If there is a collective vision emerging out of the films in the Sundance dramatic competition it is this: The punks will save you.
Profane, tattooed, with dark eyes and darker lives, all a little crazy, in some cases a lot crazy, living on society’s margins – in three of the festival’s contenders, these rebels come into the lives of ordinary folks and proceed to turn things upside down in ways that heal whatever ails them.
While the films work to greater and lesser degrees, it’s the narrative stream that makes it worth exploring since Sundance has a way of picking up on new creative thought streams bubbling up in the film world before they become widespread. So consider this a glimpse at the future.
Let's start with two films that premiered Saturday, “Welcome to the Rileys,” starring James Gandolfini, Kristen Stewart and Melissa Leo, and Mark Ruffalo’s directing debut, “Sympathy for Delicious.”
“The Rileys” marks the feature directing debut of Jake Scott, who comes out of a creative thought stream of his own with father Ridley Scott and uncle Tony. Leo and Gandolfini play a Louisiana couple, Doug and Lois, whose teenage daughter was killed in a car accident. They have not done well with the grieving and now four years in, Leo’s character can’t leave the house and Gandolfini's is mourning another loss, this time his mistress felled by a heart attack.
A trip to New Orleans changes all that. Kristen Stewart is a teenage runaway, paying her way stripping and hooking when Doug stumbles across her. In a flash, his midlife crisis turns into a mission – if he couldn’t save his daughter, maybe he can save someone else's – and then the hard-as-nails young stripper turns out to be a catalyst for changing his.
Jake Scott has been shooting commercials (the starting point for dad and uncle as well) for a while, so he brings a polish to the work, and Gandolfini remains one of the most interesting actors to watch today. Stewart, what with the vampires and a turn as Joan Jett in "The Runaways" coming later today, is turning into a force on her own.
Meanwhile out west on the mean streets of L.A., Ruffalo is a priest ministering to the homeless and that includes a wheelchair-bound DJ dubbed Delicious, a scratcher extraordinaire now unemployed and living in his car after a freak accident left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Christopher Thornton, the film’s screenwriter and star who himself was paralyzed at 25 in a rock-climbing accident, is the film’s dark savior with Orlando Bloom and Juliette Lewis as the main rock star sinners. Turns out there’s nothing that will broaden the rocker crowds quite like spontaneous healing, even when the guy doing it looks like he could have played with Metallica. Like a lot of actors when they try their hand at directing, Ruffalo lets his actors, including himself, ramble on, but the underlying story of faith, hope and disillusionment is nevertheless a compelling one.
Finally, director Spencer Susser’s “Hesher” is the darkest of the bunch, with baby-faced Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an insane, homeless druggie with a giant finger flipping off the world tattooed on his back, Jesus hair and a messiah complex. Hesher literally moves himself in with a family so destroyed by a car accident they're not really paying attention. He sets about saving them by wreaking havoc thanks to a bad temper with a very short fuse – a sort of no pain, no gain approach with cars set on fire, noses clipped off, houses destroyed, and that’s on a good day.
The central issue though is the same, that we the people have lost our way and are in search of someone to guide us out of the morass and the mess. And the message running through all three films is the same too, that the rebels, the misfits, the outcasts will be the ones to save a desperately floundering mainstream America. It feels like the surface-scratching beginnings of a significant conversation, still raw and evolving, but a beginning, one we're likely to look back on years from now and say it all started at Sundance 2010.
-- Film critic Betsy Sharkey
Photo: Kristen Stewart in "Welcome to the Rileys." Credit: Argonaut Pictures.