Sundance Film Fest 2006: Still Mecca for Indies

Sundance Festival 2006: Still Mecca for Indies

My expectations of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, the sixteenth consecutive event I have attended, were rather high. There was a reason for that: The Sundance Institute, the organization that oversees the Festival, celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary and founder Robert Redford and his team were in a particularly jubilant spirit.

Prior to the festival, the programmers claimed that this year’s edition goes back to the roots of independent cinema, displaying small, personal, and innovative films. However, judging by what I saw, the line-up was a decidedly mixed bag.

The Dramatic Competition series gets most of the spotlight, because it exhibits fresh, hot talent, first or second films of a new generation of directors. It’s the reason why Hollywood agents and execs descend on Park City, which is also a great ski resort.

Stronger Representation of Women

It’s a sad but factual reality that women are still vastly underrepresented in American film, both mainstream and indie. Nonetheless, this year, there were more films written and directed by women than the usual, which may signal a positive change.

To begin with, the opening night was writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends With Money,” a serio-comedy about how money, and the lack of it, affects and distorts relationships among a small group of Los Angeles friends. The film probes the shifting relationships among women who have been friends all of their adult lives. Now, as they settle into their early middle age, their friendship is increasingly challenged by the ever-growing disparity in their individual degrees of financial comfort. The movie, well-acted by Frances McDormand, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Aniston, and Joan Cusack offers a poignant snapshot of the way we live today, where the safe divisions that class and money have created are eroding under the unstoppable force of everyday life. Holofcener shows a slice of modern life that’s both brutally honest and ultimately uplifting.

Four of the 16 films in competition displayed women voices, what we call in film studies the Female Gaze. In Hilary Brougher’s second feature, “Stephanie Daley,” the eponymous heroine, a teenage girl (wonderfully played by Amber Tamblyn, star of TV’s “Joan of Arcadia”) is forced to come to terms with killing her own baby, while going through an interrogation by Lydie Crane (Tilda Swinton). What begins as an after-school special, or a story taken from the news, gradually becomes a provocative examination of two vastly different women who nonetheless go through personal crises at the same time. The climax, in which Stephanie recreates the experience of abortion, is graphic and almost too painful to watch. The film’s dark tone and lack of hopeful ending makes it interesting for savvy and patient viewers, but a tough commercial proposition for distributors.

The subject matter of “Sherrybaby””a woman’s rehab after prison”has been done before, yet Maggie Gyllenhaal’s towering performance as the white trash mom elevates the film at least two notches above its melodramatic trappings. Director Laurie Collyer returned to Sundance with her first narrative feature, after exhibiting there her acclaimed 2000 documentary, “Nuyorican Dream.” In “Sherrybaby,” which she also wrote, Collyer offers a sharp portrait of an intense woman who’s struggling daily to keep her life in the right track. Recently released from prison, Sherry dreams of getting a job and reuniting with her five-year-old daughter, who she barely knows. Conflicts arise when she realizes that her brother and his wife are more emotionally vested in raising her daughter than she (or they) is willing to admit. It doesn’t help that Sherry slips back into drugs and rough encounters with her parole officer (Giancarlo Esposito).

Social Problem Films

Drug addiction featured in many Sundance films this year. For me, the best movie in competition was Ryan Fleck’s “Hal Nelson,” which boasts an astonishing performance from Ryan Gosling. Five years ago, Goslng made a strong impression in the Sundance-premiered “The Believer,” a film that never got theatrical distribution in the U.S. due to its explosive subject matter; it was shown on cable.

“Half Nelson” is a Brooklyn redemption tale centering on a young white base-head teacher, who gets through to his inner-city eighth-graders with lessons of historical dialectics. Well-liked by the students, the leftist-liberal deviates form the formal curriculum by trying to personalize significant chapters from history of the civil rights. Co-written by Fleck and Anna Boden, the film undercuts its potentially schematic structure”it is not another movie about a charismatic, dedicated teacher in the ghetto that Michelle Pfeifer played in “Dangerous Mind”. The drug habits are portrayed in a matter-of-fact style and the friendship that evolves between Gosling’s teacher and a black teenage girl, who’s determined to help him, is extremely touching and rewarding.

Serious Tone

Not surprisingly, reflecting the tenor of our times, most of the films at Sundance, American and foreign, were dramas–and I mean heavy-duty drama. An attempt at political subject matter, Chris Gorak’s apocalyptic “Right at Your Door” poses a moral conundrum: If your wife was contaminated in a dirty-bomb attack, would you let her in the house While Los Angeles chokes, Gorak reduces his scenario to an intimate melodrama, with the husband and wife facing each other through a door or window. Since we don’t know much about the state of their marriage prior to the disaster, we are not emotionally vested in them as characters, wondering how a potentially profound chronicle descends into irrelevance with politics of destruction serving as an exterior, almost an excuse. Making things worse is the unsympathetic nature of the husband and wife, who squabble for two hours through duct-taped plastic, only to reach the banal conclusion that they should have spent more quality time with each other.

