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Sundance 2013: In 'The East,' big questions in thriller packaging

January 25, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik

PARK CITY, Utah — Ellen Page may have burst onto the scene personifying teenage wise-aleckiness in “Juno,” but ask her a question these days and she’s likely to offer some deadly serious thoughts about the state of the universe.

“The moment I open my eyes in the morning, I am knowingly oppressing a lot of the world. Because of my existence and because of all the privileges I was born with,” said the star of Sundance buzz pic “The East” as well as Lynn Shelton’s “Touchy Feely,” also at the fest. “And the continual destruction of the environment. Look at the rise of mental illness…. It’s all so profoundly connected in regards to the collapse of society as we know it.”

Sitting in the L.A. Times Sundance studio earlier this week with her “East” costars and filmmakers, the Canadian-born actress said she felt a sense of great responsibility to a world she thought was going off the rails, environmentally and otherwise. (You can watch excerpts of the interview in the adjacent video.)

FULL COVERAGE: Sundance Film Festival 2013

The weighty issues she describes are explored in Zal Batmanglij’s “The East,” which he wrote with star Brit Marling (and which is also one of the final projects Tony Scott produced before his suicide last year).

The film, costarring “True Blood” fan favorite Alexander Skarsgard, centers on a radical collective of freegans who, living off the grid, conspire to commit acts of political protest or eco-terrorism, depending on your point of view. Things take some unexpected turns, though, when a young corporate spy (Marling) infiltrates the group and ingratiates herself with some of their leaders (Skarsgard and Page).

The movie delivers its espionage-y tension with ideological questions and undercurrents — think “Michael Clayton” meets “Martha Marcy May Marlene” — and is already positioned as one of the thrillers to look for when Fox Searchlight releases it later this year.

SUNDANCE 2013: Portraits by The Times

“None of this really goes anywhere if people aren’t entertained,” Batmanglij said. “But we also wanted to talk a lot about the things that we were feeling.”

Among those issues are the questions of the world’s most daunting problems and what kind of activism is best suited to fighting them.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you guys wrote this and then Occupy happened,” Skarsgard said. “There was something going on. A lot of people were frustrated, and they couldn’t do anything.”

Morality, he said, was something the cast and filmmakers talked about often. The corporations portrayed in "The East" are decidedly unsympathetic, but there’s plenty of ambiguity surrounding the most effective and ethical ways to respond to them.

“The question is how far you’re willing to go and what’s morally justifiable,” the actor said. “Are you willing to kill someone if killing someone meant you’ll save a hundred people?"

Page said that questions of the film are issues she and others of her generation grapple with. “It’s like, ‘Do we run away and become anarchists and live in the woods and fight back, or do we try to navigate it and be the best we can be in our own world?’ ”

She added that she believed there was a lot to fight against.

“People can go to jail for pot possession and it can basically ruin their lives. But then you have the BP spill or companies that basically cause the collapse of the economic system and devastate countless people’s lives and aren’t held accountable,” the actress said.

The movie marks a return for Batmanglij and Marling to Sundance, who landed here to some fanfare with their first feature, the cult-themed thriller “Sound of My Voice,” in 2011.

The two acknowledge it was a bit of a shift making a film with a conglomerate-owned studio instead of the shoe-leather approach of their first feature. But the movie still contains the rough-hewn quality of the Georgetown grads' earlier effort. And they say that despite the dark world the film seems to live in, they wanted to convey something more optimistic.

"Ultimately what the film is about is people coming together and connecting again," Marling said. "The feeling you have when you leave is that we all can still talk to each other. We can put the phone down and talk again."

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