Smile 'Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story and other Sundance flicks
PARK CITY REPORT A degree of relative tranquility settled on Sundance this year, as budget cutbacks among media outlets and distributors meant the customary frenzy was dialed down a notch or three. Of course most screenings were packed, but fewer people than usual got turned away; lodgings remained available during the festival, whereas normally they'd be booked months in advance. Still, what was onscreen remained as usual a more or less even mix of good, bad, and indifferent. (Most likely in 2010 we'll start to see a shrunken economy affect indie film production.)
The Bay Area was strangely underrepresented this year, particularly in the documentary realm where it often has a major presence. Instead, there were two dramatic features, each highly specific in local setting. Bratt Pack family project La Mission, directed by Peter Bratt, stars Benjamin Bratt as Che, an ex-con Muni driver and middle-aged lowrider whose macho veneer doesn't get in the way of his love for a college-bound son (Jeremy Ray Valdez). When he discovers junior is gay, dad freaks out; the Castro District may be just a few blocks from their Mission District walkup, but it's a world away from Che's comprehension. This cable-ready exercise's plot turns and social-issue pleadings can be predicted after 10 minutes. Yet it's also got genuine warmth, easygoing humor, Benjamin B.'s charisma, and a fond grasp of the 'hood.
Frazer Bradshaw's starker Everything Strange and New focuses on young North Oakland couple Wayne (Jerry McDaniel) and Renee (sometime Guardian contributor Beth Lisick), neither of whom quite understand how they got to be saddled with a mortgage, two kids, her frazzled nerves, and his deadened ones. Meanwhile, Wayne's work and drinking buddies (Luis Saguar, Rico Chacon Jr.) have domestic problems of their own. This is the kind of movie people walk out on at Sundance too slow, uncommercial, etc. but it's a quietly original vision with nary a false emotional note.
Elsewhere, local luminary Robin Williams finally found an indie that suited his more restrained seriocomic abilities in The World's Greatest Dad, an imperfect but clever black comedy about literary fraud and morbid personality cults from (no kidding) Bobcat Goldthwait.
I also particularly liked doc Prom Night in Mississippi, about a burg that finally held its first integrated high school prom last year; Israeli dysfunctional-slum-family drama Zion and His Brothers; amazingly detail-perfect recreation/spoof of 1970s blaxploitation flicks Black Lightning; and (at nearby Slamdance) Smile 'Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story, about the Me Decade's most alarmingly perky touring act. Imagine those song numbers in the satirical Brady Bunch movies performed by a couple hundred squeaky-clean young adults, sans irony. It's enough to make a smiley face go postal.