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A refreshing air at Sundance Festival

Films focus on love, life, and mysterious effects

Among the “Fresh Faces’’ honored at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, this year are (from left) Adepero Oduye, who stars in “Pariah’’; Olivia Crocicchia in “Terri’’; Amy Seimetz in “The Off Hours’’; and Felicity Jones in “Like Crazy.’’ Among the “Fresh Faces’’ honored at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, this year are (from left) Adepero Oduye, who stars in “Pariah’’; Olivia Crocicchia in “Terri’’; Amy Seimetz in “The Off Hours’’; and Felicity Jones in “Like Crazy.’’ (Photos By Danny Moloshok/Associated Press)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / January 24, 2011

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PARK CITY, Utah — Love is in the thin air here. After too many years of feeling dismay for the Sundance Film Festival — the pandering programming choices, the crush of both corporate sponsors and, say, the Olsens — it’s easy to arrive afraid you’ll feel nothing. But people’s hearts are beating again for this place. Maybe it’s that Oprah Winfrey was here. Her new cable network, OWN, needs smart programming, and Winfrey has come to beat a drum. She has said she wants to do for nonfiction filmmaking what she’s done for books. So her OWN-ness is in the air, too.

The programmers and audiences of this festival must have known Winfrey was coming to town. Everything seems more positive. Some years, after four days of disappointment, people start to panic that they have seen nothing they love. This year, people are answering “What did you see?’’ with what they have liked. Both on screen and around it, Sundance is thriving under John Cooper, who was promoted to festival director two years ago. The simplest way to explain the before-and-after difference he’s made is to say that we’re eating better (food trucks have arrived) and seeing more of Park City. Those food trucks are parked outside the New Frontier space, a building dedicated to new art, often about or presented in film and video. Those are exciting changes that send moviegoers out into unseen parts of the city while expanding what else Sundance is and can be.

Meanwhile, the movies this year demonstrate that the festival is trying to get back to what it once did best: unselfconsciously showcase the country’s — and, increasingly, the world’s — best independent films. A movie such as Dee Rees’s “Pariah’’ is a drama you would have seen here in the mid-1990s. It’s a conventional coming-out movie, in a sense. A smart, black, middle-class 17-year-old from Brooklyn (Adepero Oduye) tries to hide from her parents the fact that she’s gay. It’s obvious, but you know how it is: Some mothers and fathers don’t want to see what’s right in front of them.

Rees uses a familiar family-strife story that young filmmakers lean on to get their first feature out of their system. The movie is flawed, but it’s also lived-in, real, funny, handsome, and strongly acted (Rees has mentioned that Spike Lee was a mentor). You never get the sense that this is all she has to say, and hopefully a distributor will agree. “Pariah’’ is really about the amazing realization that you can be more than the clichés you’re allotted. You can be any kind of black woman and lesbian you want. I think this festival can relate to that, to just being your best self. Boy, Oprah truly is in the air.

“Terri’’ is the most surprisingly excellent film I’ve seen so far. A comedy about a fat, gangly teenager (Jacob Wysocki) who wears pajamas to school and strikes up a friendship with the oily but well-meaning assistant principal (John C. Reilly) shouts “gimmick.’’ But we’re far from “Napoleon Dynamite’’ and “Adventureland,’’ Sundance alumni that were full of energy but empty of life.

Working from a script by Patrick de Witt that strikes the perfect balance of the personal, universal, and odd, the director Azazel Jacobs (whose previous movie, “Momma’s Man,’’ was also an oddball treat) overplays nothing. Terri is what a school might label “at risk’’ if that term were applied to weird white kids as liberally as to poor black ones. But the touching hilarity of this movie, set in Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley, is how appalled Terri is to learn that the oily assistant principal might think he’s as strange as the school’s strangest kids. The movie is about how his self-image is damaged but his heart is OK.

The pleasures of “Terri’’ stem, in part, from where it refuses to go. It forgoes crisis, doom, and rampages in order to tap the deep well of human sweetness that exists in even the most marginal-seeming kids. Terri befriends a blonde named Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), who in a different film would be popular or mean. Here she’s shunned for engaging in a sex act in home ec. Her humiliation feels as right as her pursuit of a friendship with Terri is a delightful changeup. These are people who need to hold on to each other to keep from drowning. It’s a special movie that a distributor should handle as such.

This is an interesting year for ideas about connection and technology. Terri and Heather send each other instant messages the old-fashioned way: in a notebook. In Drake Doremus’s semi-improvised “Like Crazy,’’ the lovebirds (Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin) pretty much do the same. The movie was a hot ticket Saturday morning. It’s one of the few pure romances I’ve seen here, and the rare movie starring two young people that, without being naïve, feels young. They meet at college in Los Angeles (the center of the world this year).

He’s American. She’s from London. High on bliss, she ignores the expiration of her visa, which doesn’t seem like a big deal until it dooms them to a life of long-distance love and compromises. People have been comparing this to the romantic discontent of “Blue Valentine.’’ Not really. Doremus’s movie isn’t a shallow funeral (its finale has provoked an embarrassing “Inception’’-load of speculation). In any case, Paramount’s new, badly named boutique label, Insurge Pictures, just paid $4 million for “Like Crazy.’’ That might not make Apple happy; iPhone texting has never seemed colder and less romantic that it does here.

In Miranda July’s “The Future,’’ computers appear to be disconnecting the movie’s Los Angeles couple, played by July (“Me and You and Everyone We Know’’) and Hamish Linklater. July has basically made a breakup film whose first half seems terribly twee until the mysteriously moving second half arrives to upend the aggravating cuteness of what preceded it. Suddenly, the narrating cat seems holy. Time stops and splits. And the film folds in on itself and so does July, who’s made a movie, in part, about artistic transformation and skin-shedding, something else this festival can relate to.

People have been arguing about this movie since its premiere. The audience didn’t seem to know how to respond. The cuteness irritated some people. What happens to the cat bothered others. It’s a difficult film to sell, but I haven’t been able to get my mind off or around it.

In truth, “The Future’’ is comparable to the spiritual effect of seeing any film by the great Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul or the shock of watching David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive’’ and not realizing you’re falling through a trap door until you’ve landed. With July, you don’t fall. You float. I’m still in the air.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wesley_ morris.

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