Sundance synchs with the times

'Education,' 'Push' emblematic of Obama age

First of all, Sundance 2009 was one of the better, and least aggravating, editions of this year-launching festival in some time. Especially through the first weekend, the ratio of good to bad was exceptionally high. The standards declined somewhat through the second half, but the overall quality plus the reduction in crowds and general craziness resulted in a notably more civilized and manageable event than has been the norm in Utah in recent years.

Second, whether by design or happenstance, programmers found a way to synch up the feel of the fest with the tenor of the times. The Obama inauguration occurred at the midway point, on day six, and its shadow may have contributed to the meager profile of most of the films that came after. Robert Redford celebrated the change in government on opening night, and the general mood ranged from mellow to euphoric — hardly surprising at an event that in its early years was often jokingly called the granola festival and now prides itself on everything that is diverse, progressive and green.

In this line, Sundance loaded up on environmentally themed documentaries — some better than others — such as “The Cove,” “The End of the Line,” “Crude,” “Dirt! The Movie,” “Big River Man,” “No Impact Man,” “The Yes Men Fix the World” and “Earth Days”; if there are films out there questioning any aspect of the global warming theory, Sundance’s dedication to diversity would be sorely tested by the prospect of showing them.

In the U.S. dramatic competition, the festival was lucky enough to have a film that essentially sums up everything it has worked to champion and represent over the years. Cary Joji Fukunaga, a product of the Sundance labs and winner of a previous prize here for a short film about illegal immigrants, made in “Sin nombre” a picture in Spanish on difficult Mexican locations about a neglected aspect of the immigration drama: that of Central Americans trying to make the passage through Mexico to the U.S. border. Happily, it also happens to be an evocative film about people struggling to improve their lives that’s compelling and beautifully made.

This aspect of “Sin nombre” brushes up against the central theme shared by the most talked-about films in both the U.S. and World dramatic competition categories, a theme explicitly stated by the title of the British entry –“An Education.” Danish director Lone Scherfig’s spirited account of a 16-year-old girl’s thirst for knowledge and the rapid learning curve fostered by a man twice her age will be just about any thinking person’s cup of arthouse tea, a vivid picture of the cusp of the cultural explosion about to take place in England and worldwide.

The style, setting and stylistic trappings of that film’s American Sundance counterpart could scarcely be more different. Up against the fleet elegance of “An Education,” the heavy-handedness and wayward experiments of “Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire” look like try-anything amateurishness. All the same, the impulse driving Lee Daniels’ bold film is equally felt and the life journey, given the grim circumstances of its Harlem setting, is even more inspiring. No matter the merits of the picture otherwise; there can be no denying the galvanic impact of the performances of Mo’Nique as the all-time mother from hell and Gabourey Sidibe as the fat, ugly, twice-pregnant and illiterate teenager who contrives to lift herself out of the trap life set for her from birth.

So the two emblematic films of Sundance 2009 are about two 16-year-old girls who dedicate themselves to self-improvement in their own ways, one to speed her entry into the enticing adult world of art, romance and savoir faire, the other to simply survive and insure a future for herself and her son. Education, self-improvement, self-reliance — they’re good concepts to live by, and they’re strongly expressed by two films at the start of the Obama age.

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