Sundance is where you might run into Bono and Steve Buscemi one minute, and then get stuck in line at the supermarket behind a woman in high-heeled designer snow boots buying a single can of Red Bull and, in front of her, a Mexican couple laboriously paying for infant formula with WIC vouchers. OK, I'm exaggerating for effect. I didn't run into Bono at all. I only talked to people who did. And Bono and Buscemi were not together. (The latter was buying some coffee at the only decent place in town that isn't Starbucks.) If I could somehow have brought Bono, Steve, the sexy Red Bull lady and the young Latino couple together -- well, that sounds like an independent film to me.
But would it be a narrative feature or a documentary? It's the question of the hour up here. At roughly the halfway point of Sundance 2007, with only a few major premieres still ahead of us, conventional wisdom seems to be clustering around the idea that it's a great year for risky and ambitious documentaries -- I've already covered "Chicago 10," "Zoo," "The Future Is Unwritten" and "For the Bible Tells Me So," and there are more to come -- while the fiction films look tidy, safe and a bit lackluster.
Even the narrative features so far anointed as hits at Robert Redford's suburb-in-the-sky are more like variations on time-honored indie themes than grand statements or aesthetic breakthroughs. No one will say a bad word about "The Savages," Tamara Jenkins' long-awaited follow-up to "The Slums of Beverly Hills." I haven't seen it yet, but the recipe sounds familiar: Take two high-integrity actors (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman), thrust them into a high-anxiety family situation (parental illness) and let the tears and laughs fall as they may.
In the biggest acquisition of this year's festival so far, the Weinstein Co. just paid $4 million for the rights to James C. Strouse's "Grace Is Gone," in which John Cusack plays a patriotic dad who spends the whole day with his daughters at an amusement park, trying to summon the courage to tell them their mother has been killed in Iraq. Harvey Weinstein has apparently been telling anyone who will listen that he smells a 2007 Oscar for Cusack in this role, but does anyone in the country want to see a movie that's about Iraq, even peripherally? Don't we go to movies to stop thinking about stuff like that?
I have yet to catch Zoe Cassavetes' romantic comedy "Broken English" (with Parker Posey and French heartthrob Melvil Poupaud), and eagerly anticipated American features such as Craig Brewer's "Black Snake Moan," Deborah Kempmeier's "Hounddog" and Nelson George's "Life Support" still lie ahead of us. Here are five noteworthy narrative features that premiered in the past few days and really stuck with me. There's not much connective tissue -- they range from Scotland to rural Ontario to Charlotte, N.C., and Burbank, Calif. -- but there are some coincidences. Four of the five directors are first-time filmmakers, and four of the five films feature commanding actresses in memorable leading roles. I might also observe that my favorite narrative film and favorite documentary so far are both British, in a festival predominantly focused on American film. But let's open that can of worms some other time.
It's almost cheating to start with "Red Road," the debut feature from English director Andrea Arnold (who has actually won an Oscar, for her 2003 short film "Wasp"). This neo-noir thriller has been bouncing around the filmfest world since premiering last May at Cannes, and should finally reach U.S. theaters this spring. But it's still dynamite, the kind of sexy, paranoid, creepily atmospheric picture that invades all your senses at once.
Set in and around an especially dire Glasgow public-housing tower, from which the film gets its title, "Red Road" focuses on Jackie (impressively played by Kate Dickie), who works in a security center manning the closed-circuit cameras situated throughout the central city. She spots a guy she knows, a ginger-haired roustabout named Clyde, while monitoring the Red Road tower -- and she's not happy to see him.
To give away more than that would be unfair, but this is the first thriller I've ever seen with a female protagonist in the prototypical noir hero role of pursuer and sexual aggressor. Like the heroes of countless tough-guy films, Jackie is a wounded loner with a secret, who sleeps with somebody she shouldn't and must face the consequences. "Red Road" is economically crafted and full of startling moments. Arnold's evocation of the ruined, post-"1984" surveillance culture of inner-city Britain is nothing short of terrifying.
Sarah Polley's debut feature, "Away From Her," does not possess the sex appeal or seductive genre lure of "Red Road," but it might be an even braver and more surprising work. To put it mildly, this isn't the movie you expect a 28-year-old actress to make: As pale and lovely as a Canadian winter sunrise, "Away From Her" is a story of love, sex and disease whose major characters are all over 60. And don't think you can just snuggle up to it; Polley's adaptation of Alice Munro's story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" is loaded with icy switchbacks and spiky surprises.
