Cover Story: Sincerely Sundance

Watching movies in the indie film world's Mecca

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J.D. Cutter

Sincerely Sundance

PARK CITY, UTAH — The Sundance Film Festival has long been a fixture in my mind's eye. An impressionable teenager when Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape caused a sensation at the 1989 festival (and eventually with me via VHS), I found the idea of the snow-capped resort town of Park City strangely exotic, a place where filmmakers, critics and film buffs convened to celebrate what the festival's mission statement describes as "the development of artists of independent vision and to the exhibition of their new work."

Well, 18 years later I've finally witnessed my first Sundance, an experience both exhilarating and exhausting. There's too much to do in too little time, a haze of bus rides, darkened screening rooms, passionate conversations and bad, overpriced coffee and sandwiches.

I arrived five days into the festival, which left me scrambling to catch up with the 125 features (from an astonishing 3,287 submissions) ranging from the 16 U.S. dramatic competition entries to a variety of premieres, documentaries and foreign language films.

My impression? The festival largely lived up to expectations, a communal experience that brought an estimated 50,000 people — including some 1,000 accredited journalists from around the world and nearly as many registered film industry types — here for a variety of reasons, all centered around one thing: the aura of movies.

Star-gazing has never been my thing, which is just as well. During my few brief treks to Main Street, where celebrity-spotting is apparently at its finest, the most familiar face I saw was that of Crispin Glover, who looked dapper in a black suit and tie as he chatted up several people at a private party for press and filmmakers.

I couldn't help but ask him about my favorite Glover film, River's Edge, which was curiously part of the festival's "From the Collection" special screening selection.

His soft-spoken response to my inquiry: "Thanks, man, that was always one of my favorites, too."

Back to my main goal: to watch as many movies as humanly possible.

Small and devastating
A good place to start is James C. Strouse's affecting Grace Is Gone, one of the festival's more high-profile films largely due to the presence of its star (and co-producer) John Cusack. He plays Stanley Phillips, an "average Joe" manager at a Home Depot-like store in suburban Minnesota. He's also the father of two young daughters and the husband to a wife stationed in Iraq.

Informed that she's been killed while "defending our freedoms," a numbed Stanley spends the rest of the film trying to break the news to his daughters, putting off the inevitable by taking them on a mysterious road trip to an amusement park in Florida. Though clearly an anti-war film, Strouse tackles the timely subject matter with surprising balance and sensitivity, aided by universally strong performances, including the ever-effective Alessandro Nivola as Stanley's liberal brother.

That it won the Audience Award: Dramatic came as no surprise — Grace Is Gone delves into our beleaguered nation's psychological (and literal) wounds with uncommon, uh, grace. Picked up by The Weinstein Company for $4 million, expect this small, devastating film to have an impact when it's released later in the year.

Jeffrey Blitz's Rocket Science doesn't mind suckling from the creative teat of Wes Anderson, centering its modest, tonally peculiar story on a wispy young man, Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson), who decides to join the high school debate team despite being a persistent stutterer. He's lured by the team's star (and the object of his affections), Virginia Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), who shows an unlikely interest in his underwhelming talents.

Mentioned as a favorite by many a festival-goer, Rocket Science left me wanting, especially when the compelling Kendrick all but disappears in the second half of the film, leaving the endearing but banal Hal to carry us through to the oddly inert finale. Rocket Science garnered Blitz a directing award, which strikes me as misplaced praise.

David Gordon Green's latest atmospheric mood piece, Snow Angels, is another of the filmmaker's nuanced, emotionally true investigations into small-town relationships. It's also much more tightly plotted than his earlier impressionistic works.

Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale are at the story's nexus, playing a separated married couple with a young daughter. Green deftly weaves a variety of characters into their orbit, including a funny and affecting relationship between two high school kids (well played by Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby) that brings to mind his perceptive ode to young, burgeoning love, All the Real Girls. And while Green ups the melodrama with this ambitious adaptation of Stuart O'Nan's novel, he laces the film with plenty of humor, a fact he brought up in the post-screening Q&A: "I needed those (comedic) windows to balance out what could otherwise be an aggressive drama. At least I do for my own sanity."

Craig Zobel's feature debut, The Great World of Sound, revolves around a pair of recently hired record company producers who audition prospective acts in shabby hotel rooms across the South. A la Borat, the various musical acts seem to believe the scenario is real, lending the project another layer of authenticity. Accused of being semi-exploitative by one critic I talked to, I found the film both culturally astute and often disturbing in its depiction of a society obsessed with fame.

Andrew Wagner's Starting Out in the Evening is an elegant drama about acclaimed but out-of-print 70-year-old novelist Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella), who is struggling to finish one last novel while he's still able. Enter Heather (Lauren Ambrose), a bold, ambitious graduate student looking to revive Schiller's career by writing her master's thesis on "America's greatest unknown novelist."

