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SUNDANCE: Elizabeth Olsen Endures in 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

Sean Durkin's competition film had its premiere at the Eccles Theatre Friday afternoon.

Elizabeth Olsen
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Elizabeth Olsen pulls off a pretty amazing transformation in Martha Marcy May Marlene, a competition film that had its premiere at the Eccles Theatre Friday afternoon. The newcomer -- who also debuts in Silent House this week -- unleashes a warm, guileless smile and bright eyes in early flashback scenes that are eventually so wholly driven from her face that it’s as if life itself was beaten out of her.

Olsen stars as a lost young woman with an absent dad and dead mother who reconnects fragilely with her older sister after running away from a cult in which she participated for two years. Her attempted re-entry into civilized life is repeatedly derailed by paranoia and a corrupted sense of self that was warped by the charismatic and predatory cult leader played by John Hawkes. Her original warmth and openness are exactly what pegged her as a target, and Olsen shows the full damage that has been done.

The movie is beautiful and dark and full of foreboding, and no easy resolution is coming for the characters any time soon. But Olsen has proved pretty quickly that her chops run deep, and she has a rich career ahead of her if she wants to keep making films. It’s also a brave performance in all the obvious ways -- Martha is occasionally unsympathetic and she weathers some awful psychological and sexual abuse.

Writer-director Sean Durkin -- another obvious talent -- drew on the stories a friend told him about her experiences in a similarly styled cult. He first made a short and then workshopped the feature at Michelle Satter’s Sundance Institute labs.

Every seat was filled at the Eccles, and much of the cast was in attendance, which provided perhaps the most disturbing realization during the Q&A afterward. Durkin said he had wanted to take a present-day, realistic look at the cult phenomenon, and based his narrative and its incidents on things that he discovered happen all the time. And Olsen said that once she took the part and started telling people about it, she discovered that the experience was much more widespread than most people realize, and “not this crazy, outlandish idea.”

The project is likely to find a buyer, but given its dark subject matter it'll most likely be one of the smaller ones, such as IFC Films or Oscilloscope. The again, Roadside Attractions did very well with Winter's Bone this past year off Jennifer Lawrence's breakout performance in an equally grim story. So by taking a gamble on Olsen herself as part of the story, a distributor could get people into the theater.


SUNDANCE Q&A: Elizabeth Olsen
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