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Depraved in Utah

This year’s Sundance film fest turned up the violence and turned down the stars. Between screenings and free cheese, Tara Thorne reports.

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Two of my biggest pet peeves are a sense of entitlement and casual rudeness, so it really doesn’t make much sense that I make a habit of spending part of January at the Sundance Film Festival. Yet here I am, back in Park City, Utah, for the fourth time in the last five years. The thrill of the bustle died for me in Year Two. I didn’t even set foot on Main Street, the epicentre of the crazy, until three days after this year’s festival—running January 18 to 28—began. At least I’ve learned it’s best to just stay in the theatres on opening weekend.

Robert Redford has declared Sundance 2007 to be “the year of the documentary”—it’s always the year of something, at every festival, everywhere—probably because there’s been chatter in the trades about how there are no big stars at the fest. (And Lindsay Lohan’s stuck in rehab, so she can’t come to support her film or the local recreational drug industry. Ha!) I haven’t seen any great ones as of this writing, at a dozen films in with hopefully as many to go, but I’ve yet to catch The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, by the great Rory Kennedy, or Zoo, about that dude in Seattle who got intimate with a horse, then died. I did see My Kid Could Paint That, about a four-year-old abstract painter whose work is collected all over the world, and then it comes out that the fame-whore dad might be polishing the paintings up. It’s produced by A&E Indie and it belongs on that network, playing on, like, a Sunday afternoon, not at a film festival.

For me this Sundance has been “the year of the depraved.” In my first two days I saw seven films, and only two of those did not feature some horrible violence or people getting shot in the face. The opening scene of Weapons, another one of those disaffected youth stories about white guys wanting to be black and shooting each other (please stop it), features Nick Cannon getting his head blown off with a shotgun while he eats a hamburger. In close-up. Because this is an EDGY film, bitch! In David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels—shot in Halifax—the violence includes some tree-punching, lady-punching, a suicide, a murder and a child’s accidental death.

And then there’s An American Crime. Based on a true story out of the ’60s, it’s about a woman who takes in two kids temporarily—bringing the total in her single- parent household to eight—and works out her life rage on the eldest girl, committing horrible, and horrifying, physical abuse, eventually enlisting the help of her children and neighbour kids. It stars Catherine Keener—playing the scariest villain I’ve seen since Silence-era Hannibal Lecter—and Ellen Page, and if it had been any other actors I might’ve walked out on the first cigarette burn. The woman beside me cried quietly through the second half, and in the lobby afterward three women surrounded a fourth who couldn’t stop sobbing.

Page was the first celebrity—I choose not to count Bingham Ray inadvertently screaming in my face while greeting someone behind me—I saw upon making my maiden voyage to Main Street. This was heartening, as was the fact that she was there with her mom. Clearly unimpressed with the Sundance racket, she said she’s had a tough time spending her days talking about a film that’s about torture. As she moved past me, I heard a waiting paparazzo say, “Ellen, can I get a picture?”

Later that afternoon at a press and filmmaker reception—I have this rule: free cheese is yes—Judith Light sat across from me. She’s in Save Me, starring my original celebrity crush, Chad Allen, which is about camps to rehabilitate gays. This would’ve been a lame celebrity sighting last year, but now that she’s the drunk matriarch on Ugly Betty, it’s actually kind of awesome. Just after midnight a couple of days later, while I was on a last-minute snack run before heading home after a four-movie day, I saw Jeff Daniels, who was sitting at a table in the newsstand of the 24-hour grocery store, eating a doughnut.

The whole town seems to be under construction—condos, hotels—and there’s less parking than ever, indicating that Sundance has yet to reach its peak, even as each year gets more ridiculous than the one preceding. So fear not, you storytellers with murders and rapes and bestiality to explore—there’s still a place for you.

Late-breaking news: Just before press time, Tara Thorne saw Parker Posey, Hal Hartley and Cuba Gooding Jr. at the grocery store.

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