The marketing campaign for this year’s Sundance Film Festival urges rebellion, renewal, and a return to the aesthetic roots of independent filmmaking, while festival volunteers wear jackets emblazoned with the establishment logo of corporate sponsor Kenneth Cole. In other words, it’s Sundance, Jake. And this year I’ve been wearing the (non-logo) badge that identifies me as a member of the three-person jury judging 14 entries in the World Dramatic category of the competition. The awards ceremony is tonight; I’ll report on some of the outstanding selections I’ve seen next week, after I’ve removed my ID badge.
So much for my silence on this site, while Owen has been commenting eloquently on what he and I agree has been a particularly rewarding Sundance. But nothing stops me from sharing my enthusiasm for two of the films I’ve liked best outside of my jurisdiction.
I’ll start with my favorite U.S. drama with movie stars: The Kids Are All Right, directed by Lisa Cholodenko from a screenplay she cowrote with Stuart Blumberg, stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a long-time married lesbian couple in California, mothers, via sperm donor, of an academically gifted 18-year-old daughter (Mia Wasikowska) and an athletic 15-year-old son (Josh Hutcherson) on a quest to find their biological father. The kids don’t have to look far: Open records lead sister and brother to Mark Ruffalo as a free-wheeling, peace-and-love-style bachelor restaurant entrepreneur whose charm enchants his chromosomal offspring — and challenges their mothers.
Rebellious filmmaking? Yes, insofar as Cholodenko’s warm, smart, audience-friendly, often very funny movie features two marvelous, famous actresses in full flower as lesbians — not to mention gay sex, straight sex, and flowing, lively conversation about sexuality, commitment, and organic, locally grown produce. But The Kids Are All Right also rebels by turning a very conventional family drama, traditionally structured, on its head with the ease the movie exhibits in its own skin. Cholodenko, a true indie filmmaker, has perfect pitch for the story she wants to tell, demonstrating that independence comes from within, not from outward structure. Incidentally, Focus Features picked this one up, and with such marvelous movie star performances, you’re going to be hearing a lot more about Cholodenko’s great movie this year.
And now to my favorite U.S. drama without any movie stars at all: Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik from a screenplay she cowrote with Anne Rosellini and based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, is set in the Ozarks, where a very different teenaged girl, played with star-making self-possession by Jennifer Lawrence (left), is stretched to her limits. She’s protective guardian of her young siblings and caregiver to her incapacitated mother while her own crystal-meth-making daddy has skipped bail, having put the family home up for bond. Poverty is familiar to this young lioness, but without a home, she knows the family will fall apart . And as she sets out to find her father, this stark, underplayed, regionally authentic drama becomes a Western, a tribal saga, a mythic tale. Granik (whose fine 2004 drama Down To the Bone provided a breakthrough role for Vera Farmiga) works with the kind of commitment to narrative truth and attention to regional authenticity that characterized the earliest movies in Sundance’s long and lively history. I have no doubt Winter’s Bone will be picked up soon, if it hasn’t already. But you’ll have to seek this one out, because it’s quiet, and serious, and bleak. Do: It’s also another wonderful Sundance discovery, glinting like the silver that used to be mined in these Utah mountains.
Update: Roadside Attractions has acquired North American rights to Winter’s Bone and will release it theatrically this summer.