For kiddie porn of a different sort, there was James C. Strouse's Grace Is Gone, which amounts to 89 minutes of emotional foreplay leading up to a one-minute "money shot" of two little girls sobbing at the news that their soldier mother has been killed in Iraq. Starring John Cusack as the widower who can't bring himself to tell his daughters the truth (and so takes them on a road trip to a Disneyland-like theme park), Grace Is Gone has plenty of champions who proclaim it a sensitive, nonpartisan allegory about Americans' unwillingness to acknowledge the full horror of Iraq. What I saw, however, was a cowardly film only interested in using its angel-faced child stars to manufacture a cheap, tear-jerking payoff. No matter: Grace Is Gone left Sundance with the audience award, the jury prize for best screenplay, and a seven-figure distribution deal with Harvey Weinstein.

Ain't no friend: Dakota Fanning in 'Hounddog'
The Motion Picture Group
Ain't no friend: Dakota Fanning in 'Hounddog'

Always important to remember when discussing Sundance: The festival is ultimately at the mercy of the films being made—and if one is to take the festival's 2007 dramatic competition as a barometer of today's American indie-film landscape, the news is not encouraging. Still, the fest's dramatic jury dared to award its grand prize to the competition film with the least "buzz": Christopher Zalla's Padre Nuestro, a gripping morality play about a Mexican illegal who comes to America in search of his long-lost father, only to have his identity stolen by a fellow immigrant. Part thriller, part Greek tragedy, the Spanish-language Padre Nuestro stars a cast of unknowns in what is an often bleak portrait of America's have-nots, and is one of the only movies I saw in this year's competition that reminded me of the original mandate of the indie-film movement: to tell stories that Hollywood itself would not tell and to give voice to those who are too often silenced in mainstream movies.

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