Most people attending the wintry Sundance Film Festival wear several layers of clothing, but not former child stars: Inevitably, you can count on them to spend Sundance disrobing onscreen. Whether it’s Daniel Radcliffe taking it all off in last year’s Sundance entry Kill Your Darlings or Kristen Stewart going topless at Cannes the previous summer for On the Road, a sexed-up film festival indie is now a nearly mandatory rite of passage for A-listers on the verge of adulthood, and this year in Park City, two more young stars joined the club: Shia LaBeouf and Shailene Woodley, the former attempting to put his Transformers fame behind him with a key role in Lars von Trier’s sexually explicit Nymphomaniac, the latter already subverting her PG-13 lead in the upcoming Divergent franchise with an assertive, unclothed turn in Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard.
LaBeouf isn’t here at Sundance, and at first, nobody expected Nymphomaniac to be, either: A smattering of selected press and filmmakers were invited to a secret festival screening last night, and it turned out to be the first installment of Von Trier’s two-part sex epic. (Pity the poor director sitting next to me who expected the mystery film to be Wes Anderson’s more genteel The Grand Budapest Hotel; he’d brought his parents to the screening, then had to watch them flinch through uncut cock montages and lines like “I discovered my cunt at age 2.”) The film is recounted in flashback by Joe, the titular nymphomaniac, who first hooks up with LaBeouf’s character Jerome when she’s a sexually curious teenager. Ready for action, Joe shows up to Jerome’s flat as the older boy is working on his moped, and she fixes him with a whopper of an opening line: "If I asked you to take my virginity, would that be a problem?" Turns out, it isn't.
The dirty deed is swiftly done. "He shoved his cock inside of me and humped me three times," Joe says in voice-over as we watch Jerome deliver those three thrusts onscreen. Then Jerome flips Joe over, humps her five more times in an additional orifice, and a mere fifteen seconds after their assignation first began, Jerome rises from the bed and goes back to work on his moped. Joe is humiliated by how few thrusts it took to dispense with her precious virginity; I couldn't help but think that the total number was still about six more thrusts than the MPAA would ever conceivably allow in a wide-release movie.
In any case, this scene is mere foreplay for a much more explicit encounter with Jerome later in Part 1, where little seems to be simulated. For several minutes, we watch LaBeouf and his scene partner Stacy Martin go at it; there’s so much screen time lavished on the encounter that you may be moved to critique LaBeouf’s make-out style (which involves some very aggressive tongue action) as well as his aptitude at nipple-licking (also pretty tongue-dependent) and cunnilingus (ditto). Eventually, it’s time for the moment of penetration, and while Von Trier has claimed to use special effects to enhance some of the sex scenes, I’m pretty sure that LaBeouf performed that bit for real. (And if he didn’t, it’s a better special effect than anything I saw recently in the CG-soaked trailer for Maleficent.)
Nothing in White Bird in a Blizzard is that explicit, but Araki still has a good wink at the notion of a former child star gone rogue: In the scene where Woodley’s character loses it to the hunky neighbor next door (Shiloh Fernandez), she eagerly sweeps a dozen stuffed animals off her bed before removing her top. Woodley is playing Kat, a 17-year-old feeling adrift after the sudden disappearance of her mom (Eva Green). With only her ineffectual father (Christopher Meloni) left to support her and few leads on her missing mother, Kat asserts herself in the one aspect of her life she feels she has control over, her sexuality. "Can we stop talking and fuck?" she asks her suddenly celibate boyfriend, moaning later to her best friends, "If I don't see a dick soon, I'm gonna explode."
Woodley spent years on the ABC Family show The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and most other actresses with a comparable résumé to dispel would bite down hard on those lines, all the better to show off a new adult attitude. Woodley, miraculously, makes them sound natural; she’s not trying to telegraph a career change with all that sex talk, she’s merely playing the character as real as possible. (Which makes Woodley a delicious foil to the arch Eva Green, who’s so campy as Kat’s mother that she’s like a drag queen who just beamed in from the planet Kim Cattrall.) Unlike the title character in Nymphomaniac, there’s no shame in Kat’s game; when she seduces the fortysomething detective working her mom’s case, then brags to her friends about his “cock and balls and hairy chest,” there’s nothing punitive in Araki’s handling of the plot turn — Kat was just a horny teenager, like most.
Though they’re following in the bare footsteps of many former child stars before them, LaBeouf and Woodley do have something different going for them: These provocative roles feel less like a repudiation of their past work and more like an outgrowth of their current public personas. LaBeouf has been so controversial in recent years — from his "plagiarism" scandal to his bar brawls to that nude music video he made for Sigur Ros — that his role in Nymphomaniac reps a natural next step in that direction, while Woodley is so unaffected onscreen and so candid about her hippie proclivities in the press that it would actually seem more unusual if she ducked those White Bird nude scenes; instead, they’re as unabashed as she is. Sex isn’t a stunt with these two — it’s a way to reach a naked state of performance after they’ve spent most of their careers exerting themselves opposite green-screen robots and Molly Ringwald. When the industry places so many expectations on you from such a young age, sometimes you’ve just got to take it all off.