PARK CITY, Utah — The Sundance Film Festival's selection for its dramatic grand jury prize, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's "American Splendor," reflects the complex new realities of the independent film scene.
As a warm, playful and visually inventive biopic about permanently disaffected Harvey Pekar, who became an icon of the underground comic world without being able to draw a straight line, "American Splendor" has impeccable counterculture credentials. But the film was financed by and will be initially shown on cable TV's HBO, which, along with Showtime, is emerging as an unlikely corporate home base for independent-style projects.
"We share this award with Harvey Pekar. I hope this cheers you up for a couple of days," Pulcini said in accepting the award Saturday at the Park City Racquet Club, with co-director Berman adding, "I think this award can safely be called the true revenge of the nerds."
The Sundance festival itself is increasingly doing the same kind of delicate balancing act, being simultaneously a place where a non-housebroken goat can wander up Main Street on the way to a photo op and a company called Ducti can proudly announce that "its signature 'Barhopper' wallet has been selected as an official product of the 2003 Sundance Film Festival."
Even co-host Steve Zahn noticed how things have changed when he waxed nostalgic about the time "before the SUV limos with J.Lo (Jennifer Lopez was in attendance this year), when you could see the smell of beer on the closing night and the emcee had to say, 'Shut up, dude, we're handing out the awards.' Those were the good times."
The documentary grand jury prize went to Andrew Jarecki's bizarre "Capturing the Friedmans," a film that also reflects a contemporary American malaise -- our obsession with reality TV. It tells the story of a family intent on recording itself on video long before it became popular, and it kept on doing so even after the father and youngest son were arrested on multiple charges of child molestation.
The dramatic film gathering the most awards was "The Station Agent," Tom McCarthy's sophisticated, beautifully made story of the unlikely connection among three solitary lives.
Purchased by Miramax, it took the dramatic audience award as well as the Waldo Salt screenwriting prize, plus one-third of a special jury prize for outstanding performance given to Patricia Clarkson for her roles in that film, "Pieces of April" and "All the Real Girls."
Clarkson, who was also in a fourth film ("The Baroness and the Pig") that was not in competition, allowed as how "this has been an extraordinary week for me. If I ever have four movies here again, I'm going to do it by satellite from my bed in New York."
A telling statement
Veteran drag performer Charles Busch got the same outstanding performance prize for "Die Mommie Die." Accepting for the actor, who was appearing in a play in New York, was producer Dante DiLoreto, who got off perhaps the night's best line when he said, "I don't know what it says about the state of independent film that you have to work in the theater to support your film career."
One of the surprises of Saturday night was the puzzling lack of recognition for "Pieces of April," the story of a Thanksgiving from hell that was one of the festival's most popular films. Written and directed by screenwriter Peter Hedges ("About a Boy" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape"), this pungent and savvy family comedy with a hidden heart did get a significant consolation prize: It was purchased by United Artists for the festival's highest price -- $3.5 million.
Shaping up as formidably popular among international films was New Zealand's "Whale Rider," written and directed by Niki Caro, which added Sundance's world cinema audience award to the audience award it won at Toronto.
Winning the most prizes on the documentary side was "My Flesh and Blood." The emotional story of 12 months in the life of a family of 13 children, 11 with special needs, in Fairfield, Calif., it earned both the audience and directing awards for Jonathan Karsh, who left his TV station job to work on the film full time. "I personally believe," he said, "that anybody could win this award if they put a camera on this family for a year."
Accepting the directing prize on the dramatic side was Catherine Hardwicke for "thirteen." Hardwicke, a former production designer, also co-wrote this cautionary tale of the perils of hanging out with the wrong crowd with co-star genuine 13-year-old Nikki Reed. It will be distributed by Fox Searchlight.
"Quattro Noza," a flashy look at L.A.'s culture of illegal street racing, earned the dramatic cinematography award for Derek Cianfrance's gorgeous digital work. On the documentary side, the prize went to Dana Kupper, Gordon Quinn and Peter Gilbert for "Stevie," a personal look at the interaction between "Hoop Dreams" co-director Steve James and a difficult youth he was once a big brother to.