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Park City Critic’s Notes #2: How Should a Family Be?

The Sublime and Beautiful

Everybody has dreams at Sundance. Some dream of distribution deals, others of the respect and recognition that may come with them. The most exuberant dreamers conjure the high seven-figure sales of yesteryear, but the ranks of such folks are dying away, the reality of the new normal having long set in. Some just want to get laid or go skiing and dream accordingly. Lucky them.

Still others can’t navigate Sundance without complaining about this or that. A lot of folks are upset by the shuttles this year, claiming they aren’t as efficient as years past. More pressing, some observers have suggested that, half a decade after the festival unveiled the NEXT section, in part to program the type of micro-budget films that made SXSW a festival to be reckoned with, the broad majority of films in that supposed discovery program are by second-, third- and fourth-time feature filmmakers making movies with name actors and budgets that hover half a million dollars and above. Take your movie that costs as much as a new sedan and trot down to Austin, the Sundance brain trust seems to be saying.

Or maybe the $25,000 films just aren’t that good. Should’ve got in during the vanguard years of American indie films, when there were 900 instead of 9,000 submissions a year to le Dance and micro-budget kid Kevin Smith was your primary comp.

I’m sure you don’t want to hear about my dreams, but my complaints? Of course you do.

Well as ever, the documentaries are just hands down superior to the narratives I’m seeing. The E-waitlist system is a disaster, privileging, as one prominent producer put it to me, fat guys drinking beers a mile away who may or may not ever show up for the wait list position they hogged by phone. More distressing, many of the films feel overly familiar to films from Sundance’s past. For instance, Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior, a NEXT title which she wrote, directed and stars in, is often genuinely very funny, conjuring some delightful comedic situations amidst its tale of a young bi-sexual woman struggling to self actualize in modern central Brooklyn, but in the basic outlines of its story it can’t help but recall Dee Rees’ Pariah.

Appropriate Behavior showcases some legitimate low-budget ingenuity on the part of its filmmaker, whose character Shirin is sort of a tall, deep-voiced, gay version of one of Lena Dunham’s creations, but there’s little tension in its sometimes awkward and narcissistic tale of a young Iranian-American woman who hides her lesbianism from her conservative parents and boorish brother while undergoing the emotional travails of a significant, perhaps doomed relationship. Watching it, one never much feels like Akhavan’s Shirin, whose bourgeois Iranian family is functional and willing to pay her Bushwick rent (the McKibbin lofts make for some fun, class-centric comedic fodder here), is in much danger, emotional or otherwise. And when she finally does tell her mother she’s gay, the moment doesn’t sizzle as much as it should. Although Pariah could probably have used some of the Akhavan’s humor (she’s clearly a very talented comedienne), Appropriate Behavior could certainly have used some of the later’s visual poetry.

Kat Candler’s U.S. Dramatic Competition entry Hellion, expanded (sort of, not really) from a very good short of the same name the filmmaker had at the festival in 2012, was perhaps a bigger disappointment; it never takes off and flies, even if it seems all the ingredients are there. Aaron Paul is Hollis, an East Texas widower and alcoholic with two sons, 10 and 13, the older of whom is fond of smashing cars in high school football parking lots with baseball bats and setting other people’s property on fire while the younger foolishly accompanies him on such escapades. Eventually the younger son is taken away by Child Protective Services and placed in the home of Hollis’ sister-in-law (Juliette Lewis, who’s aging well).

This necessitates a battle for the child between father, older brother and sister-in-law that grows preposterous in its third act. Paul is an actor of much intensity, but he’s simply hampered by a poor script. One expository note after another is left dangling in the wind. The point of attack is poorly thought through; the dead mother is simply a cipher since we never meet her and their grief rendered emotionally unreachable. Candler should have borrowed a page from Mia Hansen-Løve’s should-be legendary The Father of My Children and killed her off halfway through. Instead, she’s forced to write lines between Paul and his sons that no father would ever say, simply to suggest that gap. When, in the most loaded fashion, he looks at his emotionally broken son, a juvey lock-up case waiting to happen, and says, after a pregnant pause, “You look just like her… we were such a good team, the four of us,” some at the P&I screening I attended couldn’t help but chuckle. And that’s sad, because Candler has a knack for rhythm and pace, for the effective placement of music, and clearly has a seriousness of intent here.

Over at Slamdance, there is a little movie, also about the unspeakable grief caused by the loss of immediate family, that ought to get some attention, however. Blake Robbins, who some may remember as the conniving ex-basketball star turned prison guard Dave Brass on HBO’s Oz over a decade ago, has made a film that is worth considering despite its clumsy, misleading title. You see, The Sublime and Beautiful sounds like it ought to be a syndicated soap opera. Shot in handheld HD with natural light, it looks and feels like an indie. The picture’s got no real “stars,” either established or soon to be breakouts. It tells a story that feels like it’s been visited upon before. So where’s the interest say you, cynical, industry pro Park City viewer? Right?