Emotionally rich, well-written and often incisive about the influence of life on art and vice versa, Starting Out in the Evening wades into some deep psychic waters without ever succumbing to melodrama. Much of the credit goes to Langella and Ambrose, whose scenes together never fail to compel, yielding moments that seem both odd and deeply authentic.

George Ratliff's supremely sinister Joshua left more than a few viewers wary in its wake. An upscale Manhattan couple (Vera Farmiga and Sam Rockwell) and their hyper-intelligent 9-year-old son Joshua (talented newcomer Jacob Kogan) welcome a newborn baby into the family unit. Typical enough premise, right? Not quite.

The slow-burning narrative evolves into a deeply unsettling psychological thriller with echoes of The Bad Seed and Rosemary's Baby. Though Joshua clearly accomplishes its intended goals — to scare the shit out of potential parents and to impart the fragility of the mind — it also leaves one feeling chewed up in the teeth of Ratliff's well-choreographed manipulation machine.

Kookoo for Zooey
Speaking of Farmiga and Rockwell, they were among several actors to appear in more than one Sundance offering, including festival staple Parker Posey as well as Justin Theroux, Mark Webber, Liev Schreiber, Adam Brody, Drea de Matteo, Samantha Morton and Thomas Jay Ryan.

Oh, and then there's the luminous Zooey Deschanel. Her growing cult of admirers will be happy to note that the actress appears in two Sundance dramas from first-time feature directors.

In Steve Berra's The Good Life, a coming-of-age story that piles on a few too many quirky Sundance tropes, Deschanel plays a wayward daughter who attempts to find herself by helping the film's broken protagonist (the aforementioned Webber) see his own life in a different light. Her character is idealized as hell, a temptation that Berra surely found hard to resist given the actress in question. With ghosts of The Last Picture Show looming throughout, The Good Life is an earnest yet flawed debut, one shot through on the merits of its game cast (which also includes Harry Dean Stanton and an intriguingly sinister Chris Klein) and cohesive visual aesthetic.

More successful is Martin Hynes' stylish, Godardian The Go-Getter, another coming-of-age tale that finds a naive but curious teenager (a wonderful Lou Taylor Pucci) dealing with his mother's recent death by hitting the road to find his long-gone half-brother. He ditches his bike and steals a well-worn Volvo, a twist of fate that leads him to Kate (Deschanel), a mysterious girl with whom he's instantly smitten. Backed by funny, evocative dialogue, the soulful songs of M. Ward, dreamlike visuals and the unique presence of its leads, The Go-Getter got me from the get-go.

Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier's Reprise focuses on Erik and Phillip, recent college grads and lifelong buddies who dream of becoming successful novelists. Alas, things get complicated when they get what they wish for. Trier's nonlinear narrative, varying film stocks and other technical flourishes sometimes get in the way, but Reprise is an accomplished debut that bodes well for the director's future endeavors.

Amid a festival of heavy dramas, Adrienne Shelley's Waitress was a welcome sight. An off-kilter comedy starring Keri Russell as an unhappily married waitress with a skill for creating mouthwateringly unique pies, Waitress arrived at Sundance with a tragic back-story: writer/director Shelley (best known for her appearances as an actress in Hal Hartley's early films) was murdered in New York City a few months ago, a fact that added an extra layer of melancholy to this sweet, well-crafted film.

Mitchell Lichtenstein's much-discussed feature debut, Teeth, delights in the use of campy, Troma-esque visuals in support of its thought-provoking premise: A beautiful, innocent high school student (Jess Weixler) finds out that she possesses vaginal teeth that engage when she's violated. But Lichtenstein, a onetime actor and son of artist Roy, never takes the story's metaphorical power for granted.

Teeth leaves a deeper impact than one might expect, largely due to Weixler's wonderfully immersive performance and the director's pointed exploration of sexual politics.

It also yielded one of my favorite post-screening conversations between two late-teen boys on a festival shuttle bus: "Dude, I'm going to be super-careful from now on. That was the most heinous thing I've ever seen!"

Another provocative female-fronted film, Black Snake Moan features Christina Ricci as a white-trash skank with an insatiable sexual itch. Where do we go from there? Where else? She is "cured" of her sins by a backwoods man (Samuel L. Jackson) who chains her to his radiator.

Writer/director Craig Brewer's whacked follow-up to the entertaining if over-praised Sundance success, Hustle & Flow, comes off like a '70s exploitation flick populated by established leads, both of whom give their all (especially the fearless Ricci) to this unabashedly trashy exploration of religious salvation and the redemptive powers of Blues music.

Black Snake Moan is over the top for sure, but Brewer is nothing if not sincere. And sincere is what Sundance is all about, right?

FIND MORE SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL COVERAGE from Jason Gargano and Steven Rosen at CityBeat's arts blog:

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