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The frenzy that has come to be synonymous with the Sundance Film Festival--a combination of naked ambition, fear, competition, celebrity swooning and testosterone--seems turned down a notch this year. It's the Utah festival's 20th anniversary, but the air of celebration is on hold in Park City--waiting, perhaps, for the Olympics to arrive. I wouldn't go so far as to call it mellow--how laid back can it be when local fans and paparazzi are visibly drooling at the spectacle of Brad Pitt and Robert Redford hugging each other at the premiere screening of "The Good Girl," a movie starring Mrs. Pitt (a.k.a. Jennifer Aniston)? But the sense that this is a life or death event has, shall we say, been put in perspective.

Sundance Veterans came to the 2002 festival with modest expectations. Last year's dramatic competition had been the strongest in years, unveiling such gems as "In the Bedroom," "Memento," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "L.I.E.," "The Deep End" and "The Believer." The law of film-festival averages says lightning can't strike two years in a row. At midpoint in the festival, it's safe to say the law is right.

But if nothing has generated over-the-top excitement, there's plenty of good work on display. This has always been a festival about discovering new talent, and the crop of rookie filmmakers--as well as new performers--is promising indeed. In film after film this year, very young unknown actors deliver knockout performances. If the best movies last year tended to be about adults, the cream of the crop this year tilt toward youth. But these are not, fortunately, movies that will be mistaken for "American Pie 2" and "Orange County."

One of the finest is not, for some reason, in the competition. Karen Moncrieff's spare, gripping "Blue Car" features an extraordinarily vivid performance by 15-year-old Agnes Bruckner as an unhappy high-school student from a broken home. The heroine has a gift for poetry, which is encouraged by a sensitive teacher (David Strathairn) whose attraction to her becomes increasingly complex. There's nothing flashy about Moncrieff's filmmaking, and there doesn't need to be: from the start, she gets the emotional details right, and the viewer feels intimately engaged with the young protagonist. It's a powerful, fresh, honest debut.

In "Blue Car," the sexual tension between a fortysomething man and a teenage girl is extremely discomfiting. In "Tadpole," a 15-year-old boy is in love with his 40-year-old stepmother (Sigourney Weaver)--and it's hilarious. This smart, sophisticated little comedy, shot on digital video in a mere 14 days by director Gary Winick, was snapped up by Miramax in the festival's first days. The setting is well-heeled Upper East Side of New York; the protagonist, Oscar, is a prep-school smartie with a taste for Voltaire and mature women. Newcomer Aaron Stanford has impeccable comic timing as the precocious young hero. (It comes as a shock to learn he was 23 when "Tadpole" was shot, so convincing is he as a 15-year-old.) Equally stellar is Bebe Neuwirth as Weaver's best friend, who sleeps with Oscar but has a hard time keeping it secret.

The other young actress whom audiences have warmly embraced is 16-year-old America Ferrera, the star of Patricia Cardosa's crowd-pleasing "Real Woman Have Curves." This amiable HBO movie is about a smart Mexican-American girl from a working-class East L.A. immigrant family. She's saddled with an overbearing mom (the wonderful Lupe Ontiveros) who never misses an opportunity to tell her she's too fat. Ferrera is quite irresistible as a college-bound girl who's perfectly happy with her heft. The movie isn't subtle, but it's definitely fun, and it touched a deep nerve with women in the audience, who cheered loudly when Ferrera downs a delicious dessert--a moment as defiantly triumphant, you would think from the response, as Ali's knock out of George Forman in Zaire.

It's been a good year for women directors. In addition to the debuts of Moncrieff and Cardosa, there was Rebecca Miller's accomplished, beautifully written second feature "Personal Velocity." Miller (daughter of playwright Arthur) tells three separate stories of women at life-changing moments. (The source is Miller's own collection of short stories.) Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey and Fairuza Balk star, respectively, as a redneck gal fleeing her violent husband, a married New York editor transformed by her unexpected success and a former runaway whose encounter with a young hitchhiker alters her view of herself. Miller is a witty and socially acute observer; the three portraits in "Personal Velocity" are told with both novelistic richness and brisk, confident economy.

If I were a betting man, I'd put money on the future of Justin Lin, a young Asian-American director whose cinematic savvy is amply demonstrated in "Better Luck Tomorrow." His stylish and very well-acted movie (you'd never know it was made on a miniscule budget) is a stereotype-shattering portrait of bright, well-off Asian-American high school kids whose straight-A records provide a cover for their increasingly dangerous extracurricular activities. Lin's movie tries to do too much--it takes some dark, credibility-defying turns--but you come away knowing you've witnessed the birth of a moviemaking career.

Another impressive debut film is "The Slaughter Rule," the work of twin writer-directors Alex and Andrew Smith. Aided by powerful performances from Ryan Gosling and David Morse, and the memorable snow-bleached cinematography of Eric Edwards, they've made a haunting (if sometimes overwrought) movie about coming of age in bleak, wintry, working-class Montana, where the unyielding notions of masculinity can be as crippling as the hits taken on a six-man football field. The movie has a bred-in-the-bone sense of place, and a willingness to take big emotional risks.

These six dramatic features (four of them first films) were the best of the American indies I've seen so far. (At Sundance, one can only see a fragment of the more than a hundred movies shown.) But the best time I've had at the movies here has been at a documentary. "The Cockettes" is an exuberant journey into a barely remembered corner of the psychedelic '60s. The Cockettes were a gender-bending troupe of LSD-imbibing hippie performers whose midnight musical extravaganzas at the Palace Theater in San Francisco were legendary occasions--and whose media-hyped New York debut proved to be a disaster. (New Yorkers actually expected them to be good, which hadn't occurred to them.) Filmmakers David Weissman and Bill Weber have a treasure trove of archival footage (including hilarious clips from their infamous movie "Tricia's Wedding") and wonderful interviews with the surviving members (plus the likes of John Waters). It's an amazing tale of a time that, for all its excess and sexual anarchy, now seems strikingly innocent. The coda to this high-flying tale is a sad one--AIDS, drug overdoses, brain damage--as reality comes crashing down upon these beautiful and silly dreamers. At a festival ostensibly celebrating the independent spirit, "The Cockettes" is a reminder of just how wildly independent our spirits once were.

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