The best part of Sundance

by francine Hardaway on January 26, 2003

The best part of Sundance has been the Qs and As at the end of the films, where you get to ask these directors how the hell they ever came up with these ideas and what it cost them to make the movie. At “What Alice Found,” I learned that the director made the film in DV because it allowed him to get easily into tight spaces such as the cabs of semis and the living rooms of RVs. That, by the way, was a cool film about a middle-aged couple in an RV who pay the bills by selling the woman’s services to guys at truck stops. The guy is retired from the army, and the woman has paid the price to escape from Paducah, Kentucky. Along the way, they meet a girl named Alice, who is on her way from Conway, New Hampshire to Florida because she’s hjealous of a friend who is going to the Universityof Miami to college. Alice has robbed the safe of the supermarket where she works and begun a road trip to Florida, but she’s soon stymied by the fact that her old car has blown an engine. The couple picks her up and she gradually learns to be a high-priced whore, along with all the ethical conflicts that attend the world’s oldest profession. If you get to see this film, please do, because it is highly original. Judith Ivey gives a terrific performance as the “whore with the heart of gold” who educates Alice.

At “Raising Victor Vargas,” I saw a director who cast his movie by putting up flyers in the New York City public schools and hiring friends and relatives of people already in the cast. This film, which has been picked up by Samuel Goldwyn (who was himself at the opening) is about a sixteen year old Dominican boy and his brother and sister, who are being brought up by their grandmother, and their forays into young love. It’s touching and funny, and the “star,” Victor Ruzak, gives a marvelous performance, second only to his grandmother, played by Altagracia Guzman — not a professional actor. The director told us that he scripted the movie completely, and then didn’t share the script with the cast in advance. This gave the young actors a chance to improvise, and to be present in their characters every day on the set. You can tell it’s improvised by the dialogue, which is rich in trash talk characteristic of teen-age boys: “hey niggah, wassup motherfucker.” More poetic than you would expect.

The third film of the day was “Levity,” a blockbuster by Sundance standards because it had about $5 million in funding and a cast that included Kirsten Dunst, Holly Hunger, Morgan Freeman and the incredible Billy Bob Thornton. Again, a wild story about a man who, as a youth, murdered a convenience store clerk in a robbery, and is released from prison after serving twenty-two years of a life sentence. Still carrying the guilt, Manuel Jordan (Thornton) goes back to his old neighborhood and looks up the sister of the boy he murdered. He is seeking forgiveness and redemption, although he believes both are really impossible. It’s an uneven film that will be very popular at the box office, although I found a lot of it trite and predictable. It was filmed in Montreal; you would be surprised at the influence of Canada and Canadian filmmakers at Sundance. There’s big film talent in Toronto, at least, because the Canadian government supports and funds film.

So after all these days of seeing movies, we still did not see any of the films that won prizes last night. The big prize went to “American Splendor.” Today we will see a couple of the other prizewinners: “Capturing the Friedmans,” which won the documentary prize, and “Thirteen,” which won the Directing prize. Just goes to show that you can’t even get a taste of the Festival by seeing “only” four films a day.

Here’s an observation: one of the other prizes was won by “Flesh and Blood,” a film about a woman who takes in kids with special needs. If there was one theme that ran through the festival (in my mind, anyway,) it was the theme of dysfunctional families, non-existent families, families in trouble. Seems to be on everyone’s mind…

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