PARK CITY, Utah -- OK, now I get it. Cloudless skies, in that bottomless, swimming-pool shade of blue you get only in the West. With temperatures in the mid-40s and the snow-clad slopes sparkling in the midwinter sun like crystal sugar, the Sundance arrivals from any part of the world except California doffed their fleece and down garments today and strolled the pedestrian-unfriendly streets in shirtsleeves. This was the tourist-brochure kind of weekend Robert Redford imagined when he decided, 25 years ago, to hold a film festival in a ski resort in January.
Yes, it's gorgeous. But screw that -- here's what really has me excited about Sundance 2009: Free wireless! Pretty much the whole damn town of Park City has been Wi-Fi'd since my last visit, when I literally had to peel the land-line telephone cord off the wall in my early-1980s condo, and then spend half an hour on the phone with some dude in Bangalore trying to identify a local dial-up number. Hey, even McCarran Airport in Las Vegas, where I spent two unhappy hours yesterday after missing my connecting flight, has free wireless. Welcome to the Mountain West, paving the way forward for rubes and bozos from the coasts!
I finally got here on Thursday night, just in time for the late screening of Adam Elliot's claymation picture "Mary and Max," a winsome mixture of sweet and grotesque that was this year's opening film. First impressions are always subject to change, but this really does feel like a subtly downsized, recessionary Sundance, almost as focused on what's happening Tuesday in Washington as on what's happening here. (President Obama's inauguration will be broadcast on a Jumbotron screen at the foot of Park City's historic Main Street.) I already know about several prominent critics, bloggers and editors who aren't here this year, and can only imagine that the same is true for buyers and executives. There are still more parties on the agenda than any sane human could possibly attend, but everyone's expecting the industry shindigs to be fairly modest and the acquisition activity focused on bargain-hunting.
If there's an early candidate for Sundance breakout hit, that would be Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton's third feature "Humpday," a subtle and intelligent picture that blends dudely comedy and adult relationship drama. It premiered here on Friday afternoon to a packed house that surfed along with every laugh line and every squirm. If you want a frame of reference, Shelton's clearly seen the films of Nicole Holofcener, Mike Leigh and the early Woody Allen, but gives those influences her own Pacific Northwest spin. Although it's based on improvisation and shot without a screenplay, "Humpday" moves propulsively forward, as former college hell-raiser buds Ben (Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard) come ever closer to fulfilling their mutual dare: making an amateur porn film, together, with no other participants.
I'm not sure how wide Duplass' acting range is -- I don't know that he could be an action hero, or play Shakespeare -- but he sure is great at playing self-deluded doofuses forced by some life crisis to ever-so-slightly grow up. Also known as half of the Duplass brothers' filmmaking team ("Baghead," "The Puffy Chair"), here he's a 30ish Seattle yuppie who's settled into Gap pleated pants, married life and homeownership, with fatherhood right around the corner. One night everything changes, when Ben and his wholesome wife, Anna (marvelously played by Alycia Delmore), are awakened by the ringing doorbell.
It's Andrew, showing up unannounced at 1:30 a.m. from Mexico City and Chiapas and Morocco and wherever the hell else. He's hyped-up and jabbering, he's decided on impulse to drop in on his best bud, and from his first seconds in the household we can tell -- and Anna can really tell -- that he's a destabilizing influence. There's clearly unfinished business or a submerged grudge between Ben and Andrew. Ben thinks Andrew has become a rootless fuck-up, and Andrew thinks Ben has become an emasculated square. We never actually learn what version of technically oriented office job Ben performs; he starts to tell people a couple of times and never finishes the sentence.
Within 24 hours of Andrew's arrival, he and Ben are getting ludicrously drunk at the house of a self-appointed Dionysian bisexual chick (deliciously played by Shelton, the director) whom Andrew picked up at a cafe -- all while Anna pines at home, having cooked her famous pork chops for two guys who aren't showing up. That's where their brilliant scheme emerges: To win the amateur porn contest hosted by the Stranger (Seattle's estimable alt-weekly), Ben and Andrew will do the deed, dude on dude, at a site Ben dubs the "Bonin' Motel."
Ben and Andrew do indeed end up behind closed doors in the Bonin' Motel, but since I have no idea when "Humpday" will be reaching regular viewers, it'd be unfair to tell you anything more. (Believe me, it will get picked up for distribution, and sooner rather than later.) Whatever they do or don't do in there, this fresh, funny and highly perceptive flick isn't about how these guys and other male-bonded pairs are really gay, or about any other simplistic agenda question.
Instead, it's a film about things far more difficult to define, like the tiny lies we tell ourselves and those we love, or the impossibility of making sense of all the different and contradictory aspects of one adult personality. Shelton moves confidently from Seattle hipster self-satire to moments of profound emotional discovery; her directorial eye, aptitude with actors and impulse for stripped-down storytelling mark her as a major arrival on the independent scene.
A night earlier, the late Thursday screening of "Mary and Max" was not quite full in the 1,270-seat Eccles Center, largest of the Sundance venues, and the audience seemed roughly half composed of Parkites, as local residents are inelegantly known. As for the film, it's an old-school claymation production -- meaning that all the objects in the film exist, and there are no digital effects -- shot frame by frame over the course of 57 weeks. As that might suggest, it's a labor of love, with an integrity and authenticity that can't be simulated. Loosely based on the director's own long-term pen-pal relationship, "Mary and Max" recounts years of friendship-by-mail between a gawky, geeky girl in an Australian suburb and an obese, troubled adult man in New York.
My initial hit on "Mary and Max" is that it's a movie by an exceptionally talented filmmaker, almost a genius, that underachieves in various ways. Elliot's writing is funny and sharp, and he captures the nightmarish but ordinary world of Mary -- with her drunken mom and disengaged dad, her taste for condensed milk and cartoons, and her pet rooster Ethel -- with convincing clarity. A wedge-shaped blob of clay with "eyes the color of muddy puddles" and "a birthmark the color of poo," Mary is both archetypal and individual, a stranded dreamer yearning for better things. (In her case, this means marrying a Scottish lord named Earl Grey and pumping out nine babies.)
Mary's epistolary buddy Max Horowitz (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman) always verges on stereotype; although winning in some ways, he never feels specific. A nearly spherical and largely apartment-bound New York Jew with both an Asperger's diagnosis and an overeating disorder, Max has even less experience with interpersonal relationships than Mary does. Their friendship gives her a chance to share awkward emotions and express unarticulated desires, but she is after all a child, even in her constrained circumstances a creature of endless possibilities. Max's possibilities have largely been foreclosed, and Mary represents a lifeline that may help him save himself from the maelstrom of worsening mental illness.
This sad-sack Platonic romance has overtones of Peanuts -- Mary bears a strong resemblance to Peppermint Patty -- along with a hint of "Persepolis" and touches of every other yarn about awkward people who find each other and make the best of it, even if that's not very good. Elliot's skillful animation creates such a strange and dingy world, in shades of dun and gray and tan (with an abiding interest in bird shit, which functions both as running gag and metaphor), that it takes the viewer most of the film to notice that the story is neither surprising nor especially interesting.
I suspect the movie Elliot really wanted to make is about Mary, a strangled, horrible yet endearing child who is taking infinitesimal steps toward maturity. When he suddenly skips the story forward in years-long gulps, and Toni Collette takes over from the marvelous Bethany Whitmore as the voice of semi-adult Mary, "Mary and Max" loses almost all its emotional force and reveals itself as an exercise in technique and style, however impressive the technique and tender-hearted the style. This was a brave choice for an opening-nighter, but the audience I saw it with felt respectful rather than wowed.