Sundance 2004: The Buzz and the Bores

The Sundance Film Festival in snowy Park City, Utah, is many things to many people, but its relationship to reality is open to debate. Here, if nowhere else, people fight to get into screenings of the latest indie movies and documentaries; they're willing to stand for an hour in the freezing cold to see a film without stars made for the price of a used Honda Civic; they burst into rapturous applause for movies Hollywood would never dream of releasing. This is all wonderful, but deceptive. The sorry truth is that these same people wouldn't rush out to see these movies if and when they opened in their hometowns. Back at sea level, different rules apply. Over the years, many distributors have learned this lesson painfully. Caught up in the hysterical enthusiasm of Sundance, they have spent large amounts of money on movies that, it turned out, nobody in the real world wanted to watch. (The most egregious example was the $10 million Castle Rock forked over for the forgettably sappy "Care of the Spitfire Grill" in 1996.) In 2000, everyone at the festival was convinced that "Girlfight" would be the breakthrough commercial indie hit of the year. As it turned out, the movie fizzled, while another less flashy film that many distributors had passed on went on to win critics hearts, respectable dollars and Oscar nominations: "You Can Count on Me."

Midway through this year's festival, a surprising number of films had been purchased, even though enthusiasm for most of the dramatic-competition films and premieres was tepid at best. There was nothing that got hearts racing like "American Splendor" last year or "In the Bedroom" from a few years back. There was no obvious favorite to win the Jury Prize among the new features, but everyone was sure the audience award would go to the quirky, crowd-pleasing "Napoleon Dynamite." This was the kind of out-of-nowhere success story Sundance loves: a no-budget, no-star comedy made in small-town Idaho by a 24-year-old Mormon director, Jarod Hess, starring a Brigham Young University student majoring in 3-D animation named John Heder as the title character. He's an angry, gawky, picked-on high-school nerd with frizzy hair, huge glasses and an older brother of equal geekiness. A deadpan freakfest about small-town losers, "Napoleon Dynamite" is small, stylized, inch-deep and very funny. At first I feared the filmmaker's condescension toward his hapless characters would quickly turn sour. Fortunately, there's a sweetness that emerges from behind the mockery. As the tall tale unfolds, the filmmakers, at the risk of sentimentality, get us rooting for and identifying with this ultimate outsider. It's Nerds 'R Us. Much as the Sundance crowds loved it, one had to wonder if the reported $4.7 million Fox Searchlight paid for the movie (initially, the company would admit to only $3 million, but other distributors who had bid higher called its bluff) would turn out to be another case of Sundance fever.

The other comedy that got scooped up (for $5 million, by both Fox Searchlight and Miramax in an unusual joint venture) was "Garden State," a film starring, written and directed by "Scrubs" star Zach Braff. He plays a heavily sedated young man returning from Los Angeles to his New Jersey hometown for the funeral of his depressed mother. Braff is loaded with talent. He has a genuine filmmaker's eye, and he gets an unexpectedly wacky and endearing performance from Natalie Portman as a girl whose neuroses rival his own. The first half of "Garden State" (which owes a clear debt to "The Graduate") is deliciously droll and full of perfectly timed comic vignettes. Then, alas, Braff gets earnest, and "Garden State" turns into a rather banal Therapy Movie, in which our hero learns How to Feel. Still, even if the movie didn't deliver all it initially promised, Braff is clearly a filmmaker with a bright future.

More unusual, and challenging, is Shane Carruth's made-on-a-shoestring oddity, "Primer." It could be described as a thriller about young techies in white shirts and ties who invent a time-travel machine in their Texas garage, but that would make it sound much more orthodox than it is. It's a genre movie that manages to be both riveting and incomprehensible at the same time. There wasn't a person who could claim they could follow the plot, yet Carruth's tight, nuts-and-bolts storytelling keeps you hanging on every baffling twist and turn. Obscure but not pretentious (the program notes compared it, misleadingly, to "Pi," but the filmmaker said he was more influenced by "All the Presidents Men's" procedural realism), "Primer" was the most radically independent film in the competition. Not for all tastes, but tasty nonetheless.

