Scott Weinberg, a writer for cinematical.com, found himself stranded on the first day of the Sundance Film Festival when a huge Pacific storm shut down the Phoenix airport. He and a few others rented a car, drove into the blizzard and arrived at sunrise the next morning in Park City, Utah, where the storm raged on. How much do you have to love movies to trudge through this stuff?
Unfortunately, that was the same question viewers were asking themselves as the films in the U.S. Dramatic Competition category rolled. One by one, they inspired reactions ranging from disinterest to retching. The comedy Douchebag followed a pair of estranged brothers on a road trip, and needed to acquire another quarter of an ass even to be half-assed. Welcome to the Rileys, with Kristen Stewart as a teen hooker who helps heal a grieving Midwestern couple, was as emotionally obvious as that summary suggests.
Eric Mendelsohn's triptych of suburban tales, 3 Backyards, wasn't an audience favorite, though I liked its short-story rhythms and elusive psychology. Only the Ozarks-set thriller Winter's Bone — the eventual Grand Jury Prize winner — inspired universally rapturous response from critics.
Thank heaven for the documentaries, which provided the brilliance too often missing from the fiction features. The festival's most jaw-dropping entry was Catfish, which is hard to describe without spoiling its surprises. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost capture a story that begins when Ariel's brother Yaniv, a New York photographer, strikes up an online friendship with 8-year-old Michigan girl Abby Pierce. When Yaniv "meets" other members of Abby's family, including her 19-year-old half-sister, their cyber-world becomes tangled in a way that turns Catfish into something that's part detective story, and part piercing exploration of the forces that drive virtual relationships.
The U.S. Documentary Competition also saw several entries transcend simple button-pushing in dealing with hot-button topics. Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's Restrepo follows an Army platoon on a deployment to the most dangerous part of Afghanistan and becomes a brutally insightful study of men under fire who often seem more like boys. Fighting in Afghanistan is also behind The Tillman Story, in which director Amir Bar-Lev re-humanizes pro football player/Army Ranger Pat Tillman after the cover-up of his friendly-fire death. And there is an impressive fair-mindedness to 12th & Delaware, which looks inside two businesses — an abortion clinic and a Catholic-run crisis pregnancy center — at the same Fort Pierce, Fla., intersection.
Still, it's hard to draw people to documentaries when high-profile "buzz" premieres abound. The hottest buzz was for The Runaways, which cast Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie in the story of the seminal teen-girl punk band. It brings tremendous energy to its concert footage, but not nearly enough to the personal conflicts. Crowds also rolled out for Ben Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones in The Company Men, which explored corporate downsizing with a curious combination of self-righteousness and the suggestion that being pink-slipped is actually a growth experience.
Fortunately, a couple of the lower-profile comedy premieres — Nicole Holofcener's charming ensemble Please Give, and Cyrus, with John C. Reilly as a guy whose new girlfriend has a far-too-attached son — provided a spark that warmed the crowds, even if it couldn't melt the thigh-deep snow.