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January 21, 2004 2:00 AM
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Critic's Diary: "Napoleon Dynamite" Offers Most Sundance Laughs in Years: Dramas Like "Maria Full of

Critic's Diary: "Napoleon Dynamite" Offers Most Sundance Laughs in Years: Dramas Like "Maria Full of Grace" and "Down to the Bone" Trump the Docs

by Stephen Garrett









Debra Granik's "Down to the Bone." Photo credit: Sebastian Mlynarski

Judging from the majority of selections that have shown so far, this year's edition of Sundance is turning out to be an unusually strong showcase. Few of the titles are anywhere near a masterpiece, but that's to be expected from a festival that celebrates emerging artists; what's surprising is the degree to which even the misfires are still compelling in their own way.

The most hilarious movie this week - and one of the funniest to play here in years - is "Napoleon Dynamite," a gut-busting loser-makes-good comedy so brilliantly loopy that its off-kilter sight gags, straight-faced performances and eccentric script are as disorienting as they are hilarious. Its study of an Idaho high school geek and his search for love and respect owes much to Todd Solondz's "Welcome to the Dollhouse" but substitutes that film's deep-rooted cruelty for a sense of true admiration towards its outcasts and misfits. Directed by Jared Hess (and co-written with wife Jerusha), "Dynamite" is sharp, silly, sweet and a joyously original vision.

What makes "Dynamite" such a sly first film is that it uses its inherently raw style and low-budget production value to its advantage; this is not a story of wisdom gained or maturity realized, but a snapshot of awkwardness briefly conquered. Because Sundance prides itself on being a discovery festival, youthful vigor is a common screen subject - and sometimes the force behind even more common filmmaking. The festival's most acclaimed out-of-competition screening is a master class on how to avoid that syndrome. Walter Salles' "The Motorcycle Diaries" tells the story of a road trip through South America that became the key political awakening for twentysomething Ernesto "Che" Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal). A pussyhound buddy comedy for its first half, "Diaries" deepens in meaning and effect as Guevara and his traveling companion encounter the salt of the earth over a nine-month, 10,000-kilometer ride. Salles' assured hand meshes innocence with experience, playing one off the other and delivering character epiphanies with the kind of hindsight only a more mature director knows how to create.

Many movies in the dramatic competition deal with people not seeking new experiences but struggling to escape old ones. Addiction drives Debra Granik's "Down to the Bone," a starkly fresh take on people trying desperately to kick their drug habits. Vera Farmiga turns in a powerful performance as a married woman with kids fighting to clean up her act but always close to sliding back into her old ways. Tough, unsentimental dialogue and a hard ending help "Bone" to circumvent the pitfalls of this overworn subgenre.

Less engaging is "The Woodsman," another story about addiction - this time the inner struggle of a child molester (Kevin Bacon) trying his best not to be tempted back into raping little girls. Well-acted and directed, Nicole Kassell's film ultimately falls prey to screenwriting structure that feels like the work of someone who wants to make a social-message drama instead of telling a compelling human story.

A much more compelling movie that has a political agenda but never wavers from its primary concern for the main character is Joshua Marston's "Maria Full of Grace," a spellbinding drama about a Columbian teenager who uses her stomach to bring heroin bags into New York. Writer-director Joshua Marston never preaches about the poisonous drug trade and its effects on the world; he simply lets his story unfold.

The general assumption (and perennial truism) at Sundance is that the documentaries are always great. This year is no different in terms of the subject matter, but the execution of these topics isn't as well realized as in years past. "Super Size Me" is so far the closest doc to fully explore its subject matter, as director Morgan Spurlock spends 30 days subsisting on nothing but McDonald's food. A high-concept idea elaborated upon with medical interviews, a history of the fast-food industry's business strategies and on-the-street commentary from laypeople, the result is an eye-opening account of how corporations are consciously polluting the human body.

Three potentially fascinating documentaries just fall short of being great because of their own redundancy - instead of expanding upon their subjects and elaborating on themes and ideas, the filmmakers tend simply to provide more of the same. Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski's "Born into Brothels" shows how the kids of whores in Calcutta can, with encouragement and guidance by a photography teacher, find their way out of a dead-end life. Shola Lynch's "Chisholm '72 - Unbought & Unbossed" is a profile of the first black female presidential candidate that uses riveting archival footage to bring history alive. And Jessica Yu's "In the Realms of the Unreal" charts the oddball life of recluse Henry Darger and the 15,000-page, fully-illustrated book he hid from the world. But, again, in each of these cases, not enough voices were heard, not enough perspective was given, and the end result seemed like a presentation of fascinating material that never really went further or dug deeper into their material. Maybe this is the year that dramas trump documentaries at last.

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