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Sundance: Two movies and a mood swing

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I never did get to watch Cold Souls yesterday. Sundance is like that: You make plans to see Movie X and Movie Y, and you wind up at Movie P and Movie Q, and the digression proves unexpectedly worthwhile. In the case of my back-to-back screenings of Amreeka and The Greatest — both entries in the festival’s dramatic competition — the one-two punch clarified something I find enduringly lovely about this obstreperous homegrown film festival, as well as something that bugs me crosseyed about the place.

The good stuff first: Amreeka, the feature debut of Cherien Dabis, tells of Muna, a divorced Palestinian woman living in the West Bank. Unexpectedly granted a U.S. green card, Muna comes with her teenaged son, Fadi, to stay with her sister’s family in Illinois, just around the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Muna is naive but she’s also resourceful; she settles her son in the public high school his cousin attends and, with her two college degrees and her background in banking, finally finds a job … working the deep-fryer and swabbing the floor at a White Castle hamburger joint. Fadi, meanwhile, is in his own fresh-off-the-boat misery, teased and bullied by racist American classmates. Amreeka — an Arabic term for America — is about how mother and son stand up to bigotry and, with the help of family and a few kind new friends, find a footing that bridges the old world and the new.

The movie is not perfect by any means. It sometimes strains too hard to make its political and educational points, both about Palestinian suffering and American insensitivity. But there’s an authenticity to Amreeka that can’t be faked, an artless purity especially in the winning performance of Nisreen Faour as the unsinkable Muna, and a bright warmth of storytelling that announces the filmmaker as a talent to watch. Introducing her film (which draws on stories from her own Palestinian-by-way-of-Ohio family), the vibrant, assured Dabis held up a cell phone so the audience could say hi to her mother in Jordan. Afterwards, acknowledging cheers, the grateful director was visibly moved, and so was I. Hooray for Sundance, where a Palestinian-by-way-of-Ohio first-time director can get a career-boosting break.

In contrast, there’s nothing authentic about The Greatest,

nothing at all — not the circumstances of tragedy and grief devised by

writer-director Shana Feste in her feature debut, not the characters,

not the performances by brand name movie stars, and not even the tears

Feste insists on jerking from a pummeled audience. Pretending that Ordinary People and In the Bedroom

never happened, the filmmaker lingers luxuriously over the grief of the

Brewers, Grace (Susan Sarandon) and Allen (Pierce Brosnan), whose

favored older son, Bennett, has just died in a car accident. Surprise!

Bennett leaves behind a winsome girlfriend (newcomer Carey Mulligan),

Rose, who was also in the car, and who shows up barely the worse for

wear at the door of the Brewers’ House Beautiful home with a surprise announcement.

Go ahead, guess what. I’ll never tell.

There’s also the other driver (Revolutionary Road‘s Michael

Shannon), now in a coma, whom Grace adopts as her special

wake-from-the-beyond project since she’s got questions to ask him about

her son’s last minutes alive; a druggy younger brother who attends a

teen support group for the siblings-of-dead-people and meets a girl

with a whopper of a story all her own; Rose’s bad, unreliable,

never-seen mother; and scenes randomly set at a young people’s costume

party and a rich person’s beach house. Salaries for math professors

like Allen must be exceptionally generous for the Brewers to afford

such opulent real estate.

Through all of this well-appointed grieving, Sarandon and Brosnan

act with all their thespian, let’s-make-an-indie might, and it’s

impossible, for this dry-eyed doubter, anyway, to discern one real

emotion coming through the rages and sobs. I don’t deny that others in

the audience enjoyed a good, manufactured cry. But I do insist that

this generic, contrived movie about generic, contrived characters in a

generic contrived crisis, padded out with brief appearances by

noteworthy name actors (including Jennifer Ehle and Amy Morton), is the

opposite of what matters at Sundance.   

Today, by the way, I may or may not see a documentary about global finance called Let’s Make Money, and a new British drama called An Education, with a script by Nick Hornby and another performance by The Greatest‘s Mulligan. At Sundance, you just never know.

In contrast, there’s nothing authentic about The Greatest,nothing at all — not the circumstances of tragedy and grief devised bywriter-director Shana Feste in her feature debut, not the characters,not the performances by brand name movie stars, and not even the tearsFeste insists on jerking from a pummeled audience. Pretending that Ordinary People and In the Bedroomnever happened, the filmmaker lingers luxuriously over the grief of theBrewers, Grace (Susan Sarandon) and Allen (Pierce Brosnan), whosefavored older son, Bennett, has just died in a car accident. Surprise!Bennett leaves behind a winsome girlfriend (newcomer Carey Mulligan),Rose, who was also in the car, and who shows up barely the worse forwear at the door of the Brewers’ House Beautiful home with a surprise announcement.

Go ahead, guess what. I’ll never tell.

There’s also the other driver (Revolutionary Road‘s MichaelShannon), now in a coma, whom Grace adopts as her specialwake-from-the-beyond project since she’s got questions to ask him abouther son’s last minutes alive; a druggy younger brother who attends ateen support group for the siblings-of-dead-people and meets a girlwith a whopper of a story all her own; Rose’s bad, unreliable,never-seen mother; and scenes randomly set at a young people’s costumeparty and a rich person’s beach house. Salaries for math professorslike Allen must be exceptionally generous for the Brewers to affordsuch opulent real estate.

Through all of this well-appointed grieving, Sarandon and Brosnanact with all their thespian, let’s-make-an-indie might, and it’simpossible, for this dry-eyed doubter, anyway, to discern one realemotion coming through the rages and sobs. I don’t deny that others inthe audience enjoyed a good, manufactured cry. But I do insist thatthis generic, contrived movie about generic, contrived characters in ageneric contrived crisis, padded out with brief appearances bynoteworthy name actors (including Jennifer Ehle and Amy Morton), is theopposite of what matters at Sundance.   

Today, by the way, I may or may not see a documentary about global finance called Let’s Make Money, and a new British drama called An Education, with a script by Nick Hornby and another performance by The Greatest‘s Mulligan. At Sundance, you just never know.