Deborah and I spent the weekend at Sundance watching five films and seeing four panels in three days. No, we didn’t go to Utah – for the last few years Sundance has come to the bizarre environs of the O2 so we were able to catch the latest in independent film without leaving London. I won’t go through the panels, except occasionally if they’re relevant, because panels are one-offs, but here are the movies we saw.

Obvious Child (wd. Gillian Robsepierre. Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman)

Our first film is so indie it almost hurts. A simple, unambitious tale of a newly-single stand-up comedian (Slate, familiar from Parks and Recreation) flailing around through something approximating adult life. Wistfully amusing, rather than laugh out loud funny with fun cameos from the likes of Richard Kind and David Cross, the main plot when it emerges might shock America’s conservative heartland but seems unremarkable in liberal London Town. The same goes for Slate’s “earthy humour” (i.e. fart jokes). Obvious Child works but aims fairly low, which I suppose is better than wildly overreaching but it made for a rather low-key start to the Sundance experience.

The Case Against 8 (d. Ben Cotner, Ryan White)

After panels about film music and “finding your story” we were back in the cinema for what was the undoubted highlight of the whole Sundance experience. When Californian voters passed “Proposition 8”, overturning the state’s recent commitment to gay marriage, young filmmakers Cotner and White followed the legal proceedings instigated by the American Federation for Equal Rights. For over four years, through endless appeals, the legal process ground on and Cotner and White’s extraordinary access documents the whole thing. Elegantly streamlined to a sub-two hour running time, the whole film is expertly judged, full of humour, insight, emotion and brilliant storytelling. A fascinating account of a vital human rights battle which deserves the biggest possible audience.

Hits (wd. David Cross. Matt Walsh, James Adomian, Meredith Hagner)

Things took an immediate turn for the worse later on Saturday night. Hits is the directorial debut of Arrested Development’s David Cross and it bears all the hallmarks of a sketch comedy writer and actor trying to tackle a full-length narrative for the first time. Hits is beset with problems, from the tonal to the structural. The story of a young woman who lusts for talent-show fame, it cannot find a focus, immediately shifting point-of-view to whomever happens to be in the frame, with the result that no coherent narrative emerges. Rather, it feels as if five different films are fighting for dominance. Compounding the problems, the satire is years if not decades old, and piss-weak, with an extra dose of supposed shock-value at the end doing nothing to pep the film up. But these weakness might have been overcome were it not for the fact that writer-director Cross so evidently loathes and despises all of the characters, from the bitchy local official to the idiot racist dad to the self-obsessed hipsters. In his panel with David Wain (read on), Cross earnestly told the audience that he took jokes out of the script to protect the story. In my view, the story wasn’t worth preserving, even if it had been structured with more discipline. A welter of funny jokes might have been a saving grace, but we are denied even that. Awful. Avoid.

The One I Love (w. Justin Lader, d. Charlie McDowell. Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, Ted Danson)

The best fiction film we saw, this nifty drama sees Mad Men’s Moss and husband Duplass bundled off to a weekend retreat for couples in need of reconnecting. Once there, they… man, this film is hard to describe fairly. Let’s just say that some weird shit goes down and leave it at that, shall we? The film expertly judges the tone, presenting the aforementioned weird shit simply and effectively and mining the premise carefully and satisfyingly, while the two leads tackle the often difficult material with grace and style. Only in the last ten minutes, when the filmmakers become a little too interested in the mechanism of the premise does the movie even threaten to go off the rails, but by that time I had had too good a time to care much. I will be fascinated to see how this one is marketed and how well it does at the box office, but if it comes to a screen near you, I urge you to go and see it while reading as little about it as you possibly can.

They Came Together (w David Wain, Michael Showalter; d. Wain. Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler)

Significantly less ghastly than Hits, this was still a disappointment. A spoof romantic comedy, this isn’t quite the all-out joke-fest of Airplane and it’s ilk, but it’s far too broad to be genuinely romantic in the way that Scream was genuinely scary. Good jokes (Poehler and Rudd frolick in autumn leaves, oblivious to the mouldering corpse buried just under them) sit next to poor jokes (Poehler’s approach to running her candy store is just to give all the candy away, because why not) but often the demands of the narrative lead to joke-free passages where the thin nature of the material becomes painfully apparent. Even the good jokes aren’t always capitalised upon which is particularly remarkable and disappointing. The line between characterisation and running joke is a very fine one in a movie like this, but even when Poehler’s character is identified as an adorable klutz, and Poehler very amusingly pulls a load of boxes down on her own head apparently on purpose – subsequently this trait is never referred to again. Much of the time the laughs come from characters smugly commenting on the tropes they are enacting, in the way which might seem witty in an improv setting, but here just seems a bit laboured. Every so often there’s a performance or a gag which threatens to make the whole thing worthwhile, but ultimately this is weak sauce.

Short Film Programme

We rounded off Sunday night with one of two short film programmes. Rather than go through all the ten-or-so shorts we saw, I will pick out two favourites. Firstly I Think This Is the Closest to How the Footage Looked (d. Yuval Hameiri). In this haunting piece, a young man reenacts the last hour’s of his sick mother’s life with household objects. The reason for the reenactment becomes devastatingly clear half-way through. A huge emotional bang for barely a single buck, Hameiri’s film is a tiny triumph of feeling over resources. More traditional in form is the Irish documentary The Last Days of Peter Bergmann (d. Ciaran Cassidy) which uses interview and CCTV footage to document the meticulous preparations of an unknown man who checked into a hotel in Sligo, Ireland, using the fake name Peter Bergmann. A 20 minute human mystery that may never be solved, Bergmann is a touching riddle, a fleeting enigma, a tiny treatise on how to take charge of matters which no-one can truly control.

All the Sundance staff (though not all the O2 staff) were friendly and helpful and although we felt a bit abandoned to the tender mercies of a dozen or so chain restaurants in the TGI Fridays vein when it came to food and drink, we left the festival inspired, invigorated and largely entertained.