Teen Angst, Troubled Love, and Campy Tales Fill Sundance's Dramatic Competition
by Stephen Garrett
Troubled teens, quirky relationships in oddball settings, coming-of-age heartbreaks, and celebrations of campy excess: such are the reliable chestnuts that indie dreams are made of, if this year's collection of Sundance dramatic competition films are any indication. With all but two of the 16 films having played at least once at press time Monday, a few public favorites have left audiences buzzing: Tom McCarthy's dwarf reverie "The Station Agent," which commanded a standing ovation at its Saturday screening; Catherine Hardwicke's cautionary tale "thirteen"; Peter Hedge's crowd-pleasing Thanksgiving misadventure "Pieces of April"; and "The United States of Leland", an earnest look at a teenager (Ryan Gosling) who inexplicably kills a retarded boy.
Helpful patterns have emerged from the selections. In the "Girls Gone Wild" category, three films map out the human heart of the estrogen-imbalanced. "thirteen" is a solid but borderline-sensationalistic morality tale about Tracey (Evan Rachael Wood), a 13-year-old who is sick of being a golden girl and starts fooling around with pickpocketing, tongue piercing, oral sex, and heavy drugs -- while single mom Holly Hunter struggles with the consequences. The lurid and at best amateurish "What Alice Found" has writer-director A. Dean Bell creating a truly bizarre premise: New Hampshire runaway Alice (Emily Grace), en route to Florida to see her friend, has car trouble and takes refuge with a kindly older couple navigating a Winnebago down the East Coast. Too bad the mobile home is actually a cootchie-wagon, as the husband pimps out his wife to truckers and the pair eventually convince the penniless Alice to join the flesh trade. Less well-received has been Sarah Rogacki's "Rhythm of the Saints," the story of a Latina teen in Washington Heights who gets herself a gun when her broken-home life gets too unbearable.
Guys are no saints, either, and there are three Bad-Boy cautionary tales in the mix. Although "Leland" is marred by a pat ending that stretches plausibility and neatly wraps up some otherwise morally challenging themes and ideas, the film (inspired in part by Albert Camus' "The Stranger") still marks an impressive writing-directing debut for Matthew Ryan Hope. Less interesting is the pulpy and predictable "Quattro Noza," an overlong and melodramatic indie-DV "Fast and the Furious" -- that, despite its flaws, boasts some of the most exhilarating and accomplished camerawork among all its competitors at Sundance (particularly the nighttime, neon-glow car racing scenes along the highways of Los Angeles). The most disappointing film of the festival so far has been the highly anticipated "Party Monster," Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's feature version of their same-titled documentary about chemical-fueled club kid Michael Alig (Macaulay Culkin) and his murder of drug dealer Angel Melendez. Dazzling production and costume design and a fabulously fey performance by Seth Green are wasted by poor writing, bad direction, and a lack of purpose that makes the whole film seem an exercise in pointless debauchery and exploitation.
Under the Love's a Bitch heading come a trio of contenders. "All the Real Girls," David Gordon Green's follow-up to his acclaimed debut feature "George Washington," explores a lothario's comeuppance with a deft, knowing hand but less of the finesse and inspiration that made "George Washington" such a revelation. "Dopamine"'s amorous tale of a computer animator and the schoolteacher he falls for has played to fair but not ecstatic audience response. And "The Mudge Boy," Michael Burke's expansion on his 1999 Sundance prize-winning "Fishbelly White" is a peculiar study of mourning and sexual-awakening in which a simple country boy comes to terms with the death of his mom and his own attraction to men. Often knowingly written and subtly dramatic without resorting to easy clich