It often takes directors years to make it to Sundance -- just take it from one would-be filmmaker who ranted from the crowd during the question-and-answer session at a movie on opening night here, yelling angrily that his project had been denied entrance into the festival.
Elgin James had his own struggle. James, the writer-director of "Little Birds," which premiered Sunday night in Park City, Utah, grew up as a Boston gang member who spent years tangled up in crime and homelessness. He credits Sundance Institute Labs with helping him turn things around -- that was where he developed his debut film, which stars Juno Temple and Kay Panabaker as teenagers who flee their hometown at the Salton Sea for Los Angeles.
Before the film's premiere, James took the stage, fearful he might "throw up or start to cry," speaking emotionally about his upbringing.
"My mom was diagnosed with cancer and wrote a letter to me and each of my sisters to say goodbye," he recalled, pausing to hold back tears. "She said to be more and do more, and it wasn't too late for a second chance. I was a loser in a street gang, and I sat by her in the hospital promising and whispering to her that I would do more with my life."
While the film is told largely from the perspective of its female protagonist (Temple), it's evident that much of the plot comes from James' own experience. Temple's character is prompted to leave the Salton Sea after she shares a kiss with a boy who is a member of an L.A.-based group of hoodlums. Panabaker's character tries to stop her best friend from running away but is ultimately convinced to tag along.
Once they arrive in Hollywood, the girls are quickly lured into bad behavior: They begin by stealing candy from a convenience store but quickly find themselves contributing to a scheme in which they hold a man at gunpoint. It's clear James doesn't want to glorify this bad behavior: Panabaker's character serves as the moral compass, and he makes the gang members out to be lewd losers whose jokes often fall flat.
More unclear was how the audience received James' debut on Sunday. One Oscilloscope executive was seen departing the theater only an hour into the movie. Still, the audience's affection for James and his story was evident: Every time he took the stage, shouts and applause echoed throughout the theater. Whether that praise was for his film or for his success at overcoming his inner foes, however, was uncertain.
-- Amy Kaufman in Park City, Utah
Photo: Elgin James at the premiere of his film "Little Birds." Credit: Mario Anzuoni / Reuters.
RECENT AND RELATED:
Sundance 2011: Elmo talks about his butt [Video]
Sundance 2011: Montana rolls out the red carpet for one film, 'Winter in the Blood'
Sundance 2011: Can the documentary 'Buck' pull a 'Blind Side'?