Every once in a while, you assemble a day at a film festival in which the films seem to resonate with each other, thematically or because of casting choices or perhaps just the zeitgeist.
I happened to catch three films in a row on Saturday at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival that all dealt with issues of family, particularly the idea of creating a family from people to whom you aren’t necessarily related but to whom you feel a connection.
They were all examples of what apparently is now thought of as the old Sundance sensibility – cast with familiar faces, either with distribution already in place through one of the indy majors (in this case, Sony Classics) or with a school of sales agents and distribution execs scampering for seats at the screenings. This, as opposed to the rebellious, devil-may-care Sundance that throws commercial considerations to the wind and lets the artists follow their inspiration, no matter how unwatchable the result may be. (Hello? “Obselidia”?)
The films I saw ranged from the uneven “HappyThankYouMorePlease,” a film written, directed by and starring Josh Radnor of the TV show, “How I Met Your Mother”; to the uncomfortably funny and moving “Please Give” by the too-long absent Nicole Holofcener; to the touching, understated “Welcome to the Rileys,” that featured the fascinating acting triad of James Gandolfini, Melissa Leo and Kristen Stewart.
“HappyThankYou” and “Rileys” both involve people who either accidentally become guardians to a young person or find themselves compelled to do so. In the case of “HappyThankYou,” it’s Radnor himself, as Sam, a struggling writer in Manhattan, who spots a young child of color on the subway while on his way to an important meeting about his unpublished novel. When the child’s apparent mother gets off the subway and the little boy winds up stuck on the train after the doors close, Sam reluctantly assumes responsibility for the youngster.
The best parts of “HappyThankYou” deal with Sam’s alternately unwilling and surprisingly tender stewardship of the lad, along with his blossoming relationship with a waitress and would-be singer named Mississippi, played by the always intriguing young actress Kate Mara. The least interesting portions focus on a relationship between two friends of his, played by Zoe Kazan and Pablo Schreiber. And the least likely plot thread focuses on Malin Ackerman, as Sam’s best friend, a woman who suffers from alopecia (loss of all body hair) and is being wooed by a dorky attorney (played with affecting grace and wit by Tony Hale, finally freed from playing goofs). It’s a hit-and-miss romantic comedy, a little too eager to please but not without its charms (including an exceptional scene with Hale pitching himself to a doubtful Ackerman).
“Welcome to the Rileys” follows a familiar, slightly similar trope, with Gandolfini as an Indiana plumbing-parts entrepreneur who takes a fatherly interest in a young stripper (Stewart) he meets while at a convention in New Orleans. To the credit of writer-director Jake Scott, it’s a chaste relationship that builds in affection and mutual trust; though Gandolfini and Leo, as a married couple, have a history we’ve seen before (going through the motions since their teen daughter was killed several years earlier), “Rileys” doesn’t make any Hollywood plot turns, preferring to focus on the realistic prospects of a Midwestern couple suddenly trying to assume a parental role in the life of this young runaway.
It’s also smart enough not to make a big deal out of the emotional estrangement between Gandolfini and Leo: no simmering recriminations, or angry venting of years-old anger. They instead offer beautifully modulated performances as a couple that has lost its way (though would like to find it back), while Stewart attacks her role with a clarity and ferocity that is compelling. Stewart brings an emotional nakedness and spirit to the role that is reminiscent of certain male actors when they were young: Sean Penn for one, Leonardo DiCaprio for another.
Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give” is her first film since the underrated 2006 Sundance opener, “Friends With Money.” Her offbeat humor and eye for casting (as well as her masterful use of the always-welcome Catherine Keener) makes this film a sometimes squirmy delight, filled with terse, funny exchanges and well-observed human interaction from characters whose self-doubt and denial is as keen as their tongues are sharp.
Her dual plot paths focus on sort-of neighbors. Keener and hubby Oliver Platt own a vintage furnishings store, which they stock by swooping in to buy the belongings of newly deceased seniors from their unsentimental offspring. Their apartment is next door to an elderly, caustic woman who is looked after by her granddaughter, a radiology technician named Rebecca (Rebecca Hall of “Vicki Cristina Barcelona,” significantly de-glammed), who gives mammograms. (And boy, is the film’s opening sequence – a faceless series of breasts, about to be squashed into submission – an eye-opener for guys.) She visits her grandmother everyday but shares an apartment with her older sister (Amanda Peet), a slightly nasty facialist who can’t stand their grandma.
Their paths diverge and cross, as each struggles with various obstacles, fears and phobias. The most compelling is the Keener character, who suffers from the clashbetween her own sense of needing to give more (she’s constantly slipping cash to the homeless people who hang around her block) and her guilt over her scavenger-like livelihood. “Please Give” is emotionally complex and extremely funny in always unpredictable ways.
If I wanted to stretch the metaphor about found families, I could apply it to “Four Lions,” a dark British comedy about suicide bombers (yes, you read that correctly). Four would-be jihadis – all British-born and bred – have formed their own little London cell, despite al-Qaeda’s apparent lack of interest in their activities. They argue about the meaning of Islam and jihad, while they go about the inept planning of their own martyrdom. It’s brilliantly, darkly funny at times (including the scene of a suicide bomber being prematurely detonated when he chokes on something and receives an impromptu Heimlich from a passerby), though undoubtedly bound to be controversial for making light of this deadly subject. (Still, as someone who prides himself on being able to decipher even the thickest British accent, I can honestly say that I missed big chunks of dialogue and decided this is a film that should consider subtitling before it’s offered to American audiences.)
It was another Sundance day of nonstop snow and crowded shuttle buses. Thankfully, mine ended at dinner with friends from the outside world – Jane St. John and her group of college friends, as much skiers as filmgoers – who stuffed me with a homemade meal of incredibly tasty Balinese chicken. My annual get-togethers with this group of bright, resourceful women are always a delight.
Sunday’s dilemma: How to see all the films I want to see – including Alex Gibney’s Jack Abramoff doc – while still being able to see as much of the NFL finals as I’d like?