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Critic’s Notebook: Soul-searching at Sundance

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.

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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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The thirtysomethings: Ed Helms’ insurance salesman and his journey of self-discovery during an industry convention in Miguel Arteta’s “Cedar Rapids,” Paul Giamatti’s attorney-father-coach searching to get back in touch with his better self in “Win Win,” Paul Rudd’s hopelessly — and hopefully — befuddled hippie-sib in “My Idiot Brother,” all dark comedies that examine characters that have tried on and shed a few selves before finding themselves in transition once again. In each case, the filmmakers mine the situational comedy potential of good guys in a sudden bind, and with conflict comes understanding. Helms’ salesman is the country bumpkin come to the big city, but Arteta manages to still treat him with respect; the fun in Rudd’s aging hippie is in his unconditional embrace of even the most sinister characters; and Giamatti, always excellent at conflicted characters, as an attorney who takes on the guardianship of one of his clients to save his practice from bankruptcy, learns what he already knows — bad decisions come with a price.

The religious experience: Greg Kinnear’s reclaimed Deadhead and Pierce Brosnan’s compromised charismatic in George Ratliff’s satire “Salvation Boulevard,” Vera Farmiga making her directing debut and also starring as a seriously searching acolyte in “Higher Ground,” and faith put to the ultimate test in Matthew Chapman’s thriller “The Ledge,” starring Charlie Hunnam, Liv Tyler, Patrick Wilson and Terrence Howard. In each case, religion is the force driving significant individual change in illuminating and unexpectedly philosophical ways. What these filmmakers understand is what a powerful and defining force religion is in determining the trajectory of a life. Ratliff uses the humor to unmask the hypocrisy he sees in “Salvation” without being too irreverent; Chapman goes dark, with Wilson’s devotee a metaphor for all those who use religion as a weapon, in this case a deadly weapon; and in Farmiga’s descent into a fundamentalist life in “Higher Ground,” you can sense the filmmaker’s own struggles with matters of faith in this questioning but reverent piece.

The older set: This is where the international filmmaking world checks in in significant and significantly darker ways with “The Salesman,” from Sebastien Pilote, and “Restoration,” the feature debut from Israeli director Yossi Madmony, both anchored by carefully nuanced performances by Sasson Gabay (“Restoration”) and Gilbert Sicotte (“The Salesman”). Both filmmakers build their stories around mature characters, men floundering in their 60s, dealing with the implications of age, crumbling economies, career, family crises and that searing desire for independence that drives youth toward adulthood in the first place. The truth of both films is that 60 is the new 40. The films are infused with that sense that life is not finished.

The modern family: From first-time director Sam Levinson comes the superb black night of “Another Happy Day” that has an entire family in an emotional maelstrom. Anchored by Ellen Barkin’s devastated mom and Ezra Miller brilliant as the brilliantly caustic broken teenage son, the film also tortures (I exaggerate only slightly) Kate Bosworth as the divorce-damaged daughter, Daniel Yelsky as the autistic younger brother, Ellen Burstyn as Barkin’s let’s-don’t-air-the dirty-laundry mom, Thomas Hayden Church as the bad ex and Demi Moore’s tart tart of his trophy wife. If anything, Levinson has demonstrated in his multi-generational musings that life-changing insight is an egalitarian exercise — both funny and fretful — and one that none of us are immune from.

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Across the board, the films feel somehow fresh, risky, not tied to convention, and for a festival whose mission is to foster independent thinking, that is a very good sign.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com


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