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Sundance #6: The talent among us

Billy Wirth stars in writer-director Andrew Wagner's "The Talent Given Us," a fiction film using Wagner's own parents, siblings and friends as themselves.

PARK CITY, Utah -- There's a man named Andrew Wagner who lives in the same condo where I'm staying at Sundance. At least, I think he does, although he seems to spend a great deal of his time hanging around outside the door. Three times I have encountered him there, and heard his pitch for "The Talent Given Us," the movie he has directed in this year's Sundance festival.

The pitch is: The movie is a fiction film in which his parents, sisters and friends play his parents, sisters and friends. It's not really a documentary about his family, but on the other hand it is inescapably about their personalities and his feelings about them.

"Sounds really interesting," I said the first time he pitched me. "I gotta see that!" I said with hearty enthusiasm the second time. "God, I've got so many screenings, but it sounds good," I said the third time. Then he and his friend Billy Wirth ran into me at the Holiday Village cinema, and he reminded me again of his film. It became clear to me that I would either see "The Talent Given Us," or Andrew Wagner would take on the role of albatross to my ancient mariner.

So I went to see it, in one of those press screening rooms in the Yarrow Inn with the folding chairs on the risers. The screening began ominously with the Sundance host advising us, "If you want to exit, go out at the back of the theater and do not use the side door, which opens onto a locked courtyard." As the lights went down and the movie began, I had fantasies of doomed critics, unwisely fleeing bad movies through the wrong door and freezing to death in the locked courtyard.

And then -- well, then I saw a wonderful movie, one of the most original, daring, intriguing and seemingly honest films of the year. I say "seemingly" because I have no idea how much of the story is true. One thing is for sure: Wagner's parents, sisters and friends are good sports.

In "The Talent Given Us," we meet Wagner's parents, Allen and Judy, both 70, who live outside New York. Allen has a medical condition that makes it hard for him to close his mouth or speak clearly, although we can understand everything he says. Medication has rendered him impotent, to the dismay of his wife. Their unmarried daughters Emily and Maggie come to visit. Emily and Maggie are actresses, Emily with a role on "E.R.," Maggie with 26 movie and TV credits. Allen buys a big SUV on impulse, and as the parents and daughters are on the way home from the mall, Judy on the spur of the moment orders Allen to take the freeway: They're going to drive to L.A. and visit their son, a screenwriter who hasn't been returning their phone calls.

A description of their cross-country odyssey will have to await a full review. Let it be said that painful and funny truths are revealed, the Wagners talk nonstop and are funny, articulate and lacerating, and when a bouncy friend named Bumby (Judy Dixon) joins the trip, an unexpected dynamic develops. Oh, and the actor Billy Wirth, a friend of Andrew's, runs into them in Santa Fe and offers some marriage counseling.

Allen and Judy Wagner may or may not be the people they play on the screen. If they are not, then they deserve an entire segment of Inside the Actors' Studio to explain how they achieved such a natural and convincing presence. We get a palpable feeling of their 45 years of marriage, we hear about alleged adulteries, we join long-running disagreements, and we are forced at last to conclude that for all their faults they complement each other and have a marriage both deeply flawed and deeply real.

Next time I leave the condo, if Andrew Wagner is standing outside the door, I'm going to thank him for this film. During the entire family trip, of course, he was an unseen presence, as director and cinematographer. How he achieved such a feeling of spontaneous realism is a mystery and a triumph.

I have seen so many other splendid films here; my moviegoing is racing ahead of my reporting. Let's see. "Steal Me," by Melissa Painter, is also a movie about a family testing itself. A teenage drifter and compulsive thief named Jake (Danny Alexander) is brought home by Tucker (Hunter Parrish) and allowed to stay by his generous and gentle parents (Cara Seymour and John Terry). He is troubled, and trouble, but the family decides he needs a safe place to call home -- for awhile, anyway.

An unprincipled neighbor woman soon takes Jake cheerfully to her bed, tensions are generated in the close-knit Montana farm family, and Tucker is challenged to grow up more quickly than he's really ready for. At the center of everything is the mystery of Jake's isolation, his neediness, and his compulsion to steal. The title reveals his deepest desire. Strange, how his character both repels us and inspires our concern.

"The Devil and Daniel Johnston," by Jeff Feuerzeig, is a documentary about an Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter and manic-depressive who has generated a cult following during 20 years in and out of mental institutions. Successful enough to star at rock concerts, the artist on several underground hit albums, a hero of the late Kurt Cobain, Johnston has a way of going off his medication to prepare for concerts, and then going off the rails. His patient and long-sacrificing parents and siblings do what they can for him, but he often escapes them. His friends and admirers wait for his good moments and dread his relapses. His music is lonely, angry and sad.

I love film noir. Rian Johnson's "Brick" is film noir. That it takes place entirely within a population of high school students makes it no less film noir than if it starred Robert Mitchum or Richard Widmark. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as the high school loner and/or self-appointed private investigator who finds the dead body of a classmate and tries to untangle the events leading to her murder. At first you think maybe the movie is a stunt, like "Bugsy Malone," the gangster movie starring pre-teens. But, no, it's a film noir to its very bones, consistent and creepy from beginning to end, and if it doesn't star Mitchum it channels him.

Now to end on a sad note. For 18 years I have used a little hand-held leather object known as the Levenger Pocket Briefcase. It holds 3x5 cards on a pocket in the back. You place a card beneath the tabs on the front, write on it, and then store it in another pocket. Perfect. It has been with me to dozens of festivals and thousands of films, and today, somewhere between the Holiday Village Cinemas and the press screening at the Yarrow, I lost it. The Sundance ushers were tireless in helping me search with a flashlight, but it is gone.

I would sooner have lost my wallet, or my car. The Pocket Briefcase was part of me, deeply engrained in my work habits. Some years ago I bought a backup, only to discover that Levenger had make the tragic mistake of inexplicably changing its flawless dimensions by making it a half-inch wider -- just enough so that it no longer fit perfectly into the palm, and the 3x5 cards in the storage area could not provide a solid backing for my writing. Damn, damn, damn. I bought a spiral notebook at the 7-Eleven, and am right now regarding it with hatred.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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