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Dispatch from the 2009 Sundance Film Festival: An online exclusive

An online exclusive

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

By Patrick Z. McGavin


PARK CITY, Utah

The new year is typically the most significant for the major film festivals. Sundance, Rotterdam and Berlin unfold in quick succession and, for better or worse, these festivals anticipate the significant trends, movements and actions circling and dancing around art cinema.

At Sundance, the longest continuous festival I’ve covered — every year since 1992, the year an unknown named Quentin Tarantino unleashed Reservoir Dogs — the weather is often drenched in meaning. At the mid-point, the weather has been usually warm. The bright, almost devastating light bounces off everything: the snow, the endless succession of black SUVs and mountain terrain vehicles.

Given the horrendous industry atmosphere, the physical brightness is probably perceived as some kind of sunny redoubt to the primal menace suspended over the movie business: the credit crisis; mass firings and lay-offs; the international recession; the shuttering of specialized distributors; and the death watch of serious, literate film criticism in the major journals and print publications.

The dominant question heading into the festival was to what degree the bauble superimposed over the festival — the sense of nothing as very real or permanent, a kind of dream existence — would continue unchallenged in spite of the grim foreboding. Restraint is not a natural quality here. Everything is pumped up and magnified, though many talked about a more low-key festival that acknowledged the difficulties millions are currently coping with.

Festivals have their own military industrial complex — an intersecting apparatus of artists, producers, corporations, branding, media, critics and the public, brought together, sometimes in opposition, though each strangely dependent on the other.

Sundance is a festival of many parts. So far, I’ve only sampled a fraction of the program, almost no documentaries — often the festival’s most beautiful moments — to speak of, and yet this year’s program is one of the strongest in memory. Last year brought forth the remarkable Sugar, Ballast and Momma’s Boy.

The most formally accomplished film in the dramatic competition is Sin Nombre, an astonishing Spanish-language first feature by Cary Joji Fukunaga. It’s a tactile work that imaginatively intertwines two narratives, the first exploring the precarious odyssey a young Honduran girl undertakes with her long absent father and uncle to traverse the Mexican border in order to gain illegal entry into the United States. The second is a primal, visceral detailing of the vicious gang rituals ensnaring a moody, tense teenager Casper (Edgar Flores) and his 12-year-old sidekick (Kristyan Ferrer). The vicious world they inhabit shifts from their ferocious initiation rituals to a series of deadly encounters that spare nobody. The movie’s central metaphor of flight, reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, is caught in the stunning images of the illegal immigrants riding the rails, clustered together atop a rusted out freight.

A remarkable young Mexican actress named Paula Gaitan plays the Honduran girl. She inhabits an alternate tenderness, toughness and instinctive survival that is heartbreaking. Fukunaga never sentimentalizes the often difficult and harsh material. The filmmaking is sensational, bracing, cutting and unpredictable, from the rhythm of the cutting to the tense use of landscape and the dramatic imposition of pursuit and chase.

Another unknown actress, Gabourey Sidibe, delivers a complex, moving and unpredictable performance. In Lee Daniels’ Push: Based on a Novel by Sapphire, Sidibe plays a 16-year-old illiterate Harlem girl named Precious who is sexually assaulted by her father and emotionally imprisoned by her mother (an equally star-making turn from Mo‘Nique). The movie has an awkward, exceptionally mannered start. Daniels’ early style is much too primitive and overwrought in detailing the girl’s desperation. Expelled from school after the discovery of her second pregnancy, Precious enrolls in an alternative school, where an impassioned teacher (Paula Patton) slowly initiates the process of humanizing and building her self-confidence.

After the feverish opening 20 minutes, Daniels finally gets a comfortable tone and rhythm. The ensemble cast is outstanding. The byplay of the tough, vulnerable girls that make up her new collective at the girls‘ alternative school is fresh, engaging and sharply played. Daniels shows tremendous range, skill and daring in having the ability to accurately and honestly explore the social pathology of the black underclass without moral reprimand or social outrage. He also takes considerable courage in revealing the depths of passion and beauty in somebody invisible to the outside world — a dark skinned, conventionally unattractive and significantly overweight girl.

Sundance is often (correctly) faulted for its obsessive hype at the expense of actual accomplishment. From time to time, it offers a genuine and thrilling platform to launch a major new figure. Some years ago, Ashley Judd entered public and critical consciousness with her tender, ferocious work in Victor Nunez’s lyrical Ruby in Paradise. This year’s new sensation is British actress Carey Mulligan, a poised, fearless and inventive 23-year-old. In Danish director Lone Scherfig’s superb An Education, set in 1961 London, Mulligan plays a tough, if somewhat dreamy 16-year-old schoolgirl who finds herself irrevocably succumbing to the mysterious charms and breathless sophisticated of an older man (sharply played by Peter Sarsgaard). It’s a bravura performance, detailed and unsentimental. Mulligan’s quickness, emotional alertness and sexual precocity is staggering.

Novelist Nick Hornby adapted the memoir of journalist Lynn Barber. Mulligan’s schoolgirl is a Francophile, and the movie has the free, spontaneous momentum of early French New Wave films. Mulligan also has a key role in The Greatest. Mulligan portrays a suburban New York teenager who becomes a surrogate daughter to the family (played by Susan Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan) reeling from the death of their son. A first feature written and directed by Shana Feste, The Greatest hits too many off-notes and is damaged by an inconsistent tone. Mulligan has a tremendous presence in front of the camera — sexy and transfixing at the beginning before moving to something more emotionally difficult and knotty.

“I didn’t even have a publicist until a week ago,” Mulligan told me.

Rise is the ruling Sundance drive, and Carey Mulligan its first dramatic emblem.

 

 

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