Woody Harrelson as the imperfect lovable title character in "Wilson." Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Park City, Utah

"Wilson," one of the most long awaited films ever shot in Minnesota, finally received its world debut Sunday night at the Sundance Film Festival to boisterous applause. 

One of the hottest tickets in this year's 120 feature films, the R-rated comedy starring Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern and Judy Greer had been in progress since the shoot ended in late summer of 2015. The screening filled to capacity the 1,259-seat Eccles Theatre, which hosts many of Sundance's biggest premieres.

Harrelson stars as the title character, a middle aged curmudgeon more skilled in expressing affection to pet dogs than people. After his father passes away, he finds an unexpected chance for a family of his own. His ex (Dern) gave birth to a child he never met, and he tries his best to reunite the three into an ad-lib family. 

Daniel Clowes' original screenplay, inspired by his graphic novel of the same name, has a lightness of feeling and optimism rare in films adapted from his earlier works "Ghost World," and "Art School Confidential." Harrelson's character is deeply flawed, gregarious and lovable. If there is an awards category for feel good films about abnormal, impaired families, this will be near the top of the list.

After the screening, director Craig Johnson noted with evident nostalgia that "this was all Minneapolis-St. Paul. We had a wonnnderful time there."

Both the shoot and the setting were a fond memory for Dern, as well.

"It was the gift of a lifetime. I've had the privilege of being at Sundance so many times with movies I've loved, but this is just one of the great experiences of my life as an actor. And really for all of us as a family. We really had this radical summer vacation together!"

Harrelson, who took time off between scenes to check out the season's biggest rock shows at Rock the Garden and the Basilica Block Party, was happy about "getting the opportunity to do this out in Minneapolis." 

It was a bit of a homecoming. In 1999, Harrelson settled into an extended stay at Theatre de la Jeune Lune to direct his own play, "Furthest from the Sun." He starred in 2005's legal drama "North Country," then sang and strummed as a musical cowboy in 2006's "A Prairie Home Companion."

The "Wilson" cast also found a rich source of rest and relaxation on the local bar scene during their 6 weeks of shooting. Recalling the experiences triggered happy smiles but woozy memories. 

Trying to name the "dive bars" the team frequented, Johnson was embarrassed at being absentminded.

"Oh, we went to some great ones and now...now we're a bunch of idiots."

"We can't remember them," Greer agreed.

"We were so wasted," Johnson said.

"Me especially, at 16, right?" said Isabella Amara, with a note of pride. The young actress, now 18, plays Wilson's long lost biological daughter. "I'm the party animal of the group, clearly!"

"I'll have to go back and look over my notes," Johnson said, moving right along. "But we went to them and we, as you can see, had a little too much fun at them."

"Wilson" opens in theaters March 24.

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