Since its world premiere and subsequent high-dollar acquisition deal on Friday, "Little Miss Sunshine" has been the de facto talk of the festival throughout the weekend - and understandably so. Enormously big-hearted, hip but earnest and rousingly funny in fits and starts, the feature debut of music video helmers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (best known for their work with Smashing Pumpkins) is certainly the most commercial film to have unspooled in the opening few days of Sundance.
An ensemble road-trip comedy about a family racing to get their seven- year-old daughter to a California beauty pageant, "Sunshine" boasts standout performances particularly from Steve Carell (as a gay suicidal Proust scholar), Alan Arkin (as a salty grandfather) and Toni Collette (as a high-strung housewife), and has a near-flawless first reel that, thanks to screenwriter Michael Arndt's very sharp dialogue, sketches out a hilariously dysfunctional world with effortless flair. And yet the film has its flaws.
Despite its initial momentum and subsequent sparkling moments peppered throughout, the larger narrative still hits progressively larger speed bumps as one plot twist follows another until events have become almost numbingly preposterous. That would be fine if this were "National Lampoon's Vacation," but the film strives for pathos in the midst of slapstick and undercuts its own tone with lazy humor (a running gag about the clan's clutchless VW devolves quickly into cheap laughs). Thankfully, the movie briefly regains its footing in the crucial climax, with a wickedly inspired skewering of the near- pedophilic fetishization encouraged by the titular contest.
On the dramatic competition front, women's issues have taken front row here at Sundance with a slew of strong films focusing on female protagonists and their struggles to correct lives derailed by wayward judgment. Best of these is "Come Early Morning," actress Joey Lauren Adams' writing-directing debut which features a radiant, penetrating performance by Ashley Judd as a loose woman too insecure for an honest relationship. Preferring beer-fueled one-night stands with strangers to the naked honesty of a real lover, Judd's bittersweet character still aches helplessly for that personal connection - despite an emotional hesitation hard-wired by permanent scars from parental divorce and estrangement. Her tortured anxiety when confronted with a good man is heartbreaking in its modest, subtle candor.
A cinematic soul mate to "Morning," but the mirror opposite in terms of tone and execution, is the broad, almost absurdist comedy "Stay," comedian Bobcat Goldthwait's raunchy heartwarmer about a woman haunted by a taboo sexual indiscretion and whether or not to share it with her fiance. A lesser performance and less confidant screenwriting might have made the vulgar premise fall flat after its initial shock value, but lead actress Melinda Page Hamilton's committed, deeply human and completely realistic portrayal paired with director Goldthwait's own surprisingly mature script makes for a winning combination, and one of the most hilariously thoughtful movies to play in this year's lineup.
Less successful in execution but still deeply resonant is "Sherrybaby," Laurie Collyer's probing study of an junkie mother fresh out of prison trying to turn her life around and win back the love and respect of her five-year-old daughter - a child reared by her brother and sister-in-law, two people who become increasingly territorial despite the mother's desperate pleas to gain access to her girl. Ultimately thin and somewhat unconvincing in its family paradigm, the feature nonetheless holds together thanks to the force-of-will conviction of its star, Maggie Gyllenhaal, who elevates a physically demanding and emotionally stark role beyond the constraints of a dramatically disappointing script.
Filmmaker Hilary Brougher offers a far more complex and ambitious movie, both thematically and in design, with "Stephanie Daley," her study of a pregnant lawyer tapped to represent a teenager charged with killing the baby from her unwanted pregnancy. Creating a parallel structure of maternity, and interwoven with flashbacks that resonate chillingly against the main characters' clinical conversations, writer-director Brougher never offers easy answers or trite explanations, preferring instead to let the colors of her drama create a pattern of expectation and loss, hope and disappointment, that aim to define what it means to carry a new life inside one's body. This is a film of minor tonal changes and variations, a style which allows it to strike that much harder during those few moments of unmasked despair. The result is a tender though admirably restrained rumination, one that might not endear itself to audiences because of its resistance to maudlin or sentimental moments but which nevertheless achieves a quiet sort of revelation on its own terms.
[Stephen Garrett is a freelance journalist and film editor based in New York.]