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The Sundance Outside of Sundance: You Won’t Let Me Drown

The Sundance Outside of Sundance: You Won't Let Me Drown

Sundance isn’t just a place; it’s a state of mind. Or rather, it’s a state of business. Even though I didn’t go to Park City this year, the event transcends geographical borders, existing in the DVD machines and New York and L.A. screening rooms that host movies simultaneous with the Utah proceedings. Frankly, I only saw a small handful of movies–essentially the same amount I might see in a single day in Park City. But what I did see was solid, intriguing, occasionally courageous, but not breathtaking work.

Cruz Angeles’ “Don’t Let Me Drown” is that kind of New York debut feature that holds lots of promise for all those involved. With this urban Brooklyn tale of teen love and familty strife, comparisons to “Raising Victor Vargas” and “Manito” are inevitable. Surprisingly conventional, both in its style of shooting and in its narrative arc — boy gazes at girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy… you might guess how it ends. But Angeles’ genuine care for his characters and fine attention to the cultural conflicts between Mexicans and African Americans raises the film above the norm. If I had seen “Push,” I might suggest there’s a new wave of films about urban poverty that combines the dire with the hopeful. “Don’t Let Me Drown” is best, in fact, when it’s embodying hope: A golden-hued first date in Coney Island, complete with Wonder Wheel, Cyclone, Bumper Cars and a brilliant use of a photo booth is pure joy. The sequence is the film’s most inventively shot and memorable. On the more awkward side, I’m not sure how I feel about Angeles’ handling of post-9/11 turmoil and abusive parenting…

Speaking of neglectful parenting, Ry Russo-Young’s “You Won’t Miss Me,” another titular self-involved plea from a lost youngster, has the same striving for emotional truth as “Don’t Let Me Drown.” Stella Schnabel is excellent as a young woman, recently free from psychiatric evaluation, as a result of her contentious relationship with an absent mom. Smartly, Russo-Young leaves mommy on the fringes of the story, instead focusing on the fucked-up psychology of her protagonist and her run-ins with friends, one-night-stands, crushes, and painfully funny theater and film auditions. The film is intentionally rough-hewn, mixing film stocks and chronology, and recalls a long line of New York indie cinema, from Cassavetes to Fessenden to mumblecore. I’ve been told that aligning the film with the Joe Swanberg gang isn’t necessarily welcomed, but hey, what do you expect when the Swanberg gang actually appear in the film briefly and there’s a few ambling, seductive conversations about body parts? Having seen the movie now a couple weeks ago, I can say definitely that there’s one sequence that continues to resonate: a harrowing, malevolent spat between Stella and a friend in an Atlantic City hotel room. It’s like “Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?” crossed with “Faces” for over-medicated Gen-Y misfits. If nothing else, the movie deserves an audience for this scene alone.

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