While film festivals are most commonly thought of as launching pads for filmmakers, they also serve as stages to break out performers as well. This year's Los Angeles Film Festival may give just such a boost to an actress appearing in two films — Trieste Kelly Dunn.
Writer-director Aaron Katz's slacker detective yarn "Cold Weather" was the toast of this spring's South by Southwest Film Festival, and much of the movie's emotional resonance comes from the performances by Dunn and Cris Lankenau, who play a sister and brother searching for a missing friend.
But it's in "The New Year," screening as part of the narrative competition at LAFF, that Dunn, who hails from Utah, really pops off the screen. She plays a woman who has dropped out of college to return to her hometown in Florida to take care of her ailing father. Dunn brings an understated strength to the film's portrait of ambitions thwarted and reignited and the tension between responsibilities to one's family and to oneself.
Despite having been rejected from numerous festivals including Sundance and SXSW, "The New Year" won the audience award when it finally premiered at the recent Sarasota Film Festival. The film's scripted, straight-ahead dramatic storytelling and low-key tone make it something of an anomaly on the current indie landscape.
"It's not the mumblecore thing, it's not in-your-face and sort of cynical and brash," said director Brett Haley, who co-wrote the script with his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Kennedy. "It's very simple and honest and human. It's just about a girl. I feel like sometimes people don't quite give it a shot."
Haley, Katz and Dunn all attended the North Carolina School of the Arts (recently renamed the University of North Carolina School of the Arts), as did other members of the casts and crews of both "The New Year" and "Cold Weather." Dunn, 29, previously appeared in the feature "United 93" and the short-lived television series "Canterbury's Law." She also recently appeared on the HBO series "Bored To Death."
Her two roles in the LAFF make for intriguing counterpoints. Their strong distinctions exist despite the fact that Dunn wore many of her own clothes for the roles and close viewing will even reveal her own everyday handbag in both films. In "Cold Weather" she plays a character who initially seems more together and then reveals herself to be at emotional loose ends, while in "The New Year" her character seems at first to have lost her way and then shows her resilience and inner strength as the film builds to a moment of decision.
"I think she is somewhere in between these characters, her actual personality," said Haley of Dunn. "She sort of went left for my movie and right for Aaron's. I think the thing I'm most impressed by is just her vulnerability. That last scene in the movie is two cameras, one take. She is so alive and tapped in. It was perfect."
For Dunn, who recently moved to Los Angeles from New York City, she is hoping the one-two punch of "Cold Weather" and "The New Year" will push her career further forward. She and Haley have since shot a short film, "A Night Out," and Dunn will also appear in "Vacation!" an "existential beach-party movie" directed by another NCSA alum, Zach Clark, premiering soon at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. For the moment, Dunn has been enjoying traveling the festival circuit, finding the experience of meeting young filmmakers and seeing their work an inspirational respite from the grind of auditioning.
"That keeps me really motivated, knowing that world exists," she said. "Thank God for small movies and filmmakers who can make movies for not $8 million. Thank God for $8,000 movies."