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Sundance 2012: Fifth Report

Posted on Wednesday February 1, 2012, 23:42 by Damon Wise in Under The Radar
Sundance 2012: Fifth Report

Beasts Of The Southern Wild, by Benh Zeitlin, was an amazing discovery, a film that certainly swelled to fit the confines of Park City but may struggle when it crosses into the wider market. Fox Searchlight picked it up, which was certainly brave of them, since it's not likely even to make a fraction of the figures that The Tree Of Life did for them. Terrence Malick is in some way a good starting point here, since its fractured voiceover and opening, montage-like scenes of an anarchic rural idyll in some ways recall his 1978 film Days Of Heaven. But that film is like Citizen Kane in comparison; where Malick's film saw a very complicated story from a rather simple girl's point of view, Beasts Of the Southern Wild shows a much younger girl wrestling with her immediate circumstances in the aftermath of a huge and devastating Katrina-like weather event.

It promises to be a slice of fashionable poverty-row rural porn, more in the vein of Le Quattro Volte than Winter's Bone, with six-year-old Hushpuppy (
Quvenzhane Wallis) living in fanciful disarray with her harsh but paradoxically libertarian father Wink (Dwight Henry). Like the 2010 Russian film Silent Souls, a film with certain similarities, it presents a small town with strange customs, mostly involving booze and fireworks. It is called The Bathtub, and we soon find out why: in the course of a massive storm, The Bathtub fills up, leaving Hushpuppy and Wink without a home. What follows is an episodic trek in which the two reconnect with their fellow townspeople and decide on a dangerous plan of action to reclaim their roots. In some ways, it resembles an arthouse Mad Max 2, but with the crucial difference being that this world is ours, it isn't some apocalyptic future. The message, though, is a refreshing change from the kind of Sting-saves-the-rainforest stuff you might be expecting. From her father, Hushpuppy inherits a precocious militancy that, despite the interference of do-good white liberals, literally prepares her for the end of the world.

Ry Russo-Young's Nobody Walks talks place in our world too, not that you'd know it. I liked this, with reservations; it's a kind of Nicole Holofcener-lite (and that's saying something) ensemble piece about a young, early-twenties avant-garde film director from the east coast named Martine (Olivia Thirlby) who moves in with LA soundman Peter (John Krasinski) and his family. She's pretty, he's not slow to notice, and an affair ensues, with the usual disastrous consequences. If the film had been a more impressionistic slice-of-life piece – Peter's counsellor wife is being courted by a patient she is clearly attracted to – it might have worked, especially because of a subplot involving their thorny teenage daughter, who is dealing with a lecherous Italian teacher. But the focus on Martine as a rootless femme fatale creates a vacuum at the heart of the film that calls to mind Mike Nichols' (to me) horrific Closer, and that can only be A Bad Thing. Still, the performances are all good; Thirlby carries off a hard part, and it's good to see Krasinski play against his usual goofy, loveable type.

Just as loveable as John Krasinski is Josh Radnor, of How I Met Your Mother fame. I must admit I knew nothing about him before his last film, Happythankyoumoreplease, which I thought I hated but later remembered I liked – but only the bits with writer/director Radnor in. On those terms, Liberal Arts (pictured) is an improvement of one thousand per cent. It flounders in the final stages, but until then it is a really sweet, funny and sometimes surprisingly acerbic comedy, in which Radnor stars as Jesse, a thirtysomething college admin worker who is invited back to his old alma mater for his former tutor's retirement party. There he meets Zibby, (Elizabeth Olsen) a 19-year-old student with whom he has an immediate rapport, and what starts as a crush develops into something deeper. Or can it? The great thing about Liberal Arts is that it wrestles with the question that Woody Allen has ignored for the greater part of his career – does age matter? Like Woody, Jesse decides that it may not, but, unlike Woody, he finds it really, really uncomfortable dating a girl 15 years his junior.

I was half dreading this film, because Happythankyoumoreplease suggested two things: a writer who was very talented and a director who needed more discipline. Liberal Arts, however, is very much the work of a writer-director who has reached equilibrium, and, thinking about it now, I'd forgotten how much it made me laugh. Radnor is a natural and gifted comedian, while Olsen, for whom so much is resting on this, makes an effortless transition from drama in a role fro which she is quite ridiculously perfect. A guest spot from Richard Jenkins is enjoyable enough, but special mention must be made of Allison Janney, whose Mrs Krabappel-like Romantics professor brought the house down, and Zac Efron, whose stoner-dude cameo is a genuine delight.

Disappointments? There were surprisingly few this year, although the tin-hatted, copper-bottom bruiser of the bunch was undoubtedly Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer. Ostensibly one of his lighter pieces, like Crooklyn or She Hate Me, this starts in a gaudy one-hot-summer style, with an Atlanta boy being left to stay with his preacher grandfather (Clarke Peters). At about two hours ten, this was looking not to be an easy watch, with lots of musical interludes, bad comedy and even worse acting from its younger cast, who seemed to have to shout to be heard over the layers of deafening music. However, after an excruciating 90 minutes, the film managed an astonishing turnabout, with a sudden burst of drama that almost – almost – made the preceding slog worthwhile. It would be a massive spoiler to explain what happens then, but, suffice to say, Peters' performance becomes a powerhouse, matched only by the superb Nate Parker as a previously little-seen gang member. The film itself should be filed under Minor Spike, but this sequence is one of the best he's ever filmed.

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