PARK CITY, UTAHThe addled blur that is the Sundance Film Festival hardly lends itself to definitive pronouncements on the state of American independent cinema, though it never stops attendees from trying. In that spirit, here are three tentative diagnoses, culled from a sampling of the fiction films:
1. Indie film is dead. Long live indie film.
Only at Sundance could the festival trailers prove more controversial than the films they preceded. Created by satirist animators JibJab, these shorts (resoundingly booed at most screenings) featured a highway line painter, a demolitions specialist, and a dogcatcherall deludedly indie-minded and fatally bad at what they do: Each spot opens with the word independent fading to inept. Strange that the festival saw fit to preface every screening with an insult. Or, given that the jingle"She don't work for the Man/She's indepen-dent!"fades out to a hilariously long list of corporate sponsors, was it in fact a self-mocking acknowledgment that "indie" means whatever you want it to?
In any case, the two big winnersset in different quarters of the Memphis music worldneatly embodied the festival's split identity. Years in the making, Ira Sachs's FORTY SHADES OF BLUE, which picked up the Grand Jury Prize, traces the family fallout when an aggrieved son returns, destabilizing the relationship between an imperious music producer (Rip Torn) and his much younger Russian wife (Dina Korzun). Wordlessly eloquent about the patterns of estrangement and entrapment that infect family ties, the film is something of a throwback, an unshowy melodrama with a rapt, heightened naturalism that owes a sizable debt to Cassavetes (not least in a pair of superbly sustained party scenes). Craig Brewer's crunk fairy tale HUSTLE & FLOW snagged the Audience Award and the fattest deal. The movie's preposterous ending anticipates its Viacom embrace, and if nothing else, it was a blast to witness an industry audience take so warmly to the hero's home demoand unofficial festival theme song"It's Hard for a Pimp."
2. The art of compromise
Every now and again, a film comes along that uncannily mirrors the festival experience. A few years ago, it was Gus Van Sant's futile wilderness trek Gerry. This time, that dubious distinction went to BETWEEN, a tiresome mindfuck in which a young woman searching for her missing sister finds herself reliving the same day in a loop. Some things never change at Sundance, and it can be hard for a distinctive voice to crash the annual parade of poignant family dysfunction. Robinson Devor's POLICE BEATa visually striking reverie that weds the lovesick voice-over of a Senegalese Seattle cop to the crimes and misdemeanors of an average workdaywas perhaps the most original film in competition, and one of the most overlooked.
Still, adhering to a Sundance formula doesn't always spell disaster. The same cluster of archetypes can yield radically different results, as illustrated by Mike Mills's THUMBSUCKER and Arie Posin's THE CHUMSCRUBBER, which rhyme in more ways than one: teens, suburbia, psychopharmacology. In contrast to the latter's cocktail of putrid clichés, Mills's fiction debut, based on Walter Kirn's novel, adopts a humane and philosophical approach to addiction, conceding that the drugs work well enough sometimesthe trick is in finding the least poisonous painkiller. Miranda July's ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, a Sundance-lab product, is familiar in its quirky-sad rom-com ache, but also unquestionably true to its author-star's idiosyncrasiesa disarming synthesis of the cute and the cosmic, the mundane and the magically expectant. July has a fresh, uncondescending way of dealing with kids: She doesn't shy from their sexual curiosity, grasps their vulnerabilities, and credits them with a privileged resilience. With these deceptively conventional movies, Mills and July scored small but comprehensive victoriesmodest subversions at the cellular level.
3. The power of denial
In Me and You, a roundly ridiculed contemporary-art curator explains her key selection criterion: Could the work have been made in any era, or only now? It's obviously not a litmus test programmers apply at Sundance, where too many films are not just divorced from reality but cluelessly redolent of some bygone age. The adoption weepie LOGGERHEADS, with its HIV-as-death-sentence bathos, evoked the late '80s; the high school satire PRETTY PERSUASION, a wretched Heathers spawn that might be offensive if it weren't so incoherent, harked back to the smugly incorrect early '90s.
Despite this edition's touted "regionalism" (i.e., films made and set in places other than New York and California), most of the fiction entries were as insular and apathetic as they have been for years. (Worth noting: Sundance '05 commenced the day of the inauguration with a comedy called HAPPY ENDINGS.) In that context, Travis Wilkerson's WHO KILLED COCK ROBIN?, simply for having a political point of view and a palpable connection with the world beyond its frame, was indispensable. Rawer than Wilkerson's lyrical agitprop doc An Injury to One, Cock Robin imagines life in the same dead-end townButte, Montanafor a rootless teen: shoplifting beer, hanging out in abandoned mines, grappling with the decline of employment prospects and labor movements. The inclusion of this earnest, unfashionable, and extremely cheap-looking movie in the competition was the gutsiest programming decision by far.
Kyle Henry's ROOM begins as an unvarnished portrait of nickel-and-dimed wage slavery, but after a suggestive setup that links an overworked Texas mom's blackouts to Bush foreign policy, descends into hallucinatory abstraction. For a sardonic take on America's ills, there's always the prankster Danes. Screening in the otherwise dud-filled Premieres section, DEAR WENDY, directed by Thomas Vinterberg from a Lars von Trier script, is a love story between a boy (Jamie Bell) and his double-action revolver. In a faux-mythic town square somewhere between Dogville and Butte, Montana (the mines have closed and the Zombies are always on someone's turntable), outsider kids turn into gun fetishists and pacifist "dandies." Taking aim at Columbine, American racism, the right to bear arms, and the arms race, this willfully scattershot allegory is every bit the waggish provocation you'd expect. But at the bizarrely inane and indulgent Q&A, Vinterberg fielded softballs about costumes and rehearsals: "There's a whole political subtext too," he smirked in conclusion, "but we can talk about it some other time."
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