashed does this beautifully, aided in large part by a tour-de-force performance full of humor and exquisite vulnerability from Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate Hannah, an alcoholic schoolteacher married to music writer Charlie, played with equal parts ache and bravado by Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul.

Screenwriters James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke put you squarely in Kate’s shoes. You experience her shame and then once again the-fun-that-doesn’t-quite-erase as she bounces down to bottom. It made me look at my own habits and question them in a way that no other addiction story has, mostly because it’s funny, relatable, and sincere. There’s a great scene early on where Kate is teaching a classroom full of kids that starts out funny in that way that being drunk sometimes is. She gets the kids to fill in the blanks on a white board with a boozy exuberance that definitely keeps them engaged. The kids are all the more disturbingly engaged at the scene’s awful climax. This one poignant, potent scene is a better litmus test than any questionnaire in trying to figure out where the boundaries of recreation and addiction are.

Smashed refuses to let you see Kate and Charlie as Other, and this is what makes it so effective. They’re obviously in love with each other, even if alcohol might be dissolving some of the differences between them. I was rooting for them, even as I was cringing. There’s a drunken sex scene that was one of the many moments that the film offered me to say, Oh, hell yes I’ve been there. How have I not seen that in a film before? It was a great example of Ponsoldt’s skilled direction; it brings the funny, then presses until it catches in your throat. Smashed deftly crafts a gently potent mirror into which I had to ask myself: Where can I stop checking off the “been there” boxes? It made me ask myself again, “How to live?” This, to me, is a sign of top-notch storytelling.

The perils of honesty and post-booze social awkwardness are downright charming as portrayed by Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) as Mr. Davies, the Vice Principal. If he were drunk when he says what he does to her in the car, he would probably have gotten away with it, but sober, it squats there like the socially awkward moment it is. Honesty wins the day when it is laughed about later at the culmination of Kate’s lies, or the worst baby shower ever. This scene and the one following show that honesty is pretty funny too, and has the benefit of being earned.

This is no Leaving Las Vegas. It’s way more pragmatic and certainly brighter than that. There’s no scene where Kate is filling up a shopping cart with a willfully self-destructive pile of bottles. She doesn’t suffer from terminal self-loathing, the good times just got out of hand. At no point does director James Ponsoldt let the viewer off the hook and say, “Oh, I would never do that.” It’s exactly Kate’s good-girlishness that brings her to the bottom of nowhere. And it’s exactly the courage to fail again that gets her out, even if it means losing her loving, if stagnant, husband. There’s no sense that everything is all better sober, but the way the penultimate scene cuts between Kate and Charlie at least suggests that Kate’s sobriety has firmer joys in store than Charlie’s party boy ferment.

At the end of the day, Smashed is every bit as much coming of age story as it is a recovery tale. A call to maturity that manages to transcend the culture’s juvenile siren song. There’s been a lot of that theme here at Sundance: The fear of growing up that many in my generation of Americans seem to fall prey to, and the resulting anomie and urge toward obliteration resulting from that protracted adolescence. Rick Alverson’sThe Comedy comes to mind. There we have unrelenting, unredeemed, unapologetic self-destruction. On the other hand, there are films so unabashed in their innocence, like The First Time, that they’re bringing out the snark in the press tent. I’m wondering if Smashed isn’t in some ways the curated heart of the 2012 program, something of a blueprint toward the middle ground, toward maturity. And not to get all grandiose, but maybe this blueprint can help us toward a better way for our whole country through doing better ourselves. I could be reading too much into the Sundance programming here, but I kind of hope not.

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Sundance 2012: Sleepwalk With Me

This is crossposted from my blog at HuffPo

As you might expect from a film co-produced by WBEZ Chicago’s This American LifeSleepwalk With Me is an autobiographically-inspired film that is intimate, funny and sincere. It offers a take on the New American Manchild archetype that engenders empathy.

Mike Birbiglia plays the lightly fictionalized Matt Pandamiglio, a guy who just wants to follow his dream of being a standup comic. So what if he constantly, if inadvertently, rejects his girlfriend of eight years? The guy wants to make people laugh, and his way to a fresh voice is to talk about how the only way he’ll get married is if he’s sure “nothing else good is going to happen in my life.” While he tells this joke on tour, his fiancee Abby (played with the depth and light that Lauren Ambrose always seems to bring to her projects) is planning their ill-conceived wedding.

Birbiglia is so darn affable, you want him to succeed, and soon, because Abby is also so likable that you hope maybe the whole wedding thing will work out and they’ll be happy. Such casual charm permeates the whole story that even devices like breaking of the fourth wall, which can sometimes feel contrived, feel natural. Of course he’s addressing you, because of course you’re there relating to this story, right?

Well, kind of. If I hadn’t already seen The Comedy, which also features a New American Manchild — though of a much, much harsher sort — I might have not started to wonder about a broader pattern of how this “Dream Big” American ethos gets so ingrained in us. Do we still have the capacity to “Dream Small” and value intimacy and slowness and maybe even settling down? Or are the people who choose that path just different from the people who make independent movies? Can we have sustainable lives, or by extension, a sustainable culture if we stop valuing those humbler things in favor of Living the Dream? The impossible dream, I mean. Not that nice reasonable one our parents sometimes managed.