Coming-of-Age

Given the number of first-time directors, and that most of them are in their twenties, it’s not surprising how many coming-of-age sagas were on display. One of the more powerful sagas was Dito Montiel’s “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” a movie very much in vein of Scorsese’s seminal “Mean Streets,” as well as such “hang-out neighborhood” pictures as “Diner,” all about men who refuse to mature, the efforts it takes to assume responsibility for their decisions, and the price paid for leaving loved ones behind. Following his predecessors, Montiel enlivens tough autobiographical material, based on his own memoir about growing up on mid-1980s Astoria’s mean streets. “A Guide” benefits from restrained work by Robert Downey Jr. (as Dito’s alter ego), and Chazz Palminteri and Dianne Wiest, as his parents, actors who often overact.

Crowd Pleasers and Original Visions

“Half Nelson” was surprisingly ignored by the jury, comprised this year of director Alan Rudolph and actor Terrence Howard among others, which this year opted for more conventional and mainstream films, such as “Quinceneara,” a film that inexplicably won the jury and the audience award.

The writer-director team of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland has playfully labeled their film a “neo-sink drama.” But it turns out to be a fake label for a crowd-pleaser that elevates its Latino characters to the level of mythic saints and penalizes most of the white characters as villains. The film begins well before it becomes too cute and predictable. As Magdalena’s fifteenth birthday approaches, her life is consumed by thoughts of her boyfriend, her Quinceanera dress and the Hummer limo she hopes to ride on that special day. Life seems simple and pleasant in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood, where the story is set (and the directors live)”until fate delivers a surprise: Magdalena is pregnant. Expelled by her religious and rigid father, she moves in with her liberal great granduncle and her tough Cholo cousin, who turns out to be gay. Predictably, the trio goes on to form a makeshift family unit that must fight social stigmas and encroaching urban gentrifications that threatening to kill the old, beloved communal life.

Almost in diametric opposition to “Quinceneara” is “Wristcutters: A Love Story,” a film that divided critics due to its original (some say “perverse”) vision. Croatian-born writer-director Goran Dukic has made a romantic comedy about suicide victims, who find themselves living an after life that’s worse that the more real life they escaped from.

Genre Pictures

In the Premiere section, I liked two movies”with reservations. Judging by the bidding war and Fox Searchlight’s paying the tag price of $10 million, “Little Miss Sunshine” must have been the “hottest” film in the festival, a satire of a dysfunctional family which dissected the American obsession with wining by offering a cynical look at beauty pageants for young girls. Just when you thought the concept of dysfunctional family has been exhausted in Hollywood, along comes this likable picture that has the potential to become a breakthrough hit in similar way to last year’s Sundance entry, “Hustle & Flow.”

Idiosyncratic on the surface, “Little Miss Sunshine” is really a genre comedy that combines elements of the dysfunctional family film with those of a road comedy. The feature directorial debut of renowned music video directors (and husband-and-wife team) Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the farcical comedy is sharply written by Michael Arndt. One of its positive aspects is embracing a three-generational family, affording each of its six members a fully developed role, with an arch, ups-and-downs, and reconciliation after inner or outers struggles. The film tells the story of the six-member Hoover family over a crowded three-day span, as they journey from their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in Redondo Beach, California, to fulfill the wish of seven-year-old Olive, an ordinary-looking girl with big glasses and equally big dreams.

The film’s star, Toni Collette, as the conflicted mother, was one of Sundance’s major figures this year, giving a commanding performance in another premiere, “The Night Listeners,” which the new Miramax (sans Harvey Weinstein) grabbed for distribution after the second public screening. Stylishly elegant, “The Night Listener,” writer-director Patrick Stettner’s adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s novel, is an intriguing mystery-thriller that explores themes of identity, obsession, and sublimation. Despite some structural shortcomings, the film provides good roles to Robin Williams, as Maupin’s alter ego, and Collette, as a blind mother who conceals her identity as well as that of her presumably sickly genius son.

As a novel, “Night Listener” was inspired by something that happened to Maupin, the celebrated San Francisco writer of the popular “Tales of the City” series. In 1992, he was sent a manuscript written by a 14-year-old boy who had suffered abuse as a child and who had been rescued by a social worker, who in turn encouraged him to write as a way of healing from his nightmare. Wishing to tell the boy how much he liked his work, Maupin began a phone friendship through the adoptive mother and the kid, who lived 3,000 miles away from San Francisco, in New Jersey.

Several critics found the storytelling flawed and the text pregnant with meanings that unfortunately remain absent at the end. Thematically, inevitable comparisons will be made with the far superior “Misery,” which also concerns a troubled relationship between a writer and a fan, and the thriller “One-Hour Photo,” which also starred Robin Williams. Ultimately, it’s a frustrating, schizoid thriller whose first half is complex and ambiguous, but second is vastly disappointing.

Sexy Docus

I am not addicted to crossword puzzles as some of my friends are, yet I found a lot of merits in “Wordplay,” Patrick Creadon’s lovely tribute to New York Times celeb puzzle-maker, Will Shortz, who has edited the daily puzzles for 12 years. Testimonies from former President Bill Clinton to Yankee pitcher Mike Mussima to this year’s Oscar show host Jon Stewart all swear by the N.Y. Times puzzle, a prestigious institution if there ever was one.

Of the other documentaries I saw, I particularly recommend “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” an outrageously entertaining anatomy of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) that even its detractors concurred that at the very least it called for serious reform of the Rating System.

Writing about these movies, I realize that perhaps, after all, Sundance was not as mediocre as it felt like while I was there.