Sundance Report: American Splendor, The Shape of Things, and others

Leslie Felperin hails a new indie queen and picks the best of this year's crop

Friday 31 January 2003 01:00
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Sundance (in the posh and refreshingly un-Mormon mountain resort of Park City, Utah) is traditionally where small independent films – The Blair Witch Project, The Good Girl – make their first appearance. The rule of thumb: whichever film wins the main prize performs disappointingly at the box office, while the audience choice award-winners fare better. Either way, for us in Britain, the point is usually academic, since even the prizewinners are slow to surface on the UK market. We're still waiting to see last year's competition winner, Tadpole, for example. Let's hope that some of these actually secure a release:

American Splendor

Nearly everyone agreed that Shari Springer and Robert Pulcini's feature debut deserved to win this year's dramatic competition, although its lack of big stars and art-house structure could limit its prospects for UK distribution. Based on the life of the artist Harvey Pekar, the driving force behind the American Splendor comic book, this mixture of biopic and documentary swirls together a canny mix of humour and tenderness for its subject. It also features groovy animation, a popular motif this year.

The Station Agent

Dubbed "You Can Count on Mini-Me" by one UK industry wag, this sweet-natured film about grieving stars a man (Peter Dinklage) with dwarfism who takes a job in a New Jersey train station. The winner of the audience award for best dramatic film, it charmed all who saw it. Also features the magnificent Patricia Clarkson, who appeared in no less than four movies at this year's festival.

All the Real Girls

Clarkson crops up again in this critics' favourite, a searingly honest evocation of the pain of l'amour fou. As directed by George Washington's David Gordon Green, Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel shine as the young lovers, while the cinematographer Tim Orr coaxes exquisite burnished colours from the North Carolina landscape.

Pieces of April

Katie Holmes goes Goth as a college girl throwing a Thanksgiving dinner attended by her mother who is dying of cancer (played by, you guessed it, Patricia Clarkson). Soppy, but solidly directed and commercially viable.

The Shape of Things

After the bland Possession, Neil LaBute is back on caustic form. Based on his play, with the original cast reunited, it stars Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd in a cruel makeover story where, for once, it's the guy that gets transformed. Unashamedly theatrical with a delightfully wicked twist.

Thirteen

A brilliant directorial debut for Catherine Hardwicke, a former production designer, this film stars 13-year-olds Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed (also the film's co-writer, a right precocious miss) as two middle-class, middle-school girls in Los Angeles who embark on a harrowingly realistic folie à deux. Since they take drugs, shag around and get piercings, it's likely to fall foul of the UK censors, preventing it from being seen by the age group that it concerns, but the British producers, Working Title, should feel proud of themselves. Also starring Holly Hunter as Wood's hippie, rehab-happy mom.

Fear X

John Turturro holds the centre beautifully as a security guard obsessed with finding the killer of his wife in this audaciously Lynchian thriller, co-directed by the Danish wunderkind Nicolas Winding Refn, and co-written by the cult novelist Hubert Selby Jr (Last Exit to Brooklyn). The film boasts easily the most ambiguous ending in the festival, and is a real argument starter.

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