Mention should also be made of the charms of "Easy," a likeable romantic comedy starring the striking Marguerite Moreau as a woman trying not to give herself too freely to men. Jane Weinstock's movie could only have been made in Los Angeles: her ear is well attuned to that city's very specific hip, multi-ethnic lifestyle. You can sense a woman made "Easy," but you would be hard pressed to guess that "The Woodsman" was. Director and co-writer Nicole Kassell's solid, cleanly crafted movie is a sympathetic study of a convicted child molester trying to conquer his demons and start life over. Kevin Bacon is superb as the haunted, self-loathing pedophile. Its not an easy story to watch, but Kassell tells it honestly and well. But even with a name cast--Kyra Sedgwick, Mos Def, Benjamin Bratt and Eve--this is the kind of movie that gives marketers nightmares. It will be fascinating to see if any distributor steps up to the plate.

These competition films were all about future promise. You didn't hear people buttonholing their friends and saying, "You must see this!" The strongest feelings were aroused, instead, by the documentaries. These have always tended to be the strongest entries at Sundance (there's rarely a weak one in the documentary competition, while there are always many "how'd that get in here?" fiction films). But while it's unlikely any distributor is going to throw $5 million at a nonfiction film (people laughed when Bingham Ray, formerly of United Artists, spent $3 million on "Bowling for Columbine," but he had the last laugh when it became the most successful documentary of all time), there's a growing awareness that this is where the real heat is in movies today. These are the movies that give you something to talk about.

My biggest regret this year was that I wasn't able to see more docs in my five days at Sundance. But the ones I did see have stuck with me. No movie at the festival touched me as deeply as "Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids" by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman. While documenting the lives of the prostitutes in Calcutta, Briski, a photojournalist based in New York, began to spend more and more time with their stigmatized and often mistreated children. Briski bought the kids cameras, taught them how to take pictures and in the process transformed the way they saw themselves, and the world. We get to know these children--many of whom show remarkable talent--intimately. Inevitably, they will be swept into prostitution and drugs themselves. But their photography brings them a shot at a different future, and Briski becomes determined to help them escape their vicious environment. She battles the bureaucracy, trying to place them in boarding schools; an exhibit of their work in New York helps raise money for their education. It's a remarkable and moving story, focused properly on the kids, not on deifying the down-to-earth Briski as some sort of savior.

Beautifully edited and shot (are there any colors in the world as vibrant as those in India?) "Born into Brothels" gives us intimate access to a world we've never seen before. It's an artful film about, among many other things, the power of art to transform lives.

No documentary was more timely or disturbing than "Persons of Interest." Filmmakers Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse conducted a series of interviews with Arab and Muslim immigrants who were swept up in the post-9/11 hysteria and imprisoned, often with no charges filed against them and no legal recourse. The film has an elegant, almost formal, simplicity; all the interviews are conducted in a bare room suggestive of a jail cell. The 12 stories we hear illustrate all too clearly the human cost of a Justice Department that has abandoned fundamental human rights in its indiscriminate campaign against terrorism. But the film never raises its voice to propagandize. It doesn't need to.

Among the other strong documentaries I saw were "The Fight," a fascinating exploration of the two legendary heavyweight battles between Joe Louis and his German opponent Max Schmeling on the eve of World War II, fights that were fraught with international repercussions and racial symbolism. I thought I knew this story, but Barak Goodman's riveting documentary has twists and ironies I never suspected, and adds fascinating details about the ever-adaptable Schmeling, a survivor with a Zelig-like ability to fit into any political environment. You will also be hearing a lot about "Heir to an Execution," the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg told from a personal point of view: the filmmaker is their granddaughter Ivy Meeropol, who looks at the ramifications of her grandparents' trial and execution on all their descendants. Riveting stuff.

A different kind of personal film, which was shown in the "Frontier" section reserved for cutting-edge or experimental films, was the memorable "Tarnation." Somewhere between a visual diary, an autobiography, an essay and an exorcism, this painfully self-revealing but never self-indulgent movie is a whirlwind journey through filmmaker Jonathan Caouette's Southern Gothic life, dominated by the specter of his schizophrenic mother, Renee, whose brain was destroyed by shock treatments forced upon her at an early age. Caouette has been filming his life since he was a child and, no less than those kids in Calcutta, the camera has proved his salvation. (At 11, he filmed himself in full drag giving an amazing improvisation as a hard-bitten Texas diva.) Championed by Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell, "Tarnation" is a gay man's long night's journey into day, a fractured mosaic flecked with tales of molestation, rape, insanity and drugs but which ultimately coheres into a remarkable affirmation of a son's enduring love for his broken mother. According to the Sundance catalog, this one-of-a-kind epic--destined to become an underground phenom--was made on a budget of $218.32.