Like every man who came to his senses in any romantic comedy ever, Sundance won me back in the end. It chased me through an airport. It climbed my fire escape even though it was afraid of heights. It stood outside my window blasting Peter Gabriel.
When last we met I was wallowing in the year of the depraved at the Sundance Film Festival, having been led astray by Robert Redford’s rugged, handsome promise of awesome documentaries. All I was seeing was gun violence, hand-to-hand combat, child abuse and death, so much death in all forms, from suicide to drowning to starvation, people under five and over 80 biting it in horrible ways.
And I’m fine with that, normally. I don’t need movies to be happy or funny or without message, but it’s hard to take four films’ worth, a whole workday full of that shit, day after day.
Though the same day my festival changed for the better was the day I took in Hounddog, AKA The Dakota Fanning Rape Project—as usual, more hype than it’s worth. The scene really is tastefully done but the movie is a huge downer and left the festival without distribution, and I began to witness a streak of what would become my favourite films.
Every year there’s something out of Sundance that makes it through to Oscar season. This year it’s Little Miss Sunshine. I’m predicting 2008’s will be Brenda Blethyn in Clubland, a warm-hearted Australian ensemble drama about Blethyn’s English cabaret singer, Jean, mother of two teen sons and trying to give her career one last go. She’s the kind of matriarch every suitor fears, and when son Tim (Khan Chittenden, pretty) falls for Jill (Emma Booth, prettier), who despite her crushing insecurities threatens Jean’s woman- and motherhood with all her willowy, boy-entrancing blondeness, Jean goes over the edge. It’s the kind of movie Diane Keaton has been trying to do for years. With only a jagged edge here and there, it’s as light as evening reruns, but a joy to behold nonetheless.
Adrienne Shelly never broke out of the indie realm that made Parker Posey, also a Hal Hartley find, a star. Shelly was murdered last November, which means her third and final film as a director, Waitress, will never get a genuine reception. What’s a shame is that it’s really good, a breezy character piece starring Keri Russell, showing more range than even when she was winning Emmys as Felicity, as a small-town girl stuck in an abusive marriage who gets pregnant when her husband (Jeremy Sisto, a smart blend of obvious and ridiculous, yet so obviously scary) boozes her up. Russell’s Jenna is a diner waiter who’s a pie genius, inventing a new one every day (foodies will die for the many pie-porn shots). Her slaw-slinging cohorts are Cheryl Hines, stuck in a crap marriage of a different kind—her husband is an invalid—and Shelly herself, as a girl who can’t get a date, which is both the movie’s biggest misstep (it’s unbelievable) and also, possibly accidentally, a sad metaphor for Shelly’s dissatisfaction with her acting career. Waitress is a lovely film, the kind of movie about girls that transcends the demeaning chick flick tag into Nicole Holofcener territory. It’s too bad about the backstory.
Sometimes with movies people talk and talk and talk about how amazing they are and by the time they get to the viewing public they’re so puffed up it takes just one prick to deflate all the hype. So ignore these words about Once, a surprising, brilliant, sob-inducing, downtrodden, uplifting Irish musical starring Glen Hansard of the Frames and his sometime bandmate Markéta Irglová. As Guy and Girl, they meet on the streets of Dublin and end up recording some songs together as their relationship plays out—in songs played on guitar and piano—in between. That cheesy premise—“the modern musical” as they’ve been calling it—is a necessary evil for explaining this free-roaming, adventurous, delicate slice of cinema, the kind of movie with no message and no apparent weight that will be dismissed by critics who need those things in order to apply importance to film. When people talk about movies being about life, they mean movies like Once.
Keep giving me movies like this, Sundance, and no amount of gloom will ever kill our love.