Is it mere coincidence that the most powerful film festival in America is launching an East Coast outpost literally within days of—and just a few subway stops from—its flashiest upstart rival? While Tribeca and American Express are still toting up the receipts of what was by all accounts a successful fifth edition, the inaugural Sundance Institute at BAM series kicks off in Downtown Brooklyn. While it’s hard not to see this 10-day event in terms of territorial pissings, there’s no reason to knock the basic idea. A Sundance in miniature is by definition a more humane Sundance: Park City without the snow, the crowds, the desperate buzz, the bleary-eyed acquisition folks illuminating theaters with their BlackBerry screens.
The series opens with its most obvious display of clout: Little Miss Sunshine, the biggest sale in Sundance history and a curdled apotheosis of the festival’s favorite genre, the dysfunctional-family road trip. (Fox Searchlight will inflict the movie on a general audience this summer.) But look beyond Little Miss Sunshine (as you likely will, since the screening is invitation- only), and the slate, focused on films that have yet to secure distribution deals, is striking in its modesty. (All are local premieres, and among the filmmakers, New Yorkers are well represented, though the very Brooklyn Half Nelson is sadly absent, having already played at New Directors.)
Among the American fiction features, So Yong Kim’s In Between Days is the standout. As the title suggests, the terrain is the ghost world of teenage alienation. The coming-of-age mopefest is a Sundance staple, but the first-time director’s watchful, intelligent minimalism quietly reanimates the genre. Shadowing its protagonist with a reticent empathy that owes something to the Dardenne brothers, it’s the rare low-budget DV film with a strong sense of place, moving between the cloistered sanctuary of a teenager’s pink bedroom and evocative transitory spaces like bus shelters and highway overpasses.
Winner of the screenwriting prize, Hilary Brougher’s Stephanie Daley is in essence a brainy Lifetime movie (and better than that sounds)—a time-jumping account of two pregnancies, expertly acted by Tilda Swinton (as a forensic psychiatrist) and Amber Tamblyn (as a suburban teen accused of killing her newborn). The subject matter may be sensational, but Brougher’s approach is anything but—coolly considering pregnancy through the prisms of religious faith and body horror. Less successful though almost as ambitious, Paul Fitzgerald’s Forgiven, which mires a local politician (played by the director) in an evidence-tampering scandal, scans at first
as a Bush/Iraq allegory, but becomes strained as it shifts into fatalist moral drama.
A highlight from the World Cinema section, partly improvised by a Cape Town theater troupe, Mark Dornford-May’s Son of Man transfers the life of Jesus to present-day Africa (the “kingdom of Judea”); the Son of God is a revolutionary battling a military dictatorship. Despite splashes of folkloric color, it’s a work of stark, eloquent simplicity—a humane antidote to the Mel Gibson flogfest and the most political passion play since Pasolini’s.
The lineup’s overall sobriety is interrupted only by the erotica compendium Destricted, in which six art-world stars contrive elaborate scenarios that comment on, and function as, pornography. Matthew Barney’s grease-encrusted man-machine fuck, Hoist, is the most predictable; Gaspar Noé’s strobe-lit inflatable-doll wank, Babysitter, is definitely the least hot. The best entry is also the most direct: Explicitly concerned with exploitation and the nature of porn fantasies, Larry Clark’s Impaled sees the filmmaker auditioning nervous young studs for a hardcore shoot. For the most intoxicating whiff of transgression, though, check out the Sundance Shorts program: Carter Smith’s 35-minute Bugcrush is a superbly queasy portrait of fumbling high school lust that appears to share the anomic drift of Elephant but quickly mutates into something altogether sexier and more sinister. (Fittingly, Smith’s forthcoming debut feature, Warm, will be from a Dennis Cooper script.)
As is increasingly the case, the real horror movies can be found amid the documentaries. Michael Cain and Matt Radecki’s TV Junkie, ramping up the exhibitionism of Tarnation and The Talent Given Us, may be the quintessential Sundance film. Constructed from hours of footage former TV correspondent Rick Kirkham took of himself as he spiraled deeper into a crack habit, it’s a monument to solipsism that’s as riveting as it is revolting. Elsewhere, alongside a pair of Iraq accounts—Iraq in Fragments, which privileges the point of view of Iraqi civilians, and The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez, about the first American soldier to die in the conflict—there’s an emphasis on African American stories: Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s The Trials of Darryl Hunt, the painful recounting of a notorious wrongful conviction; Byron Hurt’s Beyond Beats and Rhymes, a primer on sexism and homophobia in hip-hop; and Ian Inaba’s American Blackout, about black-voter disenfranchisement from Florida 2000 to the Georgia Democratic primaries two years ago.