Nicholas Monsour/Kate Danson
PARK CITY, Utah -- Conventional wisdom here, including mine, holds that Sundance 2008 looks like a middling year, at best, for new narrative films. In terms of the major premieres, that's pretty much holding true. Even Michel Gondry's "Be Kind Rewind," perhaps the most anticipated major release to premiere here, turns out to be a lovely, wistful fairy-tale film rather than a smash-hit comedy in waiting. (More thoughts on that movie in due course.)
But at the lower edges of the indie universe, Sundance '08 has quietly supplied an intriguing list of debut and/or breakthrough films by unknown directors. If a critical consensus has coalesced around Lance Hammer's "Ballast," a minimalist, semi-improvised drama whose real star is the winter light of southern Mississippi, there are plenty of other (and arguably more audience-friendly) offerings. The festival's other favorite American debut is Marianna Palka's exceptionally acrid, and exceptionally funny, romantic comedy "Good Dick." Yes, the title refers to what you think it does.
Palka and her real-world beau, Jason Ritter, star as one of the screen's most unwieldy recent couplings. She's a ferociously bitter loner who spends her evenings jerking off (if that's the right word for, you know, a woman) to bad softcore porn flicks, and he's the semi-homeless video-store clerk who rents her the movies. We don't learn much about their respective back stories; in fact, I wish we learned even less than we did. At least "Good Dick" does not include the near-ubiquitous indie vice of rueful, explanatory voiceover in the final scene. ("You know, one time when my Uncle Mitch was actually sober -- which didn't happen often -- he told me something about life. I have no idea whether it's true, but it kinda stuck with me." Aspiring screenwriters, that one's on the house!)
Palka and Ritter's nameless characters are much funnier, and more moving, when we don't know why they're so screwed up. When he starts hanging out at her apartment and watching porn with her, she basically won't stop heaping abuse on him, while demanding that he cook dinner: He disrupts her masturbation mojo, he's ugly, he works a crap dead-end job, he has a small penis. Not that she's actually seen the organ in question, mind you; the closest they get to sex comes when she pretends to rape him over the kitchen table, and when they make out it's strictly forbidden for him to touch her or get an erection.
Why does Ritter's cheerful movie-geek character put up with all this abuse, when he could probably find (in her words) "a normal girl you could fuck like a punching bag whenever you want"? You know, it's a good question but one that never bothered me. Ritter's social life consists of "High Fidelity"-style banter with his co-workers -- and how a female writer captured that world so perfectly I'll never know -- that never quite conceals his near-desperate loneliness. Maybe he needs to be the object of this deeply damaged woman's derision and sadism, and maybe on their own peculiar terms these people are falling in love. "Good Dick" is a dark, sweet and sophisticated confection that might find a surprisingly large audience.