Some films rose above middlebrow aspirations

Variety’s senior film critics Justin Chang and Peter Debruge weigh in on the 2012 Sundance Film festival.

Peter Debruge: If you were to look at Sundance’s dramatic competition lineup this year, you might think the state of American independent cinema is defined by movies aspiring to be Fox Searchlight releases: twee young-love fables (“The First Time”), a zany time-traveling romance (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) and tales of actors and directors trying to find themselves (“The End of Love,” “Nobody Walks”). How great, then, that Searchlight zagged and picked up two total formula-busters: unlikely crowdpleaser “The Surrogate,” featuring indie stalwart John Hawkes as a sex-seeking, polio-stricken poet, and Benh Zeitlin’s grand jury prize winner “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a fiercely original, vividly realized lightning storm of a movie that doesn’t fit inside any sort of conventionally commercial box.

Coming off a year of low-performing indies, perhaps it’s more responsible for emerging directors to be operating in audience-conscious terms, a la Mike Birbiglia’s appealing “Sleepwalk With Me,” though I prefer to think of Sundance as a showcase for daring outsider work, and the examples were few and far between at this year’s fest.

Justin Chang: What’s especially satisfying about seeing “Beasts” in the winner’s circle is that it was one of the few dramatic entries to demonstrate anything in the way of a visual imagination, to aim for the mythic rather than settle for the mundane. Any film that can hold its own with early Terrence Malick is clearly doing something right.

For similar reasons, I was disappointed by the lack of love for Antonio Campos’ very different “Simon Killer.” Yes, this dark descent into a grungy Parisian underworld is an often tough, unpleasant experience; it’s also an incredible and hypnotic piece of filmmaking, one that I could easily see holding its own at a festival like Cannes.

And frankly, in light of the generally upbeat view of love and sex espoused by some of the movies you mention — even those I enjoyed, like “Safety” and “Surrogate” — Campos’ toxic, ice-cold view of human sexuality went down like a refreshingly nasty tonic.

PD: Ah, sex — always a popular topic at festivals and, as it happens, central to two of the strongest films I saw here.

Former Sundance winner Ira Sachs’ “Keep the Lights On” plays like a gay “Scenes From a Marriage,” sharing intimate, brutally honest glimpses from a troubled nine-year relationship. The film is true to itself in a refreshingly genuine, repeatedly heartbreaking way, even if the unsentimental depiction sabotages its crossover potential with nongay audiences.

“The Surrogate,” by contrast, uses crowdpleasing sentimentality to deliver an unconventionally sex-positive story, one in which intercourse serves as a form of human connection for someone who has experienced very little physical contact beyond his parents and caregivers.

On the other extreme was “Compliance,” which sparked more discussion and controversy than any other film in the fest, with good reason: Though undeniably provocative in its mind games, “Compliance” basically amounts to a feature-length rape scene.

JC: Allowing that the representation of an immoral act need not be immoral itself, I found “Compliance” utterly compelling and productively disturbing, not to mention competition-worthy (instead, it was slotted in the fest’s low-budget Next sidebar).

But lest you assume I like all my movie sex dank, perverse and nonconsensual, I hasten to add that I share your admiration for “The Surrogate’s” disarmingly frank and grown-up treatment of the subject, in particular its insight into the ever-present tension between sex and religion.

It was a running festival theme, also addressed in films as different as “Love Free or Die,” a documentary about openly gay bishop Gene Robinson, and “Young and Wild,” a hot-blooded romp about a Catholic girl’s burgeoning sexuality.

PD: While the narrative features were more uneven, too often limited by narcissism or cutesiness (less the case in the international selections), Sundance’s doc offerings boasted a reliably solid range of social-justice and eco-conscious entries. I was particularly impressed by three films that dealt with race in interesting ways.

Sam Pollard’s classroom-ready “Slavery by Another Name” reveals the shocking methods by which white Southerners perpetuated slavery-like conditions for nearly a century after the Civil War. Eugene Jarecki’s must-see, grand jury prize-winning doc “The House I Live In” extends this inquiry into the present day, examining how drug-related laws perpetuate racial inequity in this country.

And, while not a doc, Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer” bites off more than any other film in the fest, tackling issues of religion and representation among inner-city African-Americans.

JC: I didn’t manage to see “Red Hook Summer,” though it certainly sounds meatier and more ambitious than much of the rest of the Premieres section, which served up one mediocre comedy after another, including “2 Days in New York,” “Bachelorette” and, from the usually reliable Stephen Frears, “Lay the Favorite.”

Amid all this star-studded dross, it was a relief to encounter “Shadow Dancer,” a tense, beautifully understated IRA thriller that confirms James Marsh as one of the smartest filmmakers working today in either fiction or nonfiction.

As for the fest’s typically stellar docu lineup, my favorite had no social-justice orientation whatsoever: Rodney Ascher’s mesmerizing cine-essay “Room 237,” which served up a hilariously obsessive, frame-by-frame analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and the abundant layers of meaning tucked away therein. In a year whose official Sundance slogan was “Look again,” I can think of no other film in Park City that so consistently and enjoyably forced me to do just that.

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