January 29, 2003

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The company you keep

SUNDANCE MAY HAVE come to signify the hype and spin of boy wonders and recycled celebrities, despite its best intentions. But this year, due to the balmy climes (thanks, El Niño) and some really good films, I wasn't even phased by the frantic crowds searching for Jenny, Jenny from the block. There was much to be excited about – besides the presence of Patricia Clarkson in no less than four movies, that is.

My vote goes where the Grand Jury vote for Dramatic Prize went: to American Splendor, the most thrilling cinematic experience at the festival. If you're already hooked on Harvey Pekar's comics, you know. For those who don't, it's the chance to inhabit the universe of Cleveland's world-class curmudgeon, a now retired file clerk whose chronicles of a working stiff's life in the back streets of Anywhere, USA, define comic book pathos. Filmmakers Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman and their team developed a toolbox of tricks to mutate Pekar from self to actor to animated character in the flash of an eye. "I hope this gets me some work," Harvey confided at the dinner after the screening. "I'm on a pension and I need the money." Joyce Brabner, his wife and costar, confided that they'd bought a house with the proceeds from selling off Harvey's record collection. Wow, pretty valuable. "Well, real estate is cheap in Cleveland," she said. "You can get a three-bedroom house for $75,000"; cheaper than the movie about them. Thank you, HBO.

Some films at Sundance were truly low budget, like An Injury to One, Travis Wilkerson's inspiring political documentary (which, pssssst, showed last year at the Pacific Film Archive). An homage to Butte, Mont., it's a history of the International Workers of the World, the Anaconda Copper Mine, and a Pinkerton goon named Dashiell Hammett. Imagine a film preserved in amber in the 1930s, then raised from the dead in Park City. The context was hilarious. But you get the point. My favorite films were the anti-Sundance ones – which paradoxically were probably the quintessential Sundance selections.

Two other indie dramas deserve mention. Thirteen is an up-close look at two girls of that age as they spin out of control. A directorial debut by former production designer Catherine Hardwicke, it looks good (Hardwicke won the dramatic directing award for the effort). More to the point, it feels real – perhaps because she wrote it in collaboration with an actual 13-year-old, Nikki Reed, who plays the part of bad girl Evie. Anyone fed up with the Larry Clark version of adolescence will find it the perfect antidote. Fox Searchlight picked it up for distribution.

Waldo Salt and Audience Award-winner The Station Agent, soon to be a Miramax release, is even better. Part '70s American cinema (think Atlantic City or Five Easy Pieces), part Waiting for Godot, it throws three characters our way, and we'll never forget them. One is Patricia Clarkson (see above), one is a lonely Caribbean latte vendor (Bobby Cannavale), one is a dwarf with dignity (Peter Dinklage) and a passion for the railroad. They keep one another company and help one another out. That's it. And it's enough.

B. Ruby Rich