2000 Sundance Film Festival Update #4: "The Main Street Walk"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 26, 2000

Just about now, as the East Coast is beginning to dig out from under the year's first (and, hopefully, last) coastal blizzard, the weather continues to be unseasonably mild in and around Park City. Walking around the resort town this year is a strange experience. The streets are packed because of festival-goers, but there are no skiiers in sight - not in the streets, on the lifts, or on the slopes. Were it not for Sundance, Park City would probably be a ghost town in January - not something that this winter wonderland is used to.

At Sundance, if all you want to do is see films, you stick around the "theater district", a several-mile loop that begins at the 1300-seat Eccles auditorium and ends at the Park City Library, where the dramatic competition films unspool. But, to get a real sense of the festival and its unique atmosphere, it's necessary to take a short walk up Main Street. There is one Sundance theater up there - the venerable Egyptian - but Main Street has become the headquarters for all of Park City's upstart festivals. The sidewalks are clogged with independent filmmakers, who, like panhandlers, are begging for a handout from any distributor or journalist who will stop to listen.

The best known of the Sundance offsprings is Slamdance, which has actually attained a level of respectability. The festival, initially started to showcase movies rejected by Sundance, attracts a larger crowd every year, and, while there has been an increase in the level of quality presented at Slamdance, most of the features still aren't very good. There are exceptions, but going to a Slamdance screening is more likely to result in a negative experience than a positive one.

Besides Slamdance, the "alternative" festivals have proliferated like flies around a dung heap. Every year, a few drop out and a few new ones join. No matter how good or bad a would-be filmmaker's product is, he/she can find some place in Park City to screen it. Whether there will actually be anyone in the audience is another matter altogether. For those who find Slamdance's fare to be too tame, there's always No Dance. Another well-publicized festival (at least judging by the number of stickers affixed to every lightpost and store window along Main Street) is Troma Fest. And, for those interested in XXX films, there's Skin Dance (last year, it was called Lap Dance, which, in my opinion, is a catchier name).

Some of these mini-fests, like Slamdance, have permanent locations for screenings. Others change their venues (sometimes in people's homes) on a nightly basis. Some offer a sampling of their product over the Internet. And there's a roving camper with about six theater-style seats that screens the "Golden Van Awards", whatever that means. Of course, if you really want to sit in an actual movie theater with more than a handful of other movie-goers, Sundance is your best bet.

Walking up Main Street can be an interesting experience. At any given moment, a passerby can be accosted by a filmmaker craving some sort - any sort - of attention. Some dress up in outlandish costumes, some wear signs proclaiming slogans like "Work for Distribution" or "Distribution or Bust", others hand out flyers and trinkets (key rings, packets of candy, etc.), and a few even resort to outright begging. Supposedly, the Park City police were out to curb this sort of activity this year, but, if that's the case, I haven't seen any evidence of it.

Last year, Roger Ebert printed a story in the Chicago Sun Times about a "kid" whose dogged persistence broke down Ebert's resolve. Ebert watched the young man's movie, was impressed by it, and gave it a fair amount of publicity. This year, everyone on the street knows the story, so "persistence" is the watchword. If you're a film critic, and someone recognizes that you're a film critic, suddenly a group of directors will materialize seemingly out of nowhere asking you to watch their movie (it's playing at such-and-such a place and such-and-such a time) and please write something about it. Good, bad, or indifferent - it doesn't matter. As long as their title gets some exposure.

Films have been selling like hot cakes, but so what else is new at Sundance? The highest bid to date has been Fine Line's reported $4 million spent for the North American rights to the British romantic comedy, Saving Grace, described by one critic as a "sure-fire art house hit... a mix of light romance and quirky comedy... with a real heart." The Cup, which Fine Line brought to the festival, has generated a fair amount of positive word-of-mouth. It's the slow-moving but enjoyable story of a group of Tibetan monks who become infatuated with World Cup soccer. The film is probably most noteworthy for the look into monastery life that it offers.

