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Sundance Film Festival off to a jittery start

Posted 5:15pm on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013

PARK CITY, Utah -- There are few events on the planet quite so powered by anxiety as the Sundance Film Festival. There are the nervous young filmmakers, about to premiere their new works, hoping for a major break along the lines of Behn Zeitlen, whose Beasts of the Southern Wild premiered here last January and went on to earn him a Best Director Oscar nomination.

There are the frantic journalists and critics, racing from screening to screening, Tweeting and Facebooking their instant reactions to movies.

And there is that peculiar sense of doubt and second-guessing that infects just about everyone: Did I pick the right movie? Am I on the list for the cool party? Should I be somewhere else right now?

My first few days at this year’s festival – the 12th I’ve attended – have been particularly plagued by this brand of second-guessing. To wit: The festival kicked off for me on Thursday night with May in the Summer, directed, written and co-starring Cherien Dabis, whose scrappy and exuberant immigrant comedy Amreeka was a hit here a few years ago.

The program description sounded promising: the three daughters of an American man and Palestinian mother reunite in Jordan for the wedding of the oldest girl (played by Dabis). But within minutes of this sweet, but slight and predictable film, I found myself wondering if I should have opted for another movie entirely. When I returned to my room and checked Twitter, I discovered that indeed the breakout title of Thursday night was Twenty Feet From Stardom, a documentary about back-up singers that quickly got scooped up for commercial distribution by the Weinstein Company. Not the first time – and unlikely to be the last – I ended a day at Sundance kicking myself.

Last year was an especially banner year for Sundance, which – in addition to Beasts of the Southern Wild – also screened the likes of The Sessions, Compliance, Arbitrage, and How to Survive a Plague. But if the crowds seem larger than before, and the traffic in sprawling Park City even more chock-a-block than usual, the movies thus far aren’t exactly living up to lofty expectations. It’s not that anything’s been especially terrible thus far, only that the titles I’ve seen feel modest to a fault and dramatically underpowered.

Friday night brought the premiere of Anne Fontaine’s Two Mothers, a misbegotten tale of two women (Naomi Watts and Robin Wright) in Australia who begin affairs with each other’s grown sons. The movie never determines if it wants to be a serious drama or a sex farce, and it ultimately turns risible.

Two of the documentaries I’ve seen fall into a similar “almost-but-not-quite” category: Google and the World Brain considers the legal and ethical complications of Google’s attempts to digitize the libraries of the world. The director, Ben Lewis, manages to make a wonky-sounding topic compelling, but the movie’s anti-corporate, anti-capitalist conclusions ultimately feel a tad knee-jack and simplistic.

When I Walk, filmmaker Jason DaSilva’s account of how his body was ravaged in just a few years time by multiple sclerosis, aims to deliver an emotional punch to the gut, but never fully invests us in DaSilva’s plight.

As it turns out, my favorite work at Sundance thus far actually premiered last May in Cannes, Mud, written and directed by the gifted, Austin-based filmmaker Jeff Nichols, who made his breakthrough here in 2011 with Take Shelter. (The film is having its North American premiere here, prior to a commercial release in late April. The excellent newcomer Tye Sheridan plays a 14-year-old boy who encounters a fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who is desperate to reunite with his girlfriend.

Nichols takes his time telling this story of revenge, adultery and poisonous snakebites – and some will no doubt gripe the movie drags. But Mud takes us to a distinct and intriguing place, a riverside Arkansas community that’s slowly being de-populated; and at a film festival propelled by nervous energy, there’s much to be said for a work that asks us to take a deep breath and contemplate the changing face of rural America.

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