[Film Fest] Day 6. I have at this point seen 9 and 1/8 of the American Dramatic Competition films, with scheduled times to see four of the remaining six. I’ve used the analogy before that Sundance is very much like the draft for a pro sports league, with that excitement for the Next Big Thing, but realizing one of these movies has to win a Grand Prize calls to mind a sadder part of that analogy: There are the drafts where #1 gets LeBron James, and there are drafts where #1 gets Michael Olawokandi.
There are some that are at least deserving of some praise. There’s Phoebe in Wonderland, writer/director Daniel Barnz’s story of the titular 9-year-old girl (Elle Fanning, the also-preternaturally-talented sister of Dakota) and her struggles with undefined emotional and/or neurological issues. Bits and pieces of the film are positively terrific: the relationship between Phoebe and a flamboyantly theater-loving male classmate; Felicity Huffman’s agonized monologue about her parental fears; and the raw despair of a kid who doesn’t know what’s happening to her. But the fanciful stuff occasionally gets too fanciful, as it does when Patricia Clarkson – as Phoebe’s odd duck of a drama teacher – turns into a sort of Mary Poppins figure. It’s solid “B” work, and yet I find myself clinging to its flawed appeal.
Deeper flaws damage both the crowd favorite Sunshine Cleaning and the edgier The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. The former casts Amy Adams (Enchanted) and Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) as sisters who launch a crime-scene cleanup company, and in the process have to come to terms with their own family baggage. The two lead actresses are typically terrific, particularly Adams as an ex-high school queen-bee struggling to come to terms with her life as an under-employed single mom. But the writing and directing both prove uneven, and I think I’ve officially lost patience with films where I wait for the inevitable revelation of the Past Tragedy That Has Changed Our Protagonist(s) Forever.
Even The Mysteries of Pittsburgh falls into that trap, though it’s problematic for other reasons, too. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s adaptation of the Michael Chabon novel casts Jon Foster as the son of a Pennsylvania mobster whose post-college graduation summer involves hanging out with a gorgeous violinist (Sienna Miller) and her charismatic but bad-news boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard). The performances are solid all around, but when it comes right down to it, this is yet another one of those stories where someone either literally or figuratively winds up by saying, “My life was never the same after that summer.” This guy, changed a little bit more than most, but still … (Scott Renshaw)