Sundance Diary, volume six: dramarama

Paul Dano in "For Ellen."

In a series of posts, Midnites for Maniacs curator-host and Academy of Art film-history teacher Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports on the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Check out his first, second, third, fourth, and fifth entries.

So Yong Kim's character study For Ellen is only 93 minutes long, but the experience of watching it felt like it took an eternity. But — even though the film did not win awards at this year's festival — it resonated; it was filled with many memorable, quiet moments. Paul Dano (never before so vulnerable) takes the reigns as a struggling musician who, while taking a break from touring to sign the papers for his long-overdue divorce, is forced to confront his own selfish tendencies when his custody rights start slipping through his fingers.

Writer-director Kim (2008's Treeless Mountain) uses long, handheld takes that often prevent the viewer from seeing the actual feelings of our anti-hero. This subtle slice-of-life portrait never wavers from its sullen tone, which might explain why many critics seemed underwhelmed after its screening. For Ellen doesn't give its flawed protagonist an easy way out, in a way that's reminiscent of Darren Aranofsky's The Wrestler (2008). 

Ira Sachs (2005's Forty Shades of Blue) delivered his most personal film to date with Keep the Lights On; oddly enough, it might be a little too personal for its own good. Chronicling an extremely passionate and self-destructive relationship from the late 90s to the present, Sachs transparently exposes the very modern Chelsea neighborhood life of daily phone sex, random hook-ups, and casual usage of hard drugs — all wrapped up in a self-absorbed universe that I am sure more people in this generation can relate to than would actually like to admit. The indie auteur's latest beautifully-shot effort goes overboard with its honesty (especially toward the end) and I was left in an emotional limbo, wanting to care but feeling like I had read too much of someone's personal diary.

Barely recognized as mumblecore's first female director, Ry Russo-Young seems to have graduated to full-fledged indie director with Nobody Walks, which won a Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Independent Film Producing. Most audience members were at the screening thanks to star John Krasinski (The Office), who delivers his usual charm. But truly stealing the show was Olivia Thirlby, whose irresponsible yet utterly motivated 23-year-old artist is so wonderfully performed that you forget about some of the major cues the film has taken from Lisa Cholodenko's Laurel Canyon (2002) and Tom Kapinos's Californication. Lena Dunham, who made 2011's monumental Tiny Furniture, co-wrote the film, and her unromanticized take on strong female voices shines quite brightly here.      

But nothing in this year's Dramatic Competition could compare to Ben Lewin's The Surrogate, which won both the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting. Truly delivering hands-down next year's best actor performance, John Hawkes (2010's Winter's Bone) portrays Berkeley, Calif. journalist Mark O’Brien, whose poetry, autobiographical writings, and physical limitations gave writer/director Ben Lewin more than you could ever ask for. O'Brien's real-life story was already told in Jessica Yu's 1995 Academy Award-winning documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien, which hauntingly showcased O'Brien's inspired and difficult life. For his narrative take, Lewin has pinpointed a very specific part of the story, creating a timeless romance and life-altering drama that ranks alongside Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun (1938) and David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980).

But it's the acting that makes this film so unforgettable. Hawkes conveys complicated emotions and captures O'Brien's soft-spoken syntax without ever slipping into pretension. William H. Macy throws in some very needed humor as an understanding, catch-22'd priest, and Helen Hunt gives the film that certain extra sense of surprise and understanding. It's a cliché to say so, but it's true: the film left nary a dry eye in the house. The Surrogate will be "the little film that could" for 2012 and for years after.

Up next: night owl Jesse Hawthorne Ficks tackles more Park City at Midnight movies.