Backwoods urchin and itchy nymph hook up at Sundance.

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

Park City, Utah—

On the first Saturday of the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, I rolled out of bed and hustled up Main Street for the 8:30 a.m. screening of Tamara Jenkins's The Savages, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as adult siblings caring for an irascible elderly parent. Only I went to the wrong theater by mistake and instead found myself at a screening of writer-director John Carney's Once, a low-budget Irish drama selected for Sundance's international competition and starring nobody you've likely ever heard of. It's a mistake I'm glad I made. That's not to say anything against Jenkins's film, which has been generally well received here; but The Savages is due in theaters soon from Fox Searchlight and, like so many of the movies people beg, borrow, and steal to get tickets for here in Park City, will be easy enough to see after the festival is over. Once, on the other hand, will be lucky to get a release at all, even though it certainly deserves one. It's the sort of completely unhyped, unheralded little gem you go to a festival like Sundance hoping to find and, every once in a while, do.

I don't want to overstate the case for Once—it is, after all, a very small story about a Dublin street musician (Glen Hansard, of the band the Frames) who meets up with a Czech immigrant pianist (Marketa Irglova) and discovers that they make beautiful music together. But I liked this movie right from the opening scene of Hansard standing on a corner strumming a beat-up old guitar and belting out an inspired version of Van Morrison's "And the Healing Has Begun." And I especially liked how the characters are allowed to have untidy personal lives—he's still hung up on an ex-girlfriend in London, she has an estranged husband and a young daughter to boot—so that, in spite of their mutual attraction, they hesitate to get too deeply involved. But Once is at its best when it bursts into song, which is, fortuitously, most of the time. Whether Hansard and Irglova (who co-wrote all of the music in the film) are improvising a duet in a music shop or heading into the recording studio with an entire busker band, the songs they create are groovy and soulful and stick in your head for days afterward. Little wonder that, at the film's post-screening Q&A, there were multiple requests for a soundtrack album, before the two stars caved to audience requests for an encore and led the sold-out Egyptian Theatre crowd in an a cappella rendition of Daniel Johnston's "Devil Town."

Hansard and Irglova should count themselves lucky that Dublin falls outside the territory canvassed by the huckster music-industry executives of Craig Zobel's disarming debut feature, The Great World of Sound. The title is the name of a fly-by-night Charlotte record label and the movie follows two of its "producers"—white, soft-spoken Martin (Pat Healy) and black, gregarious Clarence (Kene Holliday)—as they set out across America to sign new acts, preying on the hopes and dreams of naive, small-town folks with glimmers of stardust in their eyes. Talent is negotiable: If you can pony up the cash for the recording session, you're in, even if the album you cut may not be worth the vinyl it's printed on.

We all know about the cathartic power of the blues, but until Sundance, who knew that it could serve as a cure-all for everything from nymphomania to childhood sexual abuse? In Hustle & Flow director Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan, whose out-of-competition premiere screening was one of the festival's hottest tickets, a gaunt and almost unrecognizable Christina Ricci stars as a proverbial piece of poor white trash whose inability to suppress the "itch" between her legs leads her to spread those twiggy appendages for anyone with a pulse. Enter a bitter, newly divorced musician (Samuel L. Jackson) who finds a battered Ricci by the side of the road and decides to rid her body of its sinful desires by chaining her to a living-room radiator and serenading her with the blues.

Few detested Hustle & Flow, with its white-boy fetishization of pimp culture, more than I did, and though I can't deem Black Snake Moan an advance (at least where its attitudes toward women are concerned), it does offer ample proof of Brewer's facility with the camera, his understanding of Southern culture, and—once you cut through all the bondage and anal penetration—a sweet-natured temperament. The 35-year-old Brewer is actually a surprisingly old-fashioned guy: Just as Hustle & Flow seemed like a revisionist take on the classic Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney let's-put-on-a-show musicals, Black Snake Moan is, at its core, a fairly straightforward variation on George Bernard Shaw—Pigsfeetmalion, if you will. When he outgrows his terminal adolescence, Brewer might be the perfect filmmaker to take on Faulkner or Tennessee Williams.

Better him, in any event, than Deborah Kampmeier, whose competition film Hounddog had already earned the scorn of the Christian right before it ever arrived at the festival, mostly owing to a fleeting rape scene involving the 12-year-old child star Dakota Fanning. As is almost always the case, that controversy turns out to be more noteworthy than the movie itself—an unrelentingly unpleasant Southern gothic about a barefoot backwoods urchin (Fanning) whose habit of dancing suggestively to the titular Elvis Presley single sparks the desire of an acne-riddled milkman and ultimately leads to the now-notorious act of deflowering. She too is then rehabilitated by a kindly black man, who teaches her to sing the real blues and explains that anyone can be a "nigger" regardless of their skin color. Thanks, Sundance.

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.

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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