I've learned something about myself over the decade that I've been attending Sundance: As the week progresses, my enthusiasm for films that are merely "good" wanes. Energy is at low ebb, and I'm looking for something exceptional to re-charge my batteries. It's not the movies' fault, but timing on my festival schedule can matter a lot.
Starting Out in the Evening and The Pool -- from the U.S. Dramatic Competition -- are both solid, respectable dramas. Both find lonely or isolated people forming connections: The former deals with an aging, ailing novelist (Frank Langella) who works with a grad student (Lauren Ambrose) who wants to bring his work out of obscurity; the latter, set in India, finds a poor, fatherless kid befriending a wealthy man whose son has died. Both are well-acted, and both are made by filmmakers with at least one feature under their belts, and who have a certain sense for what to do with a story. I have nothing particularly negative to say about either film. But neither do I have anything particularly laudatory to say about them.
Part of the problem (if in fact "problem" is the appropriate term) is that both films come from directors whose previous works demonstrated a kind of ragged energy that's utterly lacking here. Starting Out director Andrew Wagner came to Sundance two years ago with the dysfunctional family road-trip comedy The Talent Given Us, an improbably charming effort that I only saw in 2005 because I bumped into Wagner on the way to another screening and he encouraged me to see it at a time when I happened to have an empty slot. The Pool's Chris Smith is one of the several veteran documentary directors making the transition to dramatic features, following his Sundance hit American Movie. Those were the kind of movies made by rookies who went for it like they had nothing to lose; these dramatic follow-ups feel like what happens when someone who has made a film on a shoestring gets a chance to be "taken seriously." They're fine films, but they both feel like the kind of movies Miramax would have distributed 10 years ago, complete with a solemnly-intoned trailer. As perfectly respectable as they may be, it feels like kind of a shame that this is where it seems the road from obscurity must lead.
One great little tidbit from the Eccles Center public screening of Starting Out in the Evening that I attended: Wagner, attempting to introduce the film, was so overwhelmed by emotion at playing "The Big House" that he simply couldn't complete his pre-film introduction. And that's the kind of feeling I'd like to see him pour into his next movie. (Scott Renshaw)