Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sundance 2009: Taking a Stand

Last year, I took some heat about replying to a blog comment during Sundance. I slammed the competition drama North Starr – or at least the 20 excruciating minutes I watched before walking out. A disgruntled commenter noted that the movie had received a standing ovation at its premiere public screening. And I posted an observation that defending a film based on the enthusiasm of a Sundance audience was like defending the attractiveness of a baby based on the enthusiasm of its parents.

This is particularly true when the subject of the film – as was the case with North Starr – is someone from the lower socio-economic strata attempting to change the circumstances of his/her life. If you’ll permit me a moment of cynicism, there’s a liberal Pavlovian response at work here. Maybe the film really is terrific. Or maybe everyone just loves the message, irrespective of its means of delivery.

Reportedly, audiences went gaga at the premieres of this year’s competition dramas Toe to Toe and Push: Based on the novel by Sapphire. Curiously enough, both address the same basic subject matter as that mentioned above, though in different ways. Toe to Toe follows two classmates and lacrosse teammates at a Washington, D.C. prep school: Jesse (Louisa Krause, a dead ringer for Kirsten Dunst), a rich white girl who acts out being ignored by her high-powered mother through sexual promiscuity; and Tosha (Sonequa Martin), a black girl from a low-income neighborhood feeling pressure from her grandmother to make it into Princeton. The latter story’s a fairly gripping one, dealing with Tosha’s tension between those around her who want to keep her down, and her own resentment at being pushed so hard to succeed. Unfortunately, it’s far more difficult to engage with Jesse’s situation. Even when the consequences are severe, her self-destructive flings simply never resonate as strongly as Tosha’s problems.

Push wisely holds the focus on one protagonist, 16-year-old Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe). Then again, she has enough problems for a dozen movies: she’s illiterate, she’s terribly overweight, she’s pregnant with the second baby from sexual assaults by her father, and her mother (Mo’Nique, in a surprising killer of a performance) exists for nothing but making Precious feel ugly and stupid. Director Lee Daniels finds a tricky balance between harsh realism and the fantasies into which Precious escapes. He’s not quite as successful integrating a fairly standard-issue “inspirational teacher” storyline into Precious’ survival tale. It’s solid, but far from spectacular filmmaking – irrespective of its value as “uplifting.” (Scott Renshaw)

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