Todd McCarthy's Sundance Wrap: Why the 'Beasts' Rule

2012-04 REV Beasts of the Southern Wild H
Jess Pinkham

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) on her father's boat, which consists of the rear end of a pickup truck set atop oil barrels.

THR's film critic on the triumph of "Beasts of the Southern Wild," Spike Lee's belly-flop and the sad glut of crass sex comedies at Park City.

At the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, there was Beasts of the Southern Wild and then there was everything else. A number of past Sundances are thought of that way—the years of Ruby in Paradise, sex, lies, and videotape, Reservoir Dogs and perhaps a couple of others—but it's difficult to think of a festival at which, from an artistic pont of view, one film stood so completely apart from the others.

But discoveries like Benh Zeitlin's first feature, a model American independent film that poetically examines the spirited, organic, punishing and determined lives of Louisiana fringe dwellers, don't come along every season. After the accelerating quality and sense of discovery here over the past two years, this year's event otherwise represented a measurable, if not drastic, dilution of quality among the new American features, in both the competitive and premieres sections.

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Happily, the jury got it right—it would have been a scandal if it hadn't—and now all Zeitlin will have to deal with are the treacherous waters of fame, advanced expectations for his next film and the inevitable backlash he'll receive from opinion-makers who, having missed out of the discovery phase, will see the film later and insist that it's overrated. I can see it now: If and when it's shown in Cannes, either in the main selection or Directors Fortnight, French critics will feel the need to snub it, or at best damn it with faint praise, suggesting that what may have been good enough for Sundance merits just a passing nod in Cannes. Such are the problems of success.

I caught up with members of various juries at the awards ceremony Saturday night (that's something I'd love to see in Cannes, a closing night party where jury members are encouraged to mingle with the filmmakers, critics, ticket holders and, in the French equivalent of Sundance volunteers, the omnipresent uniformed Palais entrance guardians) and the prevailing view of the dramatic entries was one of adequate, if not exceptional, choices.

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In the American dramatic competition, The Surrogate, potentially the biggest commercial offering in the category, was the unsurprising winner of the audience award. Ben Lewin's immaculately written and acted film deals with the outre subject of a severely disabled polio victim's loss of virginity thanks to the expert intervention of a sex surrogate. But it does so in a disarmingly frank way that is encouraging and comforting, so much so that mainstream audiences might very well embrace it.

Fox Searchlight picked up both Beasts and The Surrogate and the challenges posed by the two films are very different: No matter what the distributor does, I can't imagine Beasts drawing anything more than a seriously art-minded audience, whereas The Surrogate demands Weinstein-style relentless promotion and single-minded determination for total conquest. Impressive as Fox Searchlight's track record may be, the company has always been classy rather than ballsy and it may be that the latter is what's required in this case.

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Otherwise, the U.S. dramatic competition was a mixed bag at best. James Ponsoldt's Smashed has some weight to it thanks to Mary Elizabeth Winstead's wonderfully dimensional performance as an alcoholic trying to turn a corner and there was appreciable support for a few other category entries, such as Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed (for which Derek Connolly won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award), Middle of Nowhere, for which Ava DuVernay nabbed the directing prize, and So Yong Kim's For Ellen. But there were too many innocuous sex comedies of no stylistic ambition by filmmakers who clearly aspire to nothing more than to make similar films on larger budgets for the studios, something Sundance has no need to accommodate, much less promote.

The same could be said, at least in part, for the Premieres section, where films are expected to be more “commercial” but should still have something unusual or wayward about them. The two best known directors in the category, Spike Lee and Stephen Frears, did belly-flops with Red Hook Summer and Lay the Favorite, respectively, and a film that had enticed as a potential guilty pleasure, Leslye Headland's Bachelorette, turned into a turn-off.

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It was another raunchy comedy, however, Julie Delpy's farcically French 2 Days in New York, in which the director co-starred with Chris Rock, that most successfully mixed sex and laughs. Nicholas Jarecki's financial thriller Arbitrage with Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon lushly did what it set out to do, Jake Schreier's Robot and Frank, in which Frank Langella filled the latter role, pleased the majority, while James Marsh's Northern Ireland-set Shadow Dancer registered with devotees of low-key, Le Carre-style political thrillers.

It was noted at the awards ceremony that 12 of the 16 entries in the U.S. documentary competition were social issue films. All were, to one degree or another, impassioned, well made and vital; to prefer one to another is perhaps simply a function of the intensity of one's own inclination toward one cause over another. As jury member Charles Ferguson, director of two of the essential documentaries of the past few years, No End in Sight and Inside Job, stated from the stage, those dozen titles “were more or less about the same thing: What has happened to the United States?” The answer, as posited by the documentaries individually and collectively, is that it's pretty royally screwed up.

Compared to the last two years, which saw Sundance making gradual inroads on titles that might otherwise have headed to the Berlin Film Festival little more than a week later, the world dramatic section experienced a noticeable recession in quality at the top this year; jury members and audiences alike found nothing of first rank. My personal favorite was a totally out-there paean to youthful sexuality from Chilean director Marialy Rivas, Young & Wild, a film born of a raw and raunchy website that will unquestionably make the rounds at festivals and in release within the coming months.

As in its American counterpart, the world documentary section was heavily political, with some heavy-duty indictments of situations in the Palestinian territories (the jury prize-winning The Law in These Parts and 5 Broken Cameras), Africa (The Ambassador), the Middle East (1/2 Revolution) and Russia (Putin's Kiss), among others, dominating. However, it was the unraveling of personal mysteries in the audience award-winning Searching for Sugar Man and The Imposter that seemed to most rivet their viewers.

Simply as an experience on the ground, Sundance has regained a sense of sanity, balance and perspective in the three years that John Cooper and Trevor Groth have been running the show; the focus on stars and premieres shown for the wrong reasons is much reduced, the crowding and traffic are at least manageable and Park City is far less clogged by tag-along celebrities and scenesters with no reason to be there other than to steal a sliver of the spotlight and grab bags of swag. The focus has returned to where it should be, what's up on the screen.