In the 2006 Sundance Documentary Competition entry Small Town Gay Bar, the titular establishments function as safe havens for marginalized outsiders in otherwise hostile environments. That could double as a description of the festival itself. In the conservative state of Utah, the 2006 Sundance Film Festival is aggressively progressive. And in an American film world dominated by high concepts and bloated budgets, the festival continues to be a place where micro-budgeted independents play to packed houses and rapturous applause.
Sundance functions as an alternate cinematic universe where grungy regional fare sells out 1,300-seat venues and corporations line up to support the work of political documentarians and low-budget transgressives. But the festival's rah-rah boosterism can be misleading: Undoubtedly, there are hundreds of filmmakers out there bewildered that labors of love that wowed 'em at Sundance flopped outside its protective embrace. Festival audiences at these altitudes grade on a lenient curve, doling out applause so liberally that the gesture becomes all but meaningless. They want movies to succeed, and they approach scruffy underdogs and self-financed orphans with a rooting interest that would be unimaginable for anyone checking out Underworld: Evolution. The A.V. Club found all those tensions, and more, evident in the films seen during a whirlwind five-day visit to Sundance 2006.
Sometimes applause is doled out so indiscriminately it's hard to tell whether it's misguidedly sincere or bitterly sarcastic. That seemed to be the case with the clapping that followed Songbirds, a surreally awful British musical documentary in which female convicts warble songs about their lives and mug uncomfortably through public-access-quality music videos. If Songbirds was a parody of bleeding-heart liberal filmmaking at its most deluded, it might be brilliant. But taken straight, this misbegotten cross between Dennis Potter and Cop Rock emits at best a queasy train-wreck fascination.
Like the caged cons of Songbirds, the bedraggled, booze-loving small-town gays and lesbians of Small Town Gay Bar look so different from the Brad Pitts and Nicole Kidmans of the world that they barely seem to belong to the same species. But what Malcolm Ingram's big-hearted doc lacks in glamour, it makes up for in humor and warmth.
In sharp contrast to Louis B. Mayer's assertion that movies are about beautiful people looking beautiful, at Sundance movies were all about beautiful people looking (and feeling) like shit. The Believer's Ryan Gosling got grungy as yet another tortured walking contradiction in the moody, incisive character study Half Nelson, playing an idealistic crack-smoking eighth-grade teacher. Meanwhile, Ashley Judd did her damnedest to make audiences forget the last decade by returning to her independent roots as a hard-drinking, promiscuous small-town barfly in Joey Lauren Adams' surprisingly accomplished directorial debut Come Early Morning.
Not to be outdone, in Julian Goldberger's The Hawk Is Dying, Brokeback Mountain's Michelle Williams played a dumpy, pot-smoking, small-town tart opposite the most pathetic sad-sack in Paul Giamatti's rich gallery of hapless schmucks. Hawk's premise sounds like a parody of indie miserabilism: a depressed loner (Giamatti) living with his morbidly obese sister comes to see training a beautiful hawk as his personal salvation. But Hawk stumbles toward an unexpectedly transcendent conclusion. Sundance fixture Nicole Holofcener makes vanity one of the central themes in her wry ensemble comedy-drama Friends With Money, a charming sleeper in which Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener, and Frances McDormand all defiantly look their age, with all the wrinkles and cellulite that entails.
As a celebration of independent filmmaking, where every open space is adorned with the logo of the festival's ubiquitous corporate sponsors, Sundance is where idealism battles pragmatism, and that theme runs through several of its documentaries. In the entertaining (though fawning) documentary Tony Kushner: Wrestling With Angels, the controversial playwright expresses an unapologetic desire to bring progressive art to the widest possible audience. A similar impulse helps explain why Haskell Wexler clumsily channels the populist spirit of Michael Moore in Who Needs Sleep?, a muddled exposé on the working conditions of film crews that artlessly combines old-lefty sloganeering with newfangled ambush journalism. And is there a more haunting cautionary warning about the dangers of pursuing ideological purity at any cost than the career of Ralph Nader? The unexpectedly funny, moving 150-minute Nader documentary An Unreasonable Man accomplishes the formidable feat of nearly rehabilitating Nader's image following his disastrous Presidential runs.
Of course, it wouldn't be Sundance without a few films that function as calling cards for future studio employment, a role filled this year by Somebodies and Lucky Number Slevin. The former is little more than a series of crude, intermittently hilarious gags strung together with a ramshackle plot about its protagonist's attempts to reform his hard-drinking ways. But it at least feels personal and intimate in a way that the flashy, star-studded crime comedy Slevin never does.
It's hard to predict a film's future from its Sundance run. The above films were reasonably well-received in Park City, though the smattering of applause most of them got counts as a lukewarm response. And it's not terribly encouraging that of the films The A.V. Club saw, only Slevin, Gay Bar, and the quirkily endearing crossword-puzzle documentary Wordplay inspired anything approaching the kind of buzz likely to project them to even a fraction of the crossover success enjoyed by sex, lies and videotape, Napoleon Dynamite, and past Sundance juggernauts. But the tantalizing possibility that the next threadbare indie will be that one-in-a-hundred breakout is enough to keep the faithful returning year after year. Well that, the gift bags, and the chance to be near a vacationing Paris Hilton.