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Critic's Notebook: Soul-searching at Sundance

Coming-of-age films come in all shapes and sizes — and ages.

January 30, 2011|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Ellen Barkin in the movie "Another Happy Day" at the Sundance Film Festival.
Ellen Barkin in the movie "Another Happy Day" at the Sundance… (Sundance Film Festival,…)

Reporting from Park City, Utah — —

Every January, or at least since the Sundance Film Festival officially took its present shape in 1985, the world here has been blanketed in young angst and frigid weather, what with all that emerging talent plowing through the snowy star-flecked terrain of Park City with their first films in tow. It has proven to be an excellent combination, as it happens, producing such classic coming-of-age films as "Winter's Bone," "Precious," "An Education," "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" and "(500) Days of Summer," just a few of many that began life at the Sundance Film Festival.

If anything, independent films that train a careful eye on that singular moment when someone begins to first define who they are, who they will become, are a deeply entrenched Sundance tradition. But no more. Oh, the young and troubled are still here in force, but the rules are being rewritten by filmmakers with a genre-busting consistency that suggests something larger and much more exciting is at work.

Humans, at least through this year's Sundance lens, no longer "come of age" exactly. Instead, life has become one long rolling existential crisis, with growth and insight coming at all stages. What is unfolding on screen is fundamentally different from a midlife crisis, that bump in the road of self-esteem that boosts car sales, hotel bookings and divorce rates. Rather it's a recognition and redefinition and at times reconnection with that essential self, the stuff that makes us who we are.

It's not that stories of setting aside childhood things will every go away, and when done well — "An Education," for instance — they remain powerful narratives. Nor does it take years of living to capture grown-up machinations, with several younger filmmakers doing their best work for the first time with older characters. Consider just two: At 37, Canadian first-time writer-director Sebastien Pilote has anchored his well-drawn "The Salesman" with a 67-year-old, and 25-year-old Sam Levinson hits all the notes in his multi-generational "Another Happy Day," though granted he probably picked up some insight into the human condition from dad Barry, an Oscar winner for "Rain Man."

The age range in the films themselves is a vast one. On the young side, you'll find the pre-adolescent tobacco road troubles of "Jess + Moss," a poetic first feature of a barefoot boy of about 12 and his best friend, a backwoods teen beauty, from director Clay Jeter. At the end stage there is the black comedy of "Old Cats" out of Chile. From the creative team behind 2009's wry "The Maid," "Old Cats" features 92-year-old acting legend Belgica Castro as half of an elderly couple suddenly leaving the nest of her high rise after a spat with her daughter, in a defiant, albeit wobbly, stand on her crumbling independence. In between, the landscape is filled with exceptional stories and distinctive performances that dig deeply into what it takes to be who you are meant to be.

Many of the festival standouts put evolving ids and egos under the microscope in unexpected ways, from complex family dynamics to individual journeys of discovery. What follows is merely the tip of the iceberg of restless soul-searching going on at Sundance. As always, there are movies that make it to the festival only to disappoint. These, however, are among the strongest films here, charming and moving audiences.

The freshman class: "Like Crazy's" lovely bicontinental love story from "Douchebag" director Drake Doremus, the high-school unsolved problems of writer-director Gavin Wiesen's "Homework" with Freddie Highmore as the resident genius and the teenage lesbian flowering in Dee Rees' "Pariah," though untraditional in their telling, are catching their characters on that first wave of self-definition. The characters may be young, but the stories are all smartly told, the comedy clever, with the filmmakers shooting for substance rather than cheap laughs. Doremus is the most visually experimental, as he flash-forwards to push his young lovers into careers and their 20s without ever slowing the story.

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