This Year's Dramatic Competition Largely Devoid of Drama

Gosling (right) in Half Nelson

PARK CITY, UTAH—On closer inspection, the dramatic competition was not, as promised, a wilderness of unknown quantities. This year's slate featured an obligatory actor turned director (Chasing Amy's Joey Lauren Adams, with the Ashley Judd vehicle Come Early Morning) as well as a comic turned director (Bob Goldthwait and his mildly amusing one-joke anti-honesty rom-com Stay) and an industry veteran turned director (Jeff Lipsky, with the admirably awkward, if not entirely convincing, anti-romance Flannel Pajamas).

Even when the directors weren't familiar, the subjects generally were. Given the number of first-timers, it's perhaps unsurprising how many coming-of-age scenarios were being mined. In flashier ways than In Between Days, Dito Montiel's A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS takes a concerted stab at enlivening well-trodden autobiographical material. Based on the writer-director's own memoir about growing up on mid-'80s Astoria's mean streets, Saints benefits from bracingly restrained work by perennial hams like Robert Downey Jr., Chazz Palminteri, and Dianne Wiest. But the real magic comes from cinematographer Eric Gautier, turning the Manhattan skyline, as seen through scratched subway-door glass, into the stuff of epiphany.

Wan and cutesy, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's QUINCEAÑERA is most notable for making explicit the slumming subtext of many an earnest Sundance crowd-pleaser. Shot near the directors' own Echo Park residence and focused largely on the neighborhood's Latino community (in particular a newly out, tough gay boy and his possibly immaculately pregnant cousin), it's less about culture-clash affirmation than gentrifiers' guilt.

Surprisingly ignored by the jury, Ryan Fleck's HALF NELSON stakes its bets entirely on Ryan Gosling, who comes through with an awe-inspiring performance. This Brooklyn redemption tale strands the actor in a land-mined quasi–Dangerous Minds scenario as the dedicated, lefty, skinny-white-boy basehead teacher who gets through to his inner-city eighth-graders with . . . dialectics. But the script, co-written by Fleck and Anna Boden, undercuts its rigid schema with oddball wit, and Gosling is beyond credible—he's practically heartbreaking.

Nominally an attempt at political subject matter, Chris Gorak's RIGHT AT YOUR DOOR poses a moral conundrum of sorts: If your wife was contaminated in a dirty-bomb attack, would you let her in the house? While Los Angeles chokes, Gorak reduces his opportunistic scenario to a profoundly irrelevant one. For the duration of this interminable movie, an amazingly unsympathetic husband and wife squabble through duct-taped plastic, eventually wishing they'd spent more quality time with each other. It's a new low for terrorist porn: the Open Water of post–9-11 movies.

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