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Sundance: Shining the Searchlight on 'Adam,' plus 'Sin Nombre'

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Sinnombre_l

Sinnombre_l

Fox Searchlight is the most powerful, and tasteful, studio specialty division going — they’re the company that acquired Little Miss Sunshine, Once, and Waitress at Sundance; they’re also the distributors of Juno, The Wrestler, and Slumdog Millionaire — so when it was announced that Searchlight had acquired an offbeat romance called Adam at this year’s festival, I was intensely curious to see what the appeal was. It became obvious within the first 10 minutes of the movie. The title character, played by the up-and-coming British heartthrob Hugh Dancy (you’ll be seeing him in just a few weeks in Confessions of a Shopaholic), is a 29-year-old electronics engineer with Asperger Syndrome, and yes, he is one of those charming saintly afflicted misfit boy-men. The way that Dancy embodies him (with great skill), he’s like Norman Bates meets Forrest Gump as played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Adam’s conversation consists of nattering, to whomever will listen, about his favorite topic: the universe. He’s got a makeshift planetarium set up in his New York brownstone, and when he starts talking about star systems and black holes, he can get a little possessed. The shrewdest thing about Dancy’s performance is that even when he makes eye contact, he doesn’t make eye contact. Adam knows how to exchange information, but he can’t hear irony, jokes, subtext; he can’t feel what other people are saying. He lives in his head, and so his Asperger Syndrome is really nothing more (or less) than an extreme form of solipsism. Dancy is an actor to watch, but when Adam meets his new downstairs neighbor, a sweetheart of a grade-school teacher played by Rose Byrne (from Damages), Adam turns into one of those movies in which a completely normal girl falls for a completely odd guy because…there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise. I know, I know: We’re supposed to see all the love that Adam has bottled up inside. But frankly, I couldn’t really buy this relationship — I accepted it in order to roll with the film. Adam is nice, tender, and at times mildly clever, but it’s also a not-quite-surprising-enough heartwarming trifle.

* * *

Illegal immigration has a built-in drama — and no, I don’t mean the sound of Lou Dobbs bursting a forehead vessel. The hiding out and stowing away, the midnight border crossings, the watch your back situations that turn paranoia into a crucial survival mechanism: In films like El Norte (1983), Under the Same Moon (2008), and the winner of last year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize, Frozen River, morality and hair-trigger tension are so intertwined that they become one and the same. These movies are now, in effect, their own genre — a (mostly) Latin American cry for freedom transfigured into neorealist suspense — and Sin Nombre (pictured), a popular movie at Sundance this year, would seem to fit right into it. Directed with explosive physicality by Cary Joji Fukunaga, it’s been conceived as a journalistic escape-to-the-USA thriller, with a murderous youth-gang plot to boot. That said, I had mixed feelings about it. The situations are colorful, but the characters have a touch of the generic, and so it’s hard to get too invested in them.

The gang in question, known as the Mara, is a cutthroat cult of Mexican youths who wear so many scary tattoos — their bodies are walls of graffiti — that they’re like the Maori of the barrio. Their leader, with two big, thick black initials branded onto his face, could be a villain in a Mad Max film. A teenager named Casper (Edgar Flores) is a veteran Mara member — to be initiated, you have to kill someone — but he keeps his girlfriend hidden away from them, and when she decides to show up anyway, it’s clear why that was a good idea. Casper ends up on the run, joining a crew of immigrants who are traveling, literally, on top of a train, seeking passage through Mexico into the United States. They include Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a girl from Honduras who is the film’s clear-eyed, one-note heroine. Whenever Sin Hombre turns violent, it seizes you with the convulsive skill of its staging, but as a saga of immigrant desperation, it has an empathy that outstrips its imagination.

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