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Sundance Be Over

Sundance Be Over

I’m sitting here in the indieWIRE condo for what is thankfully my last night in Park City (not that I didn’t have fun, I’m just horribly exhausted and craving normalcy). I’m spending it jamming sweaters into an overstuffed suitcase, catching up on e-mails, and watching a post-SAG awards TBS airing of Dumb and Dumber, which I haven’t seen in years but am realizing quickly I can also recite word for word (over the winter of ’95 I probably saw it five times at the movie theatre). Oddly enough, it stars Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, who also headlined my two least favourite Sundance ’09 films: I Love You Phillip Morris and Arlen Faber.

Cinematic complaints aside (and there really weren’t too many beyond those two), my second Sundance offered a really lovely mix of original and satisfying filmmaking, most notably Lee DanielsPush: Based on a novel by Sapphire, which ended up winning both the grand jury prize and audience award for U.S. narrative. Here’s both of Daniels’ speeches from last night’s ceremony:

Push tells the story of Precious Jones (Gabourney Sidibe), an obese, illiterate Harlem teenager pregnant with her father’s child and living with her psychotic mother (played by Mo’Nique in a brilliant, fucking terrifying performance). This one-sentence summary doesn’t exactly make “Push” sound like a fun time at the movies, and often its not: It depicts some pretty intense physical, emotional and sexual abuse. But it’s also remarkably funny at times, and takes some stylistic chances (most notably fantasy sequences) that bring some needed moments of lightness to the film despite usually being my greatest cinematic pet peeve.

Most importantly though, “Push” accessibly represents a whole slew of themes and characters rarely (if ever) depicted on screen with this kind of poignance of authenticity: African-American female youth, poverty, AIDS, African-American homosexuality, the late 1980s, illiteracy, sexual abuse… You’d think that mixing this many issues together might create some serious potential for overwrought or overly sentimental results, but “Push” is just too creative and too raw to ever feel bogged down. Its final act left me emotionally wounded in a way that’s totally indebted to an obvious passion and connection Daniels’ had with the material and the totally ballsy and uncompromising way he went about executing it.

I also give the film some serious credit for managing to utilize the as-yet-undiscovered acting talents Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz and Sherri Shepard, each giving fantastic, nearly unrecognizable performances as Precious’ social worker, nurse and school secretary, respectively.

Other Sundance ’09 standouts, for me, included Lynn Shelton‘s Humpday, which involves two straight male friends attempting to have sex on video for “art’s sake.” I was really skeptical going in. But its indie sensibility and pitch-perfect performances allowed it to push way past what some Hollywood film (cough, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry) might have done with the topic. Totally improvised, the film was was not only hysterically funny (in a way that was never once offensive to homosexuality), but also managed a really perceptive character study of two heterosexual males struggling with their open-mindedness. Its a film that is going to make a lot of heterosexual men really uncomfortable, but in the best possible way: I’d hope at least, that it might make them consider their relationships to each other, to homophobia – which can at times be a inherited force in a lot of people that’s beyond their control, to each other, and to their egos.

I could go on about a few other films (Lone Scherfig‘s Oscar bound An Education and Sophie Barthes‘s Cold Souls in particular), but I need to get back to stuffing that suitcase and prepping for a day of airport and plane related hell. Until 2010, Sundance…

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