Sleepwalk with Me addresses the subconscious nudge that something might not be right via the titular sleepwalking. The dream sequences allow the story to travel toward the intersection of honest and embarrassing while still flowing well with the story. No small task for dream sequences. This is where Birbiglia/Pandamiglio’s fears are, and they’re relatable fears, which humanize the New American Manchild and help you understand what drives him (both toward and away). There’s anguish in them, but they’re presented buoyantly. Like he takes them in stride. Until he jumps out of a second story window (true story). In other hands, this would be harrowing, but here it is mixed with humor in a way that makes it altogether more memorable. Dude needs a change. And so he breaks off his engagement with Abby in favor of the road.

In the film’s denoument, he talks about how he visited Abby, now married with children upstate somewhere, and asked her why she stayed with him so long. She tells him she didn’t want to hurt him. He seems both flabbergasted and touched by this, and it’s hard to understand why. Mike/Matt is very aware of what he wants but seems unaware of the effects he has on anyone outside himself who isn’t part of an audience.

But can you blame him? Haven’t we all become narcissists to an extent that the term barely means anything? If you stop wanting families, how do you sustain communities? I really wish I would stop seeing microcosmic metaphors for how we as a country made such a mess of things via some of these personal stories I’m seeing at Sundance; but this is the definitive American film festival, and so it makes sense that it would help us define ourselves. Sleepwalk With Me holds up a clear and shiny mirror, one that truly reflects this American life.

Photo credit: Brian Friedman

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Sundance 2012: The Comedy

Originally published at the Huffington Post.


The Comedy is the first movie I’ve ever walked out of. Ever. I could be overheard bitching to another lady who had also just walked out that it was the worst movie I’d ever seen. She agreed. We ranted in the snow about how we wanted to take the culture back from douches like Swanson. Which, on further consideration, is the point.

I’m a fan of scatalogical humor. I’m a fan of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  I’m the kind of gal who didn’t find the protagonist in Diablo Cody’s Young Adult unlikable, I just thought she was primed for transition. In fact, I found her so relatable that when people kept talking about how reprehensible she was, I had to step back and take stock. I tell you this only because The Comedy crossed my brightsider line. It features a non-stop unrelenting trainwreck of a manboy. But that is just Swanson, the main character, and his buddies. And that’s different from the movie. The movie is, on second thought, brilliant.

My notes went like this:

Why do I want the story of a douchebag?

Wait, he’s not a douchebag, he’s a full-blown asshole.

And why does he keep taking his shirt off?

And how can he afford a boat?

Followed by:

There’s a reason there’s only one Zach Galifianakis per successful movie.

This movie has a gaggle of them. Greasy, flaccid faux-Galifianakii soggy with PBR. In the jiggle-filled slo-mo opening sequence, Swanson, played with balls-out, cringeworthy courage by Tim Heidecker (of Tim and Eric fame) and his friends are bodyslamming each other naked with tucked genitals while pouring beer down each other’s underwear.

One of the reasons for the visceral churn I experienced was: I’ve dated this guy. Not this actual guy, but a version of him. He is an archetype: The New American Manchild. I’ve dated him more than once. Not by choice, mind you, but because he’s impossible to avoid. I walked out of The Comedy because, as my hang gliding instructor Tall Paul once said, “If you spot it, you got it.” I know this impulse to stay adolescent. The alternative looks less appealing all the time. Ah, you who looked so wise settling down in your twenties with that steady job and mortgage–where are you now, eh? Since the economy has gone to hell in the proverbial handbasket, it’s a little easier to make perpetual adolescence look like a reasonable choice. If there has been one clear lesson of the last three years it is that nothing lasts. Not jobs, not houses, not America’s AAA rating. If nothing lasts anyway, what does maturity really have to offer?

Since this seems to be the animating question for a broad swath of my generation, I didn’t have to wonder why most scenes in The Comedy don’t go anywhere except to the edge of uncomfortability, most notably when Swanson imitates a Southern Good Ol’ Boy issuing a diatribe about, “Slave meat. Slave penis and vagina.” His sister-in-law, whose husband has apparently just been admitted to a mental hospital is his silent witness. Of course his brother is in a mental hospital, that’s what happens when you don’t feel like you have a place in the world and don’t see yourself finding one any time soon–you have a breakdown.

The Comedy is the story of a man poking at his necrotic self, trying to find the pink bits. Except he doesn’t find pink bits, so he just keeps poking. The bodyslamming in the opening sequence sets it all up: a bunch of dudes throwing themselves, penises tucked away, against each other and the world until it hurts. But even if it did, they wouldn’t know, they’ve numbed themselves out, the better to poke. Maybe his brother wasn’t numb. Maybe that’s why Swanson sits on his brother’s porch with a hefty whiskey recounting a guttered down version of american history, trying to figure out how we got exactly here, neck deep in nihilism…

…If you’re a dude. It seems it’s primarily the dudes who are responding to the recent American comeuppance (comedownance?) with a seemingly terminal loss of meaning. I know, I know, call me a gender essentialist, but the Sundance 2012 program is forcing my hand. Female characters are taking charge and leading the way out of this festerfunk in just about every movie I’ve seen here so far and many that I haven’t.  Films as diverse as Smashed, Hello I Must Be Going, For a Good Time Call..and perhaps most mythically in the much-buzzed Beasts of the Southern Wild; would suggest the lady zeitgeist is upon us. We’re getting a little more feminine up in this mess. And not a moment too soon.


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