PARK CITY, Utah An 11-year-old boy spreads his semen over school lockers and repeats his father’s filthy epithets when he blows a shot at tennis; a 16-year-old girl hangs her blood-stained sheet on the clothes line to let her father know she’s lost her virginity; a 6- or 7-year-old boy proposes an exchange of bodily fluids in an Internet dialogue that might have given the characters in “Closer” pause; a 15-year-old stud becomes the heartthrob of a community’s older women; a 14-year-old girl drugs and binds a man twice her age with the intention of castrating him.
These are just a few of the scenes that are being watched with barely a raised eyebrow in new American work at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It wasn’t too many years ago that Larry Clark’s “Kids” had to be screened here unannounced after midnight due to its explosive revelations of the sex-and-drug-drenched lives of young New York teens, and Miramax had to technically disassociate itself from the picture for fear of protests.
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These days, “Kids” would hardly raise a fuss, as it would be one of just a dozen or so films that bluntly explore some of the things young people do when their parents aren’t looking.
Artistic currents run in unpredictable ways that may not always directly correlate with what is actually happening in society at a given moment. The incidence of teenage pregnancies is notably lower than the levels of the ’90s and, according to at least some polls, teen sex (however you gauge it) may be slightly down as well.
But you wouldn’t know it from the movies onscreen at Sundance. Independent filmmakers are forever looking for ways to push the envelope, to give their work that extra edge that will attract buyers and viewers hungry for something new.
Some may also feel compelled, even unconsciously, to become bolder in what they perceive as conservative cultural times. Or perhaps it’s the influence of the numerous sexually explicit European films that have been on the fest circuit and in limited release over the past few years.
Whatever the reasons, sex has replaced violence as the new edge this season, at least as far as the independents are concerned. A few examples:
- In Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale,” one of the best films in a very mixed-bag dramatic competition this year, a divorced father considers an affair with a student, his older son dithers about whether to bed a “nice” girl or the same, wilder student his father’s with, and the 11-ish son reacts to his parents’ split by masturbating in the library stacks and marking his territory by smearing the result around school.
- In Rebecca Miller’s “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” a 16-year-old girl raised alone on an island by her father begins rebelling by abruptly asking a visiting virginal boy to deflower her; when he begs off, she lets that boy’s punkish younger brother do the deed, thanking him afterward and then hanging the reddened sheet out to dry for dad’s edification.
- In Miranda July’s deceptively lightweight “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” a first-grade-level boy who can barely read manages to type out some simultaneously innocent and outrageous Internet proposals about the possibilities of excrement exchange, while his high school-age brother is the recipient of oral favors from two mid-teen girls who want to know if he can tell the difference between their techniques.
- In Melissa Painter’s “Steal Me,” a 15-year-old boy becomes the Don Juan of a small Montana town, while in Arie Posin’s “The Chumscrubber,” a high schooler comes on strong to the mother of his girlfriend.
- In Mike Binder’s “The Upside of Anger,” a high school girl flaunts her affair with a much older man in her distraught mother’s face.
- In Marcos Siega’s “Pretty Persuasion,” three Beverly Hills high school girls deviously engineer a sexual harassment suit against a teacher by using their sexual wiles.
- In Rian Johnson’s “Brick,” all the high school characters talk and behave like characters out of a Dashiell Hammett novel, with sex entering into the equation just as it would for adults.
- On the foreign front, Ziad Doueiri’s French picture “Lila Says” centers on a mid-teen girl using sexual power as a significantly older woman might, while Park Chul-soo’s new South Korean film “Green Chair” is about the boundary-pushing affair between a 32-year-old woman and a 19-year-old male student, who, under Korean law, is still a minor.
- Perhaps most startling is David Slade’s “Hard Candy,” in which an alarmingly aware 14-year-old girl takes revenge on a man who may or may not have preyed upon underage girls by tying him up and cutting him where it counts. The sexual sophistication of her character, not to mention her wherewithal and cleverness, is way beyond her years.
There may be more examples among the 120-odd features shown at Sundance, but sexual precocity among minors jumped out as the most frequent element found in independent films this year — more even than such other popular subjects as family dysfunction, political rebellion and ethnic disparities.
Whether this is a sign of something, or merely evidence of young filmmakers’ latest notion about a good way to titillate and shock, remains to be seen.