“How does this compare to other film festivals, like Cannes?” asked a woman seated next to me at a screening on the first Saturday morning of this year's Sundance Film Festival. I thought for a moment, then replied that I was pretty sure you would never see a filmmaker in Cannes introduce a screening of his film by shouting into the microphone, “Whassssup!?,” the way writer-director Jonathan Levine did at the Sundance world premiere of his sophomore feature, The Wackness. Come to think of it, I added, I couldn't think of too many other film festivals where you would see a movie called The Wackness in the first place.
In other words, Sundance ranks among the youngest of film festivals, in the average age of both its filmmakers and its attendees, which, on the one hand, makes it a reliable nexus of new filmmaking voices and, on the other, makes it susceptible to more than its share of Salinger-lite exercises in adolescent navel-gazing. And if The Wackness, which is screening in the fest's prestigious Dramatic Competition section, was neither the best nor the worst of the 14 movies I managed to digest during Sundance 2007's opening weekend, it seemed in many ways the most inimitably Sundance-y, from its self-consciously irreverent casting (including Ben Kingsley as a perpetually stoned, chronically masturbating New York City shrink and Mary-Kate Olsen as a wind-in-her-hair neo-beatnik) to its white-boy fetishizing of hip-hop culture (rarely has the word “mad” been so frequently invoked as an adverb).
Bad memories of Igby Goes Down and The Chumscrubber abound, and yet, once you cut through all of its hipper-than-thou Sturm und Drang, The Wackness turns out to have a surprisingly sweet center, particularly in the scenes between its brooding, pot-dealing Holden Caulfield surrogate (a newly slimmed-down Josh Peck, previously known as the fat kid from Sundance 2004's Mean Creek) and his kinda-sorta girlfriend (well played by Juno co-star Olivia Thirlby). Or maybe it was just that, all things being relative, The Wackness started to look better and better after the Sundance competition produced another summer-that-changed-my-life coming-of-age drama, this one a dismal adaptation of novelist Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburghdirected by Dodgeball auteur Rawson Marshall Thurber and enlivened only by Peter Sarsgaard as the bisexual gangster who leads our reluctant hero (the wooden Jon Foster) down a well-trodden road of self-discovery.
When he wasn't getting wacked out on ganja, Sir Ben could also be seen as a Russian cop striking terror in the hearts of a naive Bible Belt couple (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) traveling from Beijing to Moscow aboard the titular train in Brad Anderson's wonderfully pulpy Transsiberian— a down-and-dirty homage to locomotive suspense classics like Strangers on a Train and The Narrow Margin, complete with a midfilm reversal of fortune nearly as unexpected as Psycho's shower scene.
Produced in Spain by the same folks responsible for Anderson's previous The Machinist, Transsiberian turned out to be a highlight of Sundance's Premieres category, which otherwise lived up to its reputation for delivering big stars and even bigger disappointments: Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as overly verbose hit men on the lam in the sub-Tarantino opening-night attraction, In Bruges; Michael Keaton (who also directed) as a suicidal Chicago hit man in the torpid The Merry Gentleman, which festival director Geoff Gilmore optimistically prefaced by declaring that “some of the best work in American cinema has been done by actors who've stepped behind the camera”; John Malkovich as a has-been illusionist staging a haphazard comeback in The Great Buck Howard (a hapless farce considerably less amusing than co-star/producer Tom Hanks' impromptu standup routine on the stage of the Eccles Theater); and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry's anticipated Be Kind Rewind, whose charming nostalgia for the VHS era and the simple pleasures of DIY moviemaking isn't nearly enough to support two full hours of rambling improvisational wordplay between stars Jack Black and Mos Def.
Indeed, the overall impression left by this year's Sundance Premieres could be aptly described by the title of Barry Levinson's What Just Happened?, an irony that might have had greater resonance had Levinson's own film — a grumpy and obvious show-biz satire closer to Woody Allen's Hollywood Ending than to Robert Altman's The Player— not been such a stinker. Lessons learned: Everything in Hollywood is about the bottom line, studio executives are ball-busting Philistines, and movie stars are egomaniacal crybabies who just want to be loved. Memo to Mr. Levinson: Don't call us, we'll call you.
Meanwhile, by Sundance 2007's midpoint, the Dramatic Competition had produced a couple of authentic gems, even if both of them, as of this writing, had created little excitement among potential buyers. Not coincidentally, both are movies about poor characters living on the margins of society — very unsexy stuff as far as distributors are concerned, given that American moviegoers are generally uninterested in movies about the poor, unless, of course, they happen to be about the poor striking it rich.
Set in deep winter in way-upstate New York, first-time writer-director Courtney Hunt's Frozen River provides a welcome throwback to the truly independent films on whose backs Sundance was built — movies by filmmakers like Victor Nunez, Eagle Pennell and Glen Pitre that offered lyrical glimpses of regional American life in parts of the country rarely visited by the dominant Hollywood cinema. Hunt's film follows the desperate measures taken by a newly single mother of two to keep her family afloat in the days leading up to Christmas, and its mood is one of lived-in decrepitude and working-class gristle — a perfect fit for the hardscrabble character actress Melissa Leo (21 Grams), who shines brightly in her first major leading role.
Even more striking is Ballast, a debut feature not only for writer-director Lance Hammer but for much of its crew and for all of its principal cast — remarkable nonprofessional actors recruited on location in Canton, Mississippi (where the photographer William Eggleston once made his own little-seen foray into feature filmmaking, Stranded in Canton). Like Frozen River, it is a story of mother and son trying to make ends meet, though where Hunt's film is decidedly straightforward and matter-of-fact, Hammer's is fragmentary, mysterious and poetic, revealing its central characters and relationships gradually and from a distance, as if we were entering into a private dream.
Ballast (which was also just announced for a competition slot at this year's Berlin Film Festival) is a movie marked by the most unusual mix of inspirations — Charles Burnett's impressionistic renderings of black American life, the Dardenne brothers' neo-realist city symphonies, and Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' ecstatic wide-screen exploration of rural vistas. But Hammer — who holds an architecture degree and got started in movies as an art director — has digested those influences and formed from them a wholly original meditation on lost souls trying to gain a foothold in a bleak, treacherous landscape. It is, I think, the single most impressive film to premiere at Sundance since Half Nelson in 2006, and the high-water mark by which all others in and out of this year's competition should be judged.