Sundance: A Critical Wrap-Up

Mark Leibowitz

Shaking off a reputation as a breeding ground for grim dysfunctional-family tales, the quality of the movies (and not just the deals) from the winter fest prove there’s hope for independent film.

Back in the day, when I was a reporter, not a reviewer, at the Sundance Film Festival, I quoted an agent who groaned, “Does Sundance mean depressing only spelled backwards?” In those days, ironically a time of a go-go economy and no American wars, indie films at the festival focused on squabbling dysfunctional families, teen angst and rebellion, grim stories from around the globe and a spiritual and intellectual malaise that, according to the filmmakers, was tearing apart our social fabric.

Now, with the world seemingly gone to hell in a handbasket, Sundance 2011 filled you with general optimism, not just for the wonderful talent presented in Park City but a sense of hope that permeated many of the films.

The first thing that must be said is that Sundance 2011 was one of the festival’s strongest in recent memory. There were so many confident voices and fresh approaches that the chief impression many will take away from the latest edition is that the indie community, despite reports to the contrary, is alive and very well. The many film sales certainly reflect the potency of this year’s lineup.

To be sure, squabbling dysfunctional families still light up Sundance screens, and who better to report on teen angst and rebellion than filmmakers only a few years removed from those memories? But Sundance 2011 was, for the most part, the exact opposite of depressing.

Consider the festival’s discovery of three filmmakers from Georgetown University: directors Mike Cahill (Another Earth) and Zal Batmanglij (Sound of My Voice) and Brit Marling, star, co-writer and co-producer of both of their films, which are adventurous and fresh forays into speculative fiction. Another Earth deals with hope and the possibility of redemption in a parallel reality, and Sound of My Voice wonders whether we’d recognize a messiah if one actually came. Among the pleasures of these two fine films are how they stand conventional sci-fi formulas on their heads and how the filmmakers refuse to acknowledge any dramatic or thematic limitations owing to a tiny budget. Bravo.

Cause for further celebration came in the directing debut of that marvelous actress Vera Farmiga. Her poignant Higher Ground traces the spiritual and intellectual evolution of a woman who embraces a ’60s-era Christian cult — only to find, to her regret, she must leave it. Never does the film mock the evangelical community (as the Premieres section comedy Salvation Boulevard does, and with too many cheap shots, in my view). Instead, Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe’s screenplay takes pains to show what might attract an intelligent woman (beautifully played by Farmiga) to such a tightknit community.

Benavides Born, from Amy Wendel and her co-writer husband Daniel Meisel, is an equally refreshing, noncliché look at a younger woman’s emotional evolution. This one takes place in a small Mexican-American community in South Texas and involves a young woman’s struggle to achieve higher education through the unusual sport of power weightlifting. It ends, realistically, not with triumph but rather hope for the future.

Rashaad Ernesto Green’s Gun Hill Road shows compassion and sensitivity with the familiar Sundance topic of sexual confusion and, in this instance, a transgender youth. Although the director perhaps focuses too much on the enraged macho father and not enough on the far-more-interesting son as he explores his sexual identity, here too the film ends on a note that is realistic but not overblown, that of possible reconciliation.

Like so many films before, Gavin Wiesen’s Homework shows the abiding influence of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, but the movie displays a nice sense of comedy and a gung-ho cast that breathes life into a coming-of-age story that is most definitely not new. And, yes, this too ends brimming with optimism.

Documentaries certainly emphasized the positive, starting with the first film screened here, Susanne Rostock’s Sing Your Song, which presents the encouraging role model of singer-entertainer-activist extraordinaire Harry Belafonte. Whether advising the Kennedys or raising awareness of starvation in Africa, Belafonte is an inspiring example to everyone. His buoyant presence at the world premiere only added to the celebratory evening.

Jim Whitaker’s Rebirth, a “human time-lapse” of 9/11 survivors, holds out the possibility of healing from even the worst terrorist attack on American soil. Meanwhile, Ali Samadi Ahadi’s The Green Wave used thousands of entries in Iranian blogs to show how a populist revolt sprang up against governmental tyranny. Only to be brutally crushed, of course, but the film, a mixed-media offering of animation, video posts and interviews, is quietly defiant of the oppression it portrays.

Kevin Macdonald’s Life in a Day, a collaboration by YouTube and Scott Free, shows daily life around the planet, culled from 4,500 hours of video shot in a single day. The results, which the filmmaker insists accurately reflect the nature of the “time capsule” material submitted, prove optimistic and positive about people’s lives around the planet.

Philip Cox’s entertaining The Bengali Detective finds a terrific and funny protagonist in private sleuth Rajesh Ji, who enters dance contests even as he hunts for the perpetrators of a triple murder and counterfeiters of Indian hair products.

My fellow THR critics here in the snow were equally impressed by the confident filmmaking in evidence this year. David Rooney was struck by “a consistently rigorous command of tone and atmosphere in movies like Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene and Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter. Both those directors, for me, showed remarkable maturity and control.”

James Greenberg responded to the work of several female directors. “I was very taken with the work of Maryam Keshavarz on Circumstance,” he said. “The degree of difficulty was high, and she pulled it off with great confidence, especially for a first feature. She’s a product of NYU, so perhaps young filmmakers are coming out of school with greater technical skills, and in her case, she also had great material and the talent to bring it to life.”

Perhaps a cautionary note should end this wrap of Sundance 2011. The challenge Sundance films always face is, as Rooney puts it, life beyond the deceptive embrace of Park City. For every Little Miss Sunshine or sex, lies, and videotape, there are a dozen films that roll out of this ski resort with thunderous acclaim only to be greeted by the sound of one hand clapping in lower elevations. Stern tests lie ahead for the films of Sundance 2011.

But I, for one, am upbeat.