On the surface, "Away From Her" is about a happily married, elegantly aging couple, Fiona (the amazing Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent), facing the tragic dissolution of their life together. Although physically vigorous, Fiona is growing confused and disoriented, and her doctors suspect Alzheimer's. Insisting on going out with dignity, she checks herself into a nursing home and many tears are shed. But that's only the starting point of "Away From Her."
Almost imperceptibly, the tone of the film shifts and you begin to realize how finely and supremely controlled it is. Polley captures the brisk, cheerful fascism of nursing-home existence with merciless clarity; if you've visited a parent or grandparent in one of those places, you may want to laugh and cry in the same moment. Grant and Fiona's separation, rather than allowing them to sink gracefully into the sunset, dredges up all the buried secrets and lies of their long marriage. Why, after all, should human relationships suddenly become simple just because we grow older?
Gregg Araki's latest foray into the slacker underbelly of suburban L.A., "Smiley Face," has a wonderful performance by Anna Faris and one of the all-time great stoner monologues in movie history. (In which Jane, the semi-unemployed and perennially overconfident actress played by Faris, determines that she should hang a portrait of President James Garfield in her apartment to signify her love of lasagne. I think you have to be there.) But is this episodic pothead odyssey, in the end, the classic cannabis comedy it sets out to be?
I'll leave that question for another occasion. But when Jane, already baked at 10 a.m., scarfs all her sci-fi-geek roommate's pot cupcakes on a day when she already needs to pay the electricity bill and go to an audition, a chain of events is launched that will leave her riding a Ferris wheel while clutching a first-edition copy of "The Communist Manifesto" and talking to the voice of Roscoe Lee Browne. Along the way, she visits a sausage factory, a dentist's office and the home of a former professor. The song "Lady" by Styx is played on the soundtrack. It's just that kind of movie.
Another damn debut film! Mike White has been around the movie biz for some years as a screenwriter ("Orange County," "The School of Rock," "Nacho Libre") and oddball character actor, but "Year of the Dog" is actually his first film as a director. It has the daffy, off-kilter protagonist you'd expect from White, this one realized with almost agonizing perfection by Molly Shannon. Peggy is a prim, bony secretary with a big, toothy grin that's equal parts hilarity and misery. Awkward around all forms of human life, Peggy halfway holds together an acceptable social persona with the help of her office pal Layla (Regina King) and her only real friend, a cute little beagle named Pencil.
When Pencil dies, Peggy comes totally unglued, lurching from one semipathetic situation to another. She goes on a date with her boorish neighbor (John C. Reilly), before concluding that he may have poisoned Pencil. She adopts every available dog at the pound. She becomes an obsessive animal-rights activist. She embarks on a quasi relationship with a guy (Peter Sarsgaard) who is clearly not interested in her or any other woman.
Like Araki's "Smiley Face," "Year of the Dog" is an enjoyable, patchy, rambling affair, a series of bittersweet comic sketches strung together with thin wire. Both directors have created quirky, fascinating female protagonists and then retreated, allowing them to stand or fall or keep making the same dumb mistakes, as they will. If you're expecting conventional female-oriented comedies with conventional resolutions -- Mr. Right, a fulfilling career, a house in the suburbs -- you've come to the wrong store. Stoner chicks and nutty dog ladies, it seems, don't need saving.
One of the best narrative features I've seen here is also one of the smallest (and one of the least likely to find a large audience). Craig Zobel's "The Great World of Sound" is an intimate character study of two guys clinging to the gritty underside of capitalism. Martin (Pat Healy) is a 30ish white slacker who's befriended by Clarence (Kene Holliday), a middle-aged black man, on their first day as trainees at a shady "record company."
Working their unlikely chemistry in motel rooms in cities across the South, the two become Great World of Sound's biggest producers, auditioning aspiring musicians by the dozen and signing them to pay-as-you-go contracts. But as this quiet, funny, warmly acted story unfolds, its cruel ironies deepen. In order to keep their friendship and business partnership intact, Clarence and Martin have to ignore the increasingly obvious fact that they're running a vicious con game, squeezing money out of other people's unlikely hopes and dreams.
Morally ambiguous, subtly crafted, resolutely free of cliché and made with almost no money, "The Great World of Sound" is under-the-radar independent filmmaking in the Jarmusch-Cassavetes mode, both noble and ruthless in spirit. Clarence and Martin never seem like types, or symbols of working-class struggle. Indeed, the larger point of this engrossing little picture may be that to make our way in the world we all make choices almost as unsavory as theirs.