There was something in the air in Park City, Utah, as the 2011 Sundance Film Festival picked up steam — and, thankfully, it wasn’t several feet worth of falling snow.
In 2010, roads and sidewalks were snarled with one storm after another. This year, the sun shone brightly for all but a few brief, furious flurries. The relative meteorological peace seemed to mirror what evolved as a generally positive sensibility. While the year just past might have been a rough one for the independent film marketplace, the distributors’ wallets were still open for several Sundance premieres: The Greatest Story Ever Sold, the new documentary from Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock; the financial-industry drama Margin Call; the Paul Rudd-headlined comedy My Idiot Brother; and the long-distance romance Like Crazy (more on that later). However rare the air might seem up here, Sundance still turns out titles that someone thinks will succeed closer to sea level.
Somehow, though, the biggest story of the festival was at least in part about a sale that was supposed to happen but didn’t. Kevin Smith’s Red State — a horror satire about a hate-mongering fundamentalist Christian community, not unlike the Westboro Baptist Church, that starts murdering those it deems deviant — premiered in a circus-like atmosphere that included, predictably, a protest by Westboro members, as well as a counter-protest promoted by Smith. The filmmaker had also claimed in advance of the premiere that he would auction it off to the highest bidder afterward, only to reverse field and say he would self-distribute. Give this to Smith: For a guy who claims to hate film journalists, he sure is spending a lot of energy making them his monkeys.
Still, when people actually wanted to pay attention to the movies themselves, there were plenty of things to love
A different, more melancholy brand of comedy came in Miranda July’s The Future, with the filmmaker playing a thirtysomething woman about to adopt a cat with her live-in boyfriend (Hamish Linklater), inspiring both of them to examine their life choices. July’s offbeat sensibility is linked beautifully to that almost-midlife-crisis sense that every alternate path could be better than the one you’re on.
One surprise was that the U.S. Documentary Competition — traditionally the safest bet for finding excellence — provided few consensus winners aside from the wrenching How to Die in Oregon, the eventual Grand Jury Prize winner about the state’s controversial assisted-suicide statute. You had to look to the World Documentary category to find another compelling American story: Australian director Matthew Bate’s Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure. In 1987, twentysomething Wisconsin transplants Eddie and Mitch moved into a seedy San Francisco apartment building and began recording the violent, drunken arguments of their next-door neighbors, Ray and Peter. Those pre-Internet-era recordings became underground sensations — and Bate explores several tangents, including the fight over who actually “owns” the recordings. It’s actually most effective, though, in its surprisingly affecting look at the individuals whose sad lives became a punch line that others cashed in on. Maybe it took someone who wasn’t an American to point out our roadside casualties in the Age of Irony.
But there was nothing particularly funny or ironic about the two highlights of the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Martha Marcy May Marlene provided a creepy, compelling character study of a young woman trying to return to normalcy after two years in a controlling commune-like setting, with a terrific performance by Elizabeth Olsen.
Then there was Dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner Like Crazy, which followed several years in the relationship between a British girl (Felicity Jones) and an American (Anton Yelchin) who fall in love in college and then have to deal with distance after she has visa problems. What might seem like a contrived impediment to romance instead turns into a quietly heartbreaking portrait of the ways we can hang onto something because we’ve invested too much in it to believe it can fail.
Perhaps there was some irony there after all: It was the darker stories that resonated during a festival where the vibe was surprisingly sunny.