Film festival programmers rarely create festivals full of films built around a single theme, though journalists are always imputing that sort of premeditation to a festival.
Certainly, the 2011 Sundance Film Festival – aside from celebrating work from outside the mainstream by new artists – has no particular theme to it. And yet, quite unintentionally, I spent Friday seeing five films in a row that dealt, in one way or another, with the idea of abandonment, reunion and reconciliation.
The best of these were Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies” and Tom McCarthy’s “Win Win,” with Jim Kohlberg’s “The Music Never Stopped” and Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” not far behind.
“Incendies” has the weight of Greek tragedy and the white-knuckle twists of a great thriller. Based on a play, the film is about a pair of adult twins, Jeanne and Simon, raised in Montreal but of Middle Eastern extraction, who discover that their mother’s will contains two startling revelations. The father they thought was dead is, in fact, still alive – and they have a brother they never knew. The will instructs them to find both and deliver letters from the dead woman.
As the daughter – and then the son – travel to the Middle East to unravel the mystery, Villeneuve tells the parallel story in flashback: of Nawal, their mother, forced to give up a baby born out of wedlock, who searches for the child even as her country disintegrates into civil war between Christians and Palestinians. (The country is never identified, though I was guessing Lebanon.)
The mother is played by Lubna Azabal with hard-eyed ferocity (she was also the best thing about the drearily arty “HERE,” my fifth film of the day). The story is both epic and intimate, sprawling and intensely personal, as Villeneuve circles his surprising climax before revealing it with almost unbearable power and feeling.
By contrast, McCarthy’s “Win Win” is touchingly funny, featuring the most likably normal character Paul Giamatti has ever played – and pairing him with the delightfully edgy Amy Ryan and the hilariously exuberant Bobby Cannavale.
Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a small-time New Jersey lawyer whose practice isn’t exactly thriving and whose part-time job involves coaching the local high school wrestling team. Worried about money, he does what might be the first unethical thing in his life, involving the guardianship of one of his elderly clients, Leo (Burt Young), whose only daughter has been estranged for more than 20 years.
She’s so estranged that, when Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up on Leo’s doorstep, Leo has never met him. And he’s in no condition to take care of Kyle – so it falls to Mike and his wife Jackie (Ryan) to take him in, if temporarily. Then Mike discovers that Kyle is, in fact, a superb wrestler. So he enrolls him in the high school and puts him on the team. Everybody wins – until Leo’s estranged daughter shows up, fresh out of rehab.
McCarthy’s world of moral dilemmas and good deeds is fascinatingly real, with people doing the wrong thing and then finding the right reason. More to the point, he’s got the always amazing Giamatti as a guy whose one step over the line blows back on him in both funny and unnerving ways. The film offers wonderfully complex and lively performances by Giamatti, Ryan and newcomer Shaffer (who has a delicious deadpan affect) and a bold comic turn by Cannavale as Giamatti’s upbeat buddy. It’s one of the true delights of the festival.
A 20-plus-year estrangement between father and son is also at the heart of “The Music Never Stopped,” a generation-gap drama that finally offers the marvelous character actor J.K. Simmons the kind of leading role that Richard Jenkins got in “The Visitor.” He plays a mechanical engineer approaching retirement whose life is upended when the son (Lou Taylor Pucci) he hasn’t seen in 20 years turns up in a local emergency room.
The son, who left home in his teens (and the late 1960s) after a generational blowup with his father, has a massive benign brain tumor. Though surgery removes it, the tumor has damaged his ability to make memories – and has stopped his memory around the time he left home. The son is confined to a rehab facility because he can barely communicate or take care of himself.
But a music therapist discovers that the son, now in his 30s, emerges from his mumblingly near-catatonic state when the therapist plays him records from his teen years: the Beatles, the Stones, and most significantly, the Grateful Dead. So the father, a jazz and swing lover who felt rock’n’roll poisoned his son’s life, must come to terms with the music he hated as a way to communicate with his son.
Kohlberg, working from a script based on the writings of Oliver Sacks, moves easily back and forth between flashbacks and the present. While the drama sometimes feels predictable, the transformations – both by Simmons and by Pucci – give the film an emotional base that’s undeniable. By the end, it’s hard to not be moved by this father-son dynamic.
Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” brings together two sisters, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) and Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who haven’t seen each other in the more than two years, since Martha seemingly disappeared. Martha calls her older sister out of the blue to come get her and spends the next week or so quietly unraveling at the Connecticut lake home of Lucy and her long-suffering husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy).
Though she refuses to discuss where she’s been with Lucy, we see it in flashbacks: held in thrall by the charismatic leader (John Hawkes) of a cult on a farm in the Catskills. Writer-director Durkin never spells out the details of the cult – aside from each female member being drugged and raped by the leader as a kind of initiation. Yet each flashback shows how, slowly but surely, this group of young women – and men – are casually brainwashed into doing as they are told, until Martha finally escapes on her own.
Olsen (younger sister of the Olsen twins) gives a performance of surprising range and depth – and it’s not hard to see Durkin messing with the audience by making Lucy and Ted’s upscale yuppie existence feel almost as constricted and confining as that of the cult, at times. It’s a haunting film that occasionally gets confusing, when the timeline between past and present is muddled. Still, that contributes to a sense of dread that permeates the film in ways that are hard to deny.
The day’s sole dud was the wearyingly pretentious “HERE” (even the capitalization of the title screams pretension). I knew I was in trouble when, at the public screening I attended, the director, Braden King, started talking about how, because the process of making the film took so long, the film took on a life and mind of its own – and pretty soon he was wondering what a film would dream about when it was asleep. Ruh-roh – sorry, but you lose me when the film or novel suddenly start talking about themselves.
Ravishingly shot, “HERE” is a minimalist love story about a mapping surveyor (Ben Foster) on assignment in Armenia, who hooks up with a photographer (the incredibly vital Lubna Azabal, again) who has just returned to her country from a long expatriated absence. She tags along on his travels and … nothing. That’s it. Amazing landscapes, zero personality, barely a short-story’s worth of plot to cover a sprawling two hours of movie.
And no – when the clock rolled around to 11:30 p.m., I simply didn’t have the energy to sit through “Hobo with a Shotgun.” It was a choice between getting this written or seeing a grindhouse goof of a movie which, no matter how much fun, couldn’t compete with that extra two hours of sleep.