Unnatural Selection

Evaluating a Movie Lover's Chances of Survival at a Topsy-Turvy Sundance

Sundance juries have made a habit of spreading the wealth, and this year's committee went out of its way to reward the more marginal films. Joey Curtis's Quattro Noza, a drag-racing doomed romance best when it resolves into an abstract, high-velocity DV smear, won Derek Cianfrance a cinematography prize. The two oddest competition entries: A. Dean Bell's What Alice Found (a through-the-looking-glass adventure, as the title implies, but in the decidedly un-Carrollian world of motor-home brothels) and David Gordon Green's follow-up to the rejected-by-Sundance George Washington, All the Real Girls (a tenacious puppy-love story sodden with dopey poeticism, in theaters Valentine's Day). The jury rewarded both with special prizes for, um, Emotional Truth.

A shoo-in for the Moral Duplicity special prize, Matthew Ryan Hoge's The United States of Leland turns the murder of a retarded child into an occasion for a Sartre-for-idiots meditation on "all the sadness" in the world—the victim is stabbed, but might just as well have been suffocated with the plastic bag from American Beauty. Another wayward teen, the protagonist of Michael Burke's The Mudge Boy, finds comfort in stuffing his pet chicken's head in his mouth; he eventually graduates to more conventional oral taboos. At the very least, this sensitive, solemnly quirky paean to difference takes cocksucking puns to a new level.

Not to be outdone, Catherine Hardwicke's bad-girl cry for attention, Thirteen (co-written by an actual 13-year-old, for veracity's sake) strikes its sensationalist-jailbait poses with a confidence soon indistinguishable from shamelessness. Continuing last year's self-mutilation trendlet (Secretary, Blue Car), Hardwicke's debut (which won her the directing prize) has a grip on the nuances of teenage emotional cruelty (shades of Lukas Moodysson's Show Me Love) but shifts to unmodulated histrionics as the huffing, snorting, emphatically underaged protagonists (emphatically underaged Evan Rachel Wood and co-writer Nikki Reed) get down and dirrrty. In any case, watch the blame-Christina think pieces fly.

Dysfunction themes give Sundance its nominal edge, but the festival's preferred mode is affirmational. The audience award winner, Tom McCarthy's The Station Agent brings together a reclusive dwarf, a bereft painter, and a loquacious hot-dog vendor in a sleepy New Jersey town. The scenario is fatally cute, but the bullshit-free ensemble work—from Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale, and especially four-foot-five Peter Dinklage—defuses the land mines. Another crowd uplifter, Peter Hedges's Pieces of April makes no effort to avert cliché as it reprises mid-'90s Slamdance hit The Daytrippers in broad sitcom strokes. Suburban brood headed by bitchy, domineering, and—a detail to file away for third-act pathos—cancer-stricken mom (Clarkson again) pile into a car and head for Manhattan, where semi-estranged daughter Katie Holmes (as in Thirteen, the white girl's rebellious accessory is a non-white guy) prepares Thanksgiving dinner aided by the demographically diverse residents of her Lower East Side tenement. Cue family reunion, standing ovation, bidding war.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned L.A. Times piece, buyers appeared to be largely in sync with audiences. (The Station Agentand Pieces of April fetched the highest prices of the festival.) The logic underlying that article: "Sundance patrons simply are not representative of the real world. They tend to like complicated, dark and often twisted tales of dysfunctional families." But a quick review of what Sundance patrons tend not to like suggests a limited tolerance for formula-flouting. Of 2001's bumper crop, Donnie Darko, The Sleepy Time Gal, and Intimacy all fell flat with audiences. Last year's premiere of Gus Van Sant's Gerry was accompanied by a surreal stream of walkouts.

To my knowledge, only one film incited physical violence this year (after-parties don't count): An aggrieved patriot threw a plastic water bottle at Australian director Gregor Jordan, whose Buffalo Soldiers(which Miramax bought in Toronto, on Sept 10, 2001) imagines a U.S. army base near Stuttgart circa 1989 as an iniquitous frat house. (The projectile narrowly missed co-star Anna Paquin.) Given that Jordan's movie is merely a softer-than-Wilder satire of bored peacetime mischief, you couldn't help but wonder if the dissatisfied customer was a Miramax plant.

But almost no film received a frostier reception than It's All About Love, Thomas Vinterberg's long-awaited follow-up to his Dogme '95 breakout, The Celebration. Though he reunites with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, there's nothing remotely raw or spartan about Vinterberg's enameled waking dream, in which the stabs of beauty are as arbitrary and unnerving as the anxiety pangs. Joaquin Phoenix and Claire Danes don fitful Polish accents as a separated couple pondering a reconciliation, but It's All About Loveis also about a quasi-Raelian mob with figure-skating interests, gravity-deprived Ugandans floating off into the stratosphere, Sean Penn flying the friendless skies in perpetuity after OD-ing on an aviophobia drug, a literal manifestation of a snow globe. Set in 2020 New York, it's a tale of celebrity clones and obscurely motivated capitalist blood sport that ends high in the mountains—how's that for Sundance synergy? At the Q&A, a viewer, perhaps annoyed by the false advertising of the title, demanded to know what the movie really was about. Vinterberg declined to say.

Could it be that It's All About Love and Danny Boyle's robust gorefest 28 Days Later distanced themselves from the pack simply because they entertain the possibility that we are doomed to destroy ourselves? For the disoriented moviegoer lost in Sundance's topsy-turvy ecosystem (extra-freaky this year, with the bizarrely balmy, snow-melting weather), both films—one patently artificial, the other overrun with zombies—served as unlikely conduits to the jumpy real world outside.

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