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At Sundance, the kids are definitely not all right

Posted 9:07pm on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011

If there’s a theme among the films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it seems to be the plight of the troubled teenager. On Saturday afternoon, I saw three films, all in the dramatic competition, and all of which concerned themselves with bullied, disenfranchised, wholly alienated youth. The estate of J.D. Salinger should perhaps considering suing for royalties.

What the late Salinger would have thought of these mostly earnest, overly self-serious crop of movies is another story entirely.

The best of them is On the Ice, a new twist on the old River’s Edge story, in which two teenagers accidentally kill one of their best friends and then try to bury the evidence. What makes the film striking is its setting, an Inupiaq community in northern Alaska, where the only diversions for young people seem to be sex, hip hop music and crack cocaine. First-time director Andrew Okpeaha MacLean coaxes excellent performances from Josiash Patkotak and Frank Qutuq, two young actors from Alaska; and while the movie is certainly a little rough around the edges, it at least suggests a promising young talent on the way to finding his voice.

I was considerable less enthusiastic about Circumstance, one of those social do-gooder dramas for which Sundance is famous. The drama is ostensible about two teenage girls in Iran who begin a love affair, under the watchful and jealous eye of one of their older brothers. The problem, though, is that first-time writer-director Maryam Keshavarz seems more concerned with raising an issue than telling a story. (The title, very literally, refers to the lousy circumstance of women in Muslim counties.) The plot meanders and meanders, until it eventually turns into a sort of Middle Eastern telenovela. The audience at today’s premiere seemed to dig it -- the social do-gooder movies almost always play well here -- but I can’t imagine Circumstance connecting in the real world.

Finally, I was alternately intrigued and bored with Terri, about an overweight, lonely teenager who makes a connection with his off-the-wall assistant principal (John C. Reilly) and a female classmate with a reputation for being a slut (Olivia Croccichia). Director Azazel Jacobs (whose Momma’s Man is a delightful oddity worth tracking down on DVD) does well in capturing the uneasy dynamics between misfit high schoolers, but the story never really takes off and the filmmaker seems a little too in love with his own quirkiness.

Oh, and lest you think I just happened to see the three movies here about teenagers: Sunday brings the world premieres of a high school drama Homework, and a film about 15-year-olds girls called Little Birds. Arguably the best received film of the competition so far is Pariah (which I haven’t yet seen), about a 17-year-old girl in Brooklyn.

Note to budding filmmakers: Apparently coming-of-age plays big with the programmers here.

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