1999 Sundance Film Festival Update #4: "The Stronger Sex"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 29, 1999

It's easy to bemoan the role of women in movies today - just take a look at nearly every American-made blockbuster and you'll see that it's rare for the highest-billed female to have a more prominent role than a love interest, a sidekick, or both. To get ahead in Hollywood, actresses sometimes have to do distasteful things like take their clothes off in bad movies, read lines that no self-respecting writer would admit to having committed to paper, and kiss some of the most self-centered, egotistical males on the planet. However, up here in snowy Park City, the wealth of strong performances by women in lead roles makes it very easy to forget the Hollywood formula. In fact, it's no stretch to say that three quarters of the memorable characters in Sundance films have been brought to life by a woman.

The best is Sarah Polley, the young actress who stunned audiences with her perfectly-modulated portrayal of a bus accident survivor and incest victim in Atom Egoyan's brilliant The Sweet Hereafter. At Sundance, Polley stars in Guinevere, a coming of age tale from director Audrey Wells (making her debut behind the camera after writing several features, including The Truth about Cats and Dogs). Polley is Harper, a lonely 20-year old girl who is ignored by her parents. She's miserable and filled with self-doubt until she meets Connie Fitzpatrick (Stephen Rea), a photographer who's older than her father. Connie takes an interest in Harper, but is he really concerned with developing her hidden artistic talent, or is he a lecher whose sole purpose is getting her into his bed? Most of the film is devoted to the relationship between these two, and the sharpness of Wells' focus on the characters keeps the movie engaging, even when it ventures into familiar territory.

Polley is undeniably brilliant. She has a different look for every scene, and, like all of the best performers, acts with every part of her body and uses her eyes to great effect. One sequence in particular stands out - the seduction, when Connie gently tries to persuade Harper to relax. Polley plays this with a believability that I have rarely seen on screen in a scene like this. She giggles and blushes, runs her hands through her hair, and can't sit still. It's the perfect blend of embarrassment, nervousness, and excitement, and it's emblematic of the entire performance. The actress deserves some kind of recognition for her work in Guinevere. Miramax has distribution rights, so she'll at least have a shot (albeit a long one) at a Best Actress nomination for next year's Oscars.

Another fine performance is given by relative unknown Susan Traylor in the title role of the film Valerie Flake, a character study of a woman haunted by grief and guilt. Valerie Flake is not a happy motion picture, but, like so many tragedies brought to the screen this year in Sundance, it mixes in enough comedy to keep things from becoming too grim. The story centers around Valerie, a thirtysomething widow who has not recovered from her husband's death in a car accident, even though that happened five years ago. Valerie is drifting aimlessly through life. Once a painter with a bright future, she has chosen a "career" as a supermarket clerk despite holding a graduate degree. When Valerie takes a trip to Palm Springs to attend an anniversary party for her in-laws, she unexpectedly finds love with a seemingly-perfect man, Tim Darnell (Jay Underwood), who's looking for a wife and family. But Valerie's deep emotional turmoil refuses to allow her to settle into a comfortable life. While the overall arc of Valerie Flake is familiar, the internal rhythms aren't. This is a keenly-observed study of a tormented woman, and Traylor's low-key performance is in large part responsible for its success. Traylor, working under the direction of film maker John Putch, understands her character and makes her vivid to the audience.

Tumbleweeds, from director Gavin O'Connor, is the kind of pleasant (although unambitious) movie that almost always becomes a crowd favorite. It's a classic "chick flick," focusing on the relationship between a mother, Mary Jo (Janet McTeer), who keeps moving from marriage-to-marriage, and her wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Ava (Kimberly Brown). The mother/daughter relationship is what holds this film together as the plot veers uncertainly through a minefield of melodramatic situations. Mary Jo and Ava are almost like sisters; they tell each other their intimate fears and fantasies, and have a seemingly-unbreakable bond. It also helps that both McTeer and Brown are capable actresses. In lesser hands, these parts could have become flat and familiar, and that would have doomed the entire production.

Santitos, a Mexican film from director Alejandro Springall, follows the quest of a grieving mother named Esperanza (Delores Heredia) to find her daughter. Although recently declared dead of a mysterious disease at a local hospital, the young girl's body was never shown to her mother, and, after Esperanza sees a vision of a saint, she is convinced that her daughter is still alive. So begins a magic realism-tinted search that expresses the depth of a mother's love. To uncover clues, Esperanza must work in a Tijuana brothel, take a wealthy American lover, and sneak across the border to Los Angeles. The ending is touching and a little unexpected. A drama seeded with moments of clever and effective comedy, Santitos makes up for its slight plot with strong character development and a warm heart.

Finally, there's Run Lola Run, one of the festival's most enjoyable entries. Although not making its premiere here (it was shown to great critical and audience acclaim in Toronto last September), this movie is a must-see for those who enjoy fast-paced, innovative motion pictures that refuse to be defined by norms of the genre. (Sony Pictures Classics has bought the film for North American release.) Directed by Tom Twyker, this German import is a kinetic meditation on fate and destiny. It tells the story of Lola (Franka Potente), a '90s girl with Raggedy Ann hair, a large tattoo, and a voice so penetrating that when she screams, she can shatter glass. She's also athletic, because, as one might expect from the title, Lola spends most of the movie running.

Her dim-witted boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu), has lost 100,000 marks that he owes to the mob. Lola has 20 minutes to find that money and get it to Manni or he will be killed. So she takes to the streets, straining every resource to make the score before it's too late. Instead of just showing us one of Lola's approaches, however, Twyker gives us three to choose from, throwing us into the Sliding Doors/Blind Chance alley of alternate realities. You can essentially pick your own ending, and none of them are quite what you might expect from the beginning. Using innovative mix of animation, still photography, slow motion, and normal photography, and filmed to a relentless techno score, Twyker illustrates how the smallest changes in what a person does can alter the rest of their lives. Harlan Jacobson, a critic friend of mine, called this a "90 minute MTV video," but, while that statement captures the film's spirit, it greatly shortchanges Run Lola Run, which has as much depth as it has energy and action.

© 1999 James Berardinelli

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