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AT SUNDANCE: SINGLE ROOM OCCUPANCIES

Saw back to back screenings in the Sundance “experimental” Frontier section to kick off my festival moviewatching this year. Frequently ignored by most industry, the Frontier section always contains a few real discoveries by filmmakers the fest tags as “experimental” but who will go on to make the mark in the indie scene. A few years ago J.T. Petty debuted his chillingly simple near-silent ghost story Soft for Digging in the section and last year Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation screened there as well.

This year the Frontier “filmmaker to watch” may be Kyle Henry, whose Room is an excellently directed and acted portrait of a working-class woman’s flight from the reality of her Texas home and family life to some kind of “Destination: Metaphor” in New York City.

Henry previously worked as an editor — he cut Eric Eason’s feature Manito — and the film pulls you along with a sophisticated montage that overlays the “white noise” of daily terror alerts and Iraq war news onto this lower-class bingo parlor worker’s (played superbly by Cyndi Williams) quotidian existence. After suffering a series of blackouts, she impulsively abandons her husband and kids and hops a plane to the big city where she looks for some kind of white and open interior space she’s imgained in her mind’s eye.

At the Q and A, Henry referenced Carl Jung and spoke of his desire to make cinema that was “like a dream” and which could “allow a personal interpretation” for each viewer. Central to Henry’s film is the idea that changes in politics and technology can trigger personal change as well, a thought that figures in novels by Don Delillo and philosophical science fiction but which rarely is referenced in a feature film.

As the film progresses, though, its ties to a physical reality become increasingly tenuous, and it ends with a 2001-ish headscratcher. Given the clarity of the film’s first act, with its incisive portrait of working-class America, it is disappointing when Room ultimately gets lost within a fun-house New York and its own very abstract metaphors. Despite this final detour, however, I recommend Room and think that Henry is a director to watch.

A single room — in this case, a particularly disgusting and fetid one — is the sole locale for Reynold Reynolds and Patrick Jolley’s Sugar, which plays like a Cinema of Transgression remake of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. There’s virtually no dialogue to this tale of a single woman who rents a decaying street-level apartment, finds a body in a crawlspace and gradually loses her mind. Jumping back and forth from color to scratchy black and white, its camera slowly tracking over piles of trash, peeling wallpaper, dirty dishes and undefinable stains over a soundtrack drone by J.G. Thirwell, it’s almost as much a filmed gallery installation as a feature narrative. (In addition to making several short films, the directors have exhibited visual art pieces around the world.) But while the relentless Sugar can be hard to sit through at times, it makes a virtue of its theatricality and contains genuinely terrifying sequences — I was on the edge of my seat during one disturbing interlude in which our heroine of sorts becomes slowly trapped by a puddle of seeping water and a thrashing electric fan. Recommended.

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