PARK CITY, Utah -- I have seen 11 films so far at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and the most affecting involves a couple of kids from a Chicago public housing complex who were given tape recorders by National Public Radio, and asked to record the story of their lives.
"Our America," directed by Ernest Dickerson, tells the story of LeAlan Jones (Brandon Hammond) and Lloyd Newman (Roderick Pannell), high school seniors who live near the Ida B. Wells Homes on the South Side. WBEZ producer David Isay (Josh Charles) gives them portable recorders and microphones, and they tell their stories, with eloquence and stark honesty. "Soldiers who fought in Vietnam came back with shock syndrome," one observes. "We live in Vietnam."
The radio documentary wins praise and a Peabody Award (they are the youngest ever to win broadcasting's most important prize), but is attacked by some African-American leaders for painting a negative portrait. David Isay is stereotyped as a white man who exploited them by putting his ideas into their mouths. At first Jones and Newman are crushed, because they respect the teacher and talk show host who lead the charge, but then they decide they told the truth as they saw it, in their own words.
Then a tragedy occurs that captures national attention: Eric Morse, a 5-year-old, is dropped from a 14th-story window of a Wells building by two boys, 10 and 11, who wanted him to steal candy for them. LeAlan and Lloyd go back to WBEZ and get backing to make a documentary about that, and they argue that the two boys (given 10-year sentences) were trying to scare the kid but not kill him. The blame, they decide, lies "25 percent with the boys, 25 percent with their parents, 25 percent with the Wells project and 25 percent with society."
Beginning as a cinematographer for Spike Lee, Dickerson then directed such films as "Juice," and the TV movies "Strange Justice," about Anita Hill, and "Blind Faith," about a hate crime. This is his most eloquent work, an examination of a public housing complex that breeds crime and despair in its very bricks, and two young men (both now college students) who talked their way out of it. "Our America" will play on Showtime in June.
This year's Sundance festival is so far not as strong as last year's extraordinary event, which premiered "In the Bedroom," "Waking Life," "The Believer," "Memento," "The Deep End," "Hedwig And The Angry Inch" and "Lost And Delirious." But some movies have been acclaimed, and the best buzz surrounds "Stolen Summer," the film being documented in the HBO series "Project Greenlight."
"Stolen Summer" was directed by Pete Jones, whose screenplay won a competition sponsored by Miramax, and was executive produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Jones has become familiar to viewers of the TV series ("Sometimes I think I come across like a whiny weasel," he confessed while introducing his film). Weasel or not, he has directed a film with broad appeal, which begins with a large Chicago Irish-Catholic family (Aidan Quinn and Bonnie Hunt are the parents) and then follows their bright 8-year-old (Adi Stein) on his "quest."
The little boy, told by a nun he might not get into heaven, learns from a brother that St. Paul got into heaven by making converts to Christianity. So he sets up a lemonade stand outside the nearby synagogue, is tolerated by the bemused rabbi (Kevin Pollak) and then becomes close friends with the rabbi's son. The film begins as a comedy, then considers darker issues of prejudice and illness; it makes us smile, and then is surprisingly moving. Interesting, that a screenplay chosen in a contest would be the audience favorite so far.
Mark Romanek's "One Hour Photo" is built on a haunting performance by Robin Williams, who reins in his stand-up instincts and creates a sad loner named Sy, who manages the photo developing department of a megastore. Over the years, he has developed the photos of the Yorkin family, and fantasizes himself as their "Uncle Sy." He makes an unexpected discovery while developing pictures, at the same time the store manager discovers he may have been stealing prints, and the movie goes into an even darker place. In its portrait of lonely voyeurism that leads to violence, it deserves comparison with Michael Powell's classic "Peeping Tom."
"Biggie & Tupac" is the latest by guerrilla documentarian Nick Broomfield ("Heidi Fleiss, Hollywood Madam"). He investigates the murders of rap artists Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, charging they were both murdered by off-duty Los Angeles police officers hired by Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight. This is a startling charge, but he backs it up persuasively, interviewing eyewitnesses and a former cop who resigned from the force after his own investigation was blocked. If nothing else, Broomfield proves that the LAPD bent over backward to avoid questioning the most obvious suspects.
"The Dancer Upstairs" is actor John Malkovich's directorial debut, starring Javier Bardem ("When Night Falls") as a lawyer turned cop, assigned to investigate terrorism in a Latin American country. This sounds like a political thriller in the vein of Costa-Gavras (whose "State of Siege" is referenced in the film), but Malkovich is more intrigued by mood and tone than plot, and the great achievement of his film is to capture the way the cop's personality plays off others. Some said they couldn't understand the Spanish-accented English; they were listening for the words instead of the music.
Gus Van Sant's "Gerry," which I wrote about earlier, is the most puzzling film of the festival. Some hate it, some find it brilliant. It stars Matt Damon and Casey Affleck as two friends who get lost in the desert, and that's pretty much the entire plot. Antonioni and Kiarostami are evoked by its supporters. I found it bold, brave and extreme--a challenge to the audience, more refreshing than an autopilot plot with lots of dialogue and intercuts with a search party.
As every year, I come out of the first weekend aware that I have missed films everybody assures me are brilliant. I'm currently hot on the trail of "Real Women Have Curves" and "The Devil's Playground" (a doc about Amish teenagers). More later.