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Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale in 'Love & Friendship'

One of the most eagerly awaited titles at this year’s Sundance was Whit Stillman‘s 1790s-set period drama Love & Friendship, an adaptation of Jane Austen‘s early unfinished novella Lady Susan. In the film, scheming widow Lady Susan (played by Kate Beckinsale) decides to pay an extended visit to her in-laws’ estate with the purpose of landing herself and her daughter Frederica husbands and a fortune. There she meets the handsome and upright Reginald DeCourcy (Twilight‘s Xavier Samuel), who finds himself attracted to Lady Susan’s vivacity and quick mind. Reginald’s family, including sister Catherine, disapprove of Lady Susan, as the rumor mill swirls with gossip about her past affairs. Meanwhile, Lady Susan’s daughter Frederica is pursued by the wealthy but dim-witted Sir James Martin.

The film reunites Beckinsale with her Last Days of Disco cohort Chloë Sevigny, who plays Lady Susan’s American-born partner-in-crime Alicia Johnson. Alicia’s husband Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry) frowns on Alicia’s association with Lady Susan that he constantly threatens to send his wife back to Connecticut, but that does not deter Alicia from taking part in Lady Susan’s grand schemes.

Beckinsale has always been an alluring screen presence, but rarely has she popped on screen as much as she does here. She acquits herself extremely well with the film’s warp-speed dialogue and knowing asides, and she’s deserving of real awards talk. Also of note are the Aussie-born Xavier Samuel, who is well on his way to leading man status, and Tom Bennett, who plays the part of “blockhead” Sir James Martin with hilarious relish. Fry’s part is smaller than his role suggests, and we were desperate to see more of him in the film. But all in all, Love & Friendship is a breezy comedic romp worth savoring.

Taking us to modern-day Middle America, The Hollars is John Krasinski‘s second feature film as director. Doing double duty, Krasinski plays a struggling New York-based artist who is lured to his hometown with news that his mother (Margo Martindale) has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. (Sound familiar? Fellow Sundance entry Other People charted a similar path.) The ensemble is filled out with Richard Jenkins as the financially troubled dad, Sharlto Copley as the scatterbrained brother, and Anna Kendrick‘s as Krasinski’s pregnant girlfriend. That’s an amazing cast indeed, and they try their best to lift the material out of cliché. They are not always successful, but there are moments of real humor and sadness, mostly provided by Martindale and Jenkins.

Finally, I saw Southside with You, a dramatization of the first date between Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and his soon-to-be wife Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter of The Haves and the Have Nots). The film aspires to be a sort of South Side Chicago-set Before Sunrise, with the characters slowly revealing themselves to each other in real time. Barack is a Harvard Law student working at a firm over the summer, where Michelle is his advisor. Michelle, fearing what her co-workers will think, is dead-set against calling their day together a “date,” while Barack is openly besotted with her.

The actors are appealing, particularly Sawyers, who is not only a dead ringer for Obama, but also brings a lithe sexuality to the role. The problem is that we don’t learn much more about Barack and Michelle that we don’t already know from books and accounts of their earlier years. Michelle here is portrayed as committed and professional, but also high-strung, while we’re introduced to Barack puffing on a cigarette, a humorous acknowledgment of our President’s erstwhile cravings. We also see the future President displaying his speaking prowess at a community meeting. But the characterizations remain slightly opaque, perhaps stemming from a fear of sullying these real-life figures.

These three films show the range of content available at Sundance, and each has its pleasures. But of the three, only Love & Friendship commands immediate attention and perhaps some end-of-the-year love.

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By Kevin Wicks
Kevin Wicks is the founding editor of Anglophenia.