Reeling Through Sundance

For movie lovers, the Sundance Film Festival is an orgy of celluloid delights. Why else would people drag themselves out of bed at six in the morning to be added to the wait list for a film that may be sold out? Or slog through snow at midnight to catch a flick they’ve heard nothing about? It’s because this event, along with a few others, is the crème de la crème of film festivals, always packed with great movies and a handful of lucrative distribution deals for a precious few.

Images of Clockwise from top left: Inching down Main Street; a billboard with films showing at the fest, including Chris Rock’s Good Hair; an image taken from the screen; a moose decked out in her glamour get-up; Spike Lee and me; two women trying to get back onto the curb on Main Street
Clockwise Top: Inching down Main Street; a billboard with films showing at the fest, including Chris Rock’s Good Hair; an image taken from the screen; a moose decked out in her glamour get-up; Spike Lee and me, Pamela K. Johnson; two women trying to get back onto the curb on Main Street

Originally known as the United States Film Festival, Sundance was created in 1985 by actor Robert Redford, and named for his cowpoke alter ego in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This year, I made my second trek to the Park City, UT, fest to get in on the cinematic action, which included several films that dealt with autism.

Opening night, Mary and Max, a claymation project, told the story of a 20-year pen-pal relationship between Mary Dinkle, a fat, lonely 8-year-old girl in the suburbs of Melbourne, and Max Horowitz, a severely obese man with Asperger’s syndrome, who lives an isolated life in New York City.

Another hit of the festival was Adam, about a relationship between a young woman and a young man who has mild autism. Fox Searchlight bought worldwide rights to that. Yet another movie with the autism theme was the popular Over the Hills and Far Away.

The most touching movie in my book was Push, about an abused girl whose fantasy life saves her until she can save herself. The casting was a surprise, but comedian Mo’Nique nailed the dramatic role of the girl’s mentally ill mother. Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz turned in impressive performances as well. Push won the grand jury prize, the audience award for drama, and a special jury prize for Mo’Nique. If it doesn’t get theatrical distribution, I hope HBO or Showtime grab it and quickly program it into their Black History Month rotation.

I had hoped to catch Chris Rock’s Good Hair, about the physical and psychological toll on African-American girls when they—or their caretakers—deem the girls’ hair as unattractive, and use damaging chemicals to straighten it. I also missed Kevin Bacon’s Taking Chance, about a lieutenant colonel who volunteers to accompany the body of a fallen soldier as it is returned home from Iraq. Unfortunately, Good Hair was sold out, and Taking Chance opened after I left. This is a common reality at Sundance: you hear about a great movie, but tricky logistics keep you from seeing it.

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I did, however, get to see perhaps a dozen films. I also found it exciting to be out among the snow-dusted mountains, riding on the free city buses, and talking to other festival-goers about the films they’d just seen and the ones that they liked best so far.

Last year during Sundance, Park City was a wet, snowy mess, which made this year’s frigid but sunny weather a welcome change. Although that made it easier for many of us to get about, it wasn’t the case for everyone. I met a couple of women who work at art-film houses in Massachusetts and Philadelphia; they had a hell of time getting the Philadephia woman’s wheelchair from the frozen street onto the uncut curb. A pole in the middle of the sidewalk blocked her sidewalk access at that point. So, she had to roll the chair off the sidewalk, into the street, past the pole, and then back onto the sidewalk. Fortunately, the buses were fully accessible.

During the opening days of the 10-day fest (January 15- 25), many celebrities were likely in Washington for the inauguration of the new president. However, I did run into filmmaker Spike Lee—an old neighbor from Brooklyn—on Main Street. His new film, Passing Strange, a documentary about a hit Broadway show, was entered in the fest. I also saw Mariah and Mo’Nique at the Push screening, as well as Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon at the screening of their movie, The Greatest, an homage to 1990’s Ordinary People (directed by Redford, by the way). There was a lot to like about the film, however, I suspect that after having shown it to an audience, they’ll take it back to the editing room to address the gaps in logic that prevent the film from living up to its name. Zoe, the daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet (The Cosby Show), also appears in The Greatest.

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As this was Sundance’s 25th year, a series of timepiece stills was used to open each film’s screening. I was told that the images represent a cool time machine that they’d discovered and retooled. This seemed appropriate as time is always a consideration at Sundance: Time to get from theater to theater. (It takes two to three times longer than you think.) Time to wait in line. (I dedicated four hours in line for The September Issue, about Vogue’s editor in chief Anna Wintour, and still did not get in.) And time can seem interminable when you’re stuck in a line of cars, inching along Main Street.

Though you can count on it to be as chilly as a popsicle in Park City during Sundance, there’s no excuse for not working a bit of glamour into your act, as the moose in a red coat with the fluttery eyelashes can attest.

If you haven’t checked out the festival out yet, add it to your “bucket list.”

by Pamela K. Johnson

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