Although no one has yet captured this prize, distributors have been eagerly circling the comedy Love and Sex, which just about everyone seems to adore. Next to American Psycho, it is getting some of the best post-screening comments of anything I have heard about. Meanwhile, Artisan Entertainment has picked up the comedy Chuck & Buck, and, while they don't expect it to repeat The Blair Witch Project's financial success, they do anticipate that it will turn a profit.

Speaking of Artisan, they (along with Fine Line) are in the running for Girlfight, a competition feature that Miramax surprisingly passed on. (After the commercial failure of Happy, Texas, maybe Miramax is feeling gun shy this year.) Girlfight, from director Karyn Kusama, is a fine drama about self-discovery and empowerment. It's about taking charge of one's own life when it appears to be hurtling out-of-control towards disaster. Girlfight is a well crafted and emotionally satisfying first film.

As the title implies, the film is about a would-be girl boxer. Diana (Michelle Rodriguez in a luminous debut performance) is a frequent troublemaker at school, where she's just a few months away from graduation. However, her propensity for getting into fights has her one demerit away from expulsion. She has no boyfriend, and her few female friends are wary of her volatile nature. Her home life isn't much better. Her mother has been dead for years and there's a slow-burning, mutual antagonism between Diana and her father. The only one she seems to care for is her geeky brother, Tiny. One day, after dropping something off at the Brooklyn Athletic Club, Diana decides that she wants to take boxing lessons. She coaxes one of the coaches, Hector (Jaime Tirelli), to teach her for $10 a session. Soon, she is channeling her hostility and energy into the sport and is becoming less disruptive at school. At home, however, her relationship with her father edges closer to an explosion of physical violence.

In today's society, boxing is rarely seen as a positive thing - and it's not a surprise considering the way the professional level of the sport has become riddled with corruption. Thugs dominate the ring and crooks manage them. Boxing movies like Girlfight, which show that there can be a positive aspect to the sport - getting participants off the street and giving them a focal point for pent-up adolescent angst and anger - are rare. Rarer still are motion pictures like this that don't descend into sermonizing and over-the-top melodrama. One of Girlfight's most notable features is its finely modulated sense of drama. It tells a compelling story by making the characters and their situations real. And, unlike in most sports movies where the underdog must inevitably triumph at the end, the victor's identity in Girlfight is very much in doubt. In a way, that's because the outcome of the "big bout" isn't all that important. This picture is much more about Diana's succeeding in life than it is about her winning in the ring.

One of the film's subplots has Diana developing a romance with a male boxer. This element could have easily thrown the entire movie out-of-whack, but it is handled with a sensitivity that maintains the movie's carefully constructed sense of balance. When Diana's priorities come into conflict with those of her boyfriend and threaten the stability of their new relationship, Kusama doesn't resort to a melodramatic contrivance to resolve the situation. She allows events to play out as they might in real life, letting the "chips fall as they may", so to speak.

Girlfight is an example of the kind of movie that a director can make when she approaches the project with a single-minded determination and a passion for the project. Such was the strength of Kusama's vision that she gained the support of independent producer Maggie Renzi and her longtime partner, John Sayles (who not only executive produced the film, but has a cameo appearance in it as a science teacher). The actors are all unknowns, although Jaime Tirelli, who plays Hector, bears more than a passing resemblance to Joe Mantegna (so much so that numerous people in the audience thought Mantegna was the star).

Girlfight has a hard side, because it's about characters who have been dealt a bad hand by life, but it is ultimately emotionally satisfying because it explores the way they fight and struggle to right themselves. This picture surprised me with its strength of plot and character development. For a movie that entered my screening schedule almost by accident, Girlfight turned out to be one of the day's highlights. There's little doubt in my mind that someone will pick up this movie and give audiences outside of the festival a chance to see this small cinematic gem.

© 2000 James Berardinelli

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