The crowds were thinner, the temperature was warmer, and Barack Obama's name was mentioned so many times that you might have thought he had assumed leadership not just of the free world but of the Sundance Institute, too. Otherwise, it was more or less business as usual as the Sundance Film Festival turned 25. If the highs weren't as high as those of some Sundances past—no radical, out-of-left-field debut features or eight-figure deals to write home about—neither were the lows as dispiritingly low.
To no one's surprise, the movie many cited as ideal for the Obama moment, Lee Daniels's Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire, swept the festival's closing-night awards, taking both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award of the U.S. dramatic competition for its erratic but unflinching portrayal of an obese, illiterate Harlem teenager's struggle to break free from a cycle of domestic violence and crippling self-doubt. (The film's co-star, comedienne Mo'Nique, was also awarded a Special Jury Prize for her surprisingly intense turn as an abusive welfare mother from hell.) Yet Sundance's most au courant offering turned out to be a movie that hadn't been expected to show at the festival in the first place.
Shot over 16 days in October 2008, with Palin vs. Biden in prime time and the imploding economy in the headlines, Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience is a scintillating whir of half- and fully formed ideas about sex, politics, and money that strongly recalls, both in subject and impishly fragmented style, the Godard films of the 1960s. So it's only fitting that the star of Soderbergh's $1.7-million whatsit is none other than Sasha Grey, a 20-year-old adult-film ingenue who originally wanted to call herself Anna Karina. Grey plays Chelsea, a high-end New York City escort who spends her time in-between clients developing a promotional website and diversifying her assets, while her live-in boyfriend angles to advance his own career as a personal trainer. Not surprisingly, Soderbergh manages to find an analogue for the filmmaking process even here, when Chelsea has her services "reviewed" by a self-appointed escort critic (played creepily well by former Premiere film critic Glenn Kenny).
Screened outside the main Sundance competition, in a slot coyly advertised as "An Evening with Steven Soderbergh," The Girlfriend Experience struck some as "cold" (a charge also leveled against Soderbergh's Che), though that's just a marker of how well the director manages to capture a zeitgeist in which everyone is selling (or for sale) and anesthetizing pleasure is but a click away. In any case, the film would certainly make for a superb double bill with director Ondi Timoner's Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary We Live in Public, which follows obsessive self-documenter Josh Harris on his decade-long odyssey from multimillionaire internet pioneer to Manhattan art-world cause célèbre to bankrupt (financially and emotionally), mentally unhinged exile. In 1999, before reality TV boomed or the words MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube had entered the lexicon, Harris launched the underground art project "Quiet: We Live in Public," in which 100 like-minded exhibitionists lived for 30 days in open cells under the constant scrutiny of video cameras and Orwellian interrogators. Timoner was there from the start, and she stuck around for Harris's equally catastrophic second act, in which he and his then-girlfriend equipped their apartment with wall-to-wall surveillance cameras and proceeded to live their lives, for your viewing pleasure, at the website weliveinpublic.com. Harris's gradual implosion is both repellent and mesmerizing, and Timoner's film is unsparing in its scrutiny. She films, therefore he is.
A fame-seeker of a different sort occupies the central role in director Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson, a blistering biopic of the notorious British felon Michael Gordon Peterson (a.k.a. Charles Bronson), who has spent most of his adult life in solitary confinement, where he has managed to become a physical fitness expert and an award-winning poet and artist. With a grab bag of visual and sonic tricks borrowed from the likes of Kubrick and Peter Greenaway, Refn stages Bronson as a kind of sociopathic vaudeville, as Peterson (played with an all-consuming mania by actor Tom Hardy) recounts his life before an audience, while a series of abstract formalist flashbacks illustrate his violent journey from the crib to various other barred enclosures.
Another standout in the festival's often middling world-cinema section was director Sebástian Silva's darkly comic The Maid, which depicts life in a bourgeois Chilean family from the perspective of its longtime housekeeper (the brilliant Catalina Saavedra), whose violent mood swings might put a chill in even Michael Peterson's blood.
Meanwhile, that forlorn indie-cinema movement known as "mumblecore"—whose navel-gazing Gen Y characters and DIY aesthetics were exalted and derided by a small coterie of film critics before most people had even seen such a movie—showed unexpected signs of life as Sundance's drama jury awarded a special prize for "excellence in independent cinema" to Lynn Shelton's Humpday. An improvised relationship comedy starring Mark Duplass and The Blair Witch Project's Joshua Leonard as two straight friends who decide to go gay for a Seattle amateur pornography competition, Humpday is an undeniably amusing enterprise. But why single out for excellence Shelton's meandering meditation on male bonding and amateur filmmaking when it doesn't really bring anything new to a table already occupied by the Duplass brothers' own The Puffy Chair and Baghead, to say nothing of Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy? Instead of presenting Shelton with just another bronzed statuette, my own personal jury would have awarded her a tripod instead.