Well, it turns out Blake Robbins isn’t just a skillful character actor in TV shows both half forgotten (Oz) and not (The Office) but a thoughtful and intuitive film director who has artfully revisited the themes of filial revenge and rhythms of slow-burn domestic thriller-dom that made In The Bedroom into a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner over a decade ago. He plays David Conrad, a mildly content college professor, father of two young children, rejector of students who seek his sexual company, whose life is turned upside down when his wife’s car is struck by a drunk driver, brutally injuring her and killing their kids. To say the Conrads are in for a whirlwind of emotions is an understatement.

Rather predictably, David starts drinking, starts trying to fuck the student he previously rebuffed and playing with firearms, while growing colder and colder near his often understandably hysterical wife (Laura Kirk, very good). They both guard their emotions poorly near parents and best friends, causing a scene at a party thrown in their honor that rivals some of the most explosive scenes in A Woman Under the Influence. Perhaps the wheels begin to fall off a bit when David begins to stalk the treacherous old drunk who took his children’s lives, the mechanics of the movie’s pathos machine grinding a bit too loudly for my tastes, but it’s a fine first effort from the writer/actor/director, modulated just right, refraining from easy sympathy generation to show these characters in a fully ambiguous light. The Sublime and Beautiful marks Robbins as a filmmaker to watch, even if his producers really ought to insist they name the thing after a rare bird that starts with the letter A or something (if just for VOD!).

The loss of children is also at the center of another Slamdance film, Michael Galinsky, Suki Hawley and David Beilinson’s Who Took Johnny. The film shows how the disappearance of Johnny Goesh, an Iowa paperboy whose missing visage was the first to ever grace a milk carton, set off a national hysteria about child slavery and pornography in the Reagan era’s high-octane tabloid news scene.

The documentary makes clear that the West Des Moines police officials didn’t do the best job in searching for Johnny, including completely ignoring a key lead that cropped up years later when someone came forward claiming to have participated in Johnny’s disappearance. But the film is most interested in Noreen, Johnny’s mother, who spends her time counseling the parents of other children who have disappeared and to this day believes her boy is alive.

Teaming with America’s Most Wanted’s John Walsh, she was able to get the Missing Children’s Assistance Act passed by Congress in 1984, but her son’s case remains unsolved and the myriad sightings of the boy have taken turns for the bizarre. A dollar bill crops up with the message, “I Am Still Alive, Johnny Goesh.” She claims photos she’s found on child pornography websites are Johnny, despite assurances from law enforcement that they aren’t. Most harrowingly, she says he has visited her since he disappeared. Fearing for his and her safety, he apparently made her swear not to alert the authorities and refused to give his permanent whereabouts before vanishing again. The movie remains ambivalent about Noreen’s claims despite showcasing its empathy for her plight and the courageousness of her activism on behalf of other parents. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel aesthetically, but Who Took Johnny, an able-bodied follow up to Hawley and Galinsky’s searing Battle for Brooklyn, does shed light on the origins of a scar on the national psyche, another aspect of the great unraveling of mutual trust that has made strangers of neighbors, suspects of friends in a country of the fearful and the lonely.

Also on the doc side, Vanishing Pearls: The Oysterman of Pointe A la Hache, is a bummer of a tale told in a familiar key, that of the corrupt multinational doing everything to avoid making restitution for a catastrophe caused by profit-driven hubris. In this case, it’s the oil and gas conglomerate BP, which three years after the Deep Water horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to deny just compensation to generations of fisherman. In Nailah Jefferson’s telling, which ranges from the quietly effective to the rather yawning and repetitive, racial undertones inform the treatment of one of the last African-American fishing communities in the South by the company that perhaps permanently poisoned the well upon which protagonist Byron Encalade, a Louisiana fisherman, and his family fishery have long relied.

Despite promises by oil industry officials and government-appointed specialists that fishing would rebound in the region, in many if not most pockets it hasn’t, with signs pointing to fishing waters that may never produce a stock that would allow small-family fishing operations to survive. The film documents Encalade’s quest to expose BP’s practice of pressuring economically strapped fisherman such as himself from taking a meager $20,000 upfront in exchange for relinquishing all future claims against BP — claims that could prove to be much more than the $20 billion the company promised in reparations through the Gulf Restoration Fund.

The movie doesn’t make most of its points elegantly, however. The stiflingly edited doc relies too heavily on music to evoke a sort of maudlin sentimentality, hammering again and again, as it does in interviews with Byron’s daughters, how much the indefatigable but clearly fading Mr. Encalade is suffering from being unable to work upon the waters he’s spent most of his life. It’s a sad fact, and one that this movie should arrive at with a bit more artistry. However, the film’s aesthetics don’t take anything away from the bravery of Mr. Encalade’s stand, which takes him from the bayous of Lousiana, where he attempts to organize other fisherman to fight for their rights, to the streets of London, where he fails valiantly to crash a BP stockholder meeting. Ms. Jefferson shows great sensitivity here, but ultimately her subject deserved the moxie and aesthetic sure-footedness a Michael Moore or Barbara Kopple would have brought to Encalade’s tale.

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