Sundance titles high on life

Drugs play a significant part of films' plots

As the 2008 edition of the Sundance Film Festival got under way, fest poobah Robert Redford warned audiences not to expect too many films that directly engaged the significant issues of the day, because filmmakers were reacting to dire world problems to a great extent with “levity” instead.

From the blurbs in the festival catalogue, it hadn’t appeared that comedy looked to be a major item from American indies this year. But after the first weekend, it dawned on me that perhaps Redford had meant a very different sort of levity. It seemed that nearly every film I saw featured characters very partial to getting high, or made drugs a significant part of their plots.

Maybe this is the secret only young, independent filmmakers knew, I thought. Instead of trudging off to make films about how awful the Iraq War is, as numerous older Hollywood directors (including Redford) did last year, the kids realized no one wanted see pictures like that. Instead, perhaps they suspected that young audiences might well line up for films featuring characters reacting to the world’s horrors in the same manner they were, by medicating themselves.

Popular on Variety

Without question the emblematic Sundance film this year was Jonathan Levine’s “The Wackness,” the sometimes very funny tale of a high school senior in 1994, who makes money selling weed out of a push-cart on New York streets and also supplies it to his shrink in exchange for sessions. Without pretending to claim to know if the film is heavily autobiographical, I was certainly convinced it knows of what it speaks. As the film went on, I also felt an escalating need to escape for a breath of fresh air — not since the heyday of Cheech and Chong has there been a film with characters so fixated on getting high.

Every film with teenagers or young adults seemed to have a major drug element: “Anywhere, USA,” with its pot brownie-eating 8-year-old and coke-snorting dwarf; “Ballast,” in which a 12-year-old in the Mississippi Delta becomes imperiled by local smalltime dealers after his father’s overdose; “American Son,” which features casual teenage drug use; “Assassination of a High School President,” with its dealers who specialize in SAT test performance-enhancing drugs; “Sleepwalking,” whose 12-year-old protagonist is started on her journey when her mother’s boyfriend is arrested for marijuana growing; and “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” like “The Wackness” a period piece — it’s set in the early ’80s — but no less pertinent for that.

Adults were into altered states as well, notably in “Chronic Town,” whose leading man goes on a spectacular booze-and-acid binge when his girlfriend dumps him. The slightly futuristic “Sleep Dealer” features characters fitted with metal nodes under the skin that hook up with a device that gets them high, while the plot of “Transsiberian” hinges on little dolls in which heroin is smuggled.

Of the foreign features, none was more drug-fueled than “Mancora,” a Peruvian variation on “Y Tu Mama Tambien” in which the main characters are seldom without a joint or something significantly more powerful, and do many things stoned they likely wouldn’t have done otherwise.

Documentaries followed in the same vein, beginning with the much-discussed “American Teen,” with its ample intake, and “Bigger, Stronger, Faster,” about the substance of choice for many athletes: steroids. Sportsmen were also up to no good in “Kicking It,” which depicts African soccer players on heroin and methadone. And how much need one say about “Gonzo: The Life & Works of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” other than its subject’s belief that an unmedicated life is not worth living.

The documentary on Thompson neatly links to another, more widely noted common thread among films at Sundance this year: suicide. Two grim films I saw were “Downloading Nancy,” in which Maria Bello’s character finds a man on the Internet willing to kill her, and “The Last Word,” in which Wes Bentley plays a sort of Cyrano de Bergerac of suicide note writers. By rough count, however, I could detect only about half as many pictures involving characters who want to do themselves in than there were films about people content to simply anesthetize themselves.

Suicide or narcotics — a nice pair of options, especially coming during the week of Heath Ledger’s tragic death.