"How does this compare to other film festivals, like Cannes?" asked an inquisitive woman seated next to me at a screening on the first Saturday morning of this year's Sundance Film Festival. I pondered the question 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 festivals where you would see a movie called The Wackness in the first place.
In other words, Sundance ranks among the youngest of major film festivals, in the average age of its filmmakers and also of its attendees, which makes it a reliable nexus of new filmmaking voices but also renders it susceptible to more than its share of Salinger-lite exercises in adolescent naval-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 2008'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, yet The Wackness turns out to have a surprisingly sweet center, particularly in the scenes between its brooding, pot-dealing Holden Caulfield surrogate (Josh Peck) and his sorta-kinda girlfriend (well played by Juno co-star Olivia Thirlby). Or maybe it's just that The Wackness looks better and better compared with another of the festival's summer-that-changed-my-life coming-of-age dramas, this one a dismal adaptation of novelist Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh directed 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 whacked-out on ganja, Sir Ben could also be seen as a Russian cop striking terror in the hearts of a naïve Bible Belt couple (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) traveling aboard the titular train in Brad Anderson's wonderfully pulpy Transsiberian, a down-and-dirty homage to locomotive suspense classics such as Strangers on a Train and The Narrow Margin. 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 verbose hit men on the lam in the sub-Tarantino opening-night attraction, In Bruges; Michael Keaton (who also directed) as a suicidal hit man in 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; and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry's highly anticipated Be Kind Rewind, whose charming nostalgia for the VHS era and DIY moviemaking aren't nearly enough to support two hours of rambling improvisational byplay between stars Jack Black and Mos Def.
Indeed, the overall impression left by the this year's Sundance Premieres could aptly be described by the title of Barry Levinson's What Just Happened? — an irony that might have greater resonance were Levinson's own film, a grumpy and obvious showbiz satire, not 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.)
Meanwhile, the Dramatic Competition has so far produced a couple of authentic gems, even if both of them, as of this writing, have 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.
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 that offered lyrical glimpses of regional American life in parts of the country rarely visited by the dominant Hollywood cinema. The mood of Hunt's film, which follows the desperate measures undertaken by a newly single mother of two to keep her family afloat in the days leading up to Christmas, is one of lived-in decrepitude and working-class gristle, which proves 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 also for much of its crew and its entire principal cast — remarkable nonprofessional actors recruited on location in Canton, Mississippi. Like Frozen River, it is a story of mother and son trying to make ends meet. But whereas 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 a private dream.
Ballast 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 widescreen exploration of rural vistas. But Hammer 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.