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Sundance 2010: '3 Backyards' peeks behind suburban homes

January 27, 2010 |  4:44 pm


"I'm from New York... I don't have anything to follow that," said writer-director Eric Mendelsohn before Wednesday morning's screening of his Sundance competition entry "3 Backyards."

Pleasantly awkward and sincere in his introduction, Mendelsohn was previously at Sundance in 1999 with his film "Judy Berlin," and this marks his first feature since then. In reference to his fellow filmmakers at the festival this year, he noted, "I'm older than lots of the other people." Getting ready to start the screening, he said he looked forward to the Q&A afterward so "we can just talk about where you're from and where I'm from. Noting that his cellphone was going off, he reminded the audience to turn off their phones, and while leaving the podium he added, "Nice to meet all of you."

The film itself is perhaps a traditional Sundance film in the best sense of the term. Enigmatic and deliberate, the film takes places in a sort of Long Island of the Mind, a place where power lines cut through woody glens and warehouse districts and empty diners have a De Chirico spookiness and sense of remove. Though "3 Backyards" may seem outwardly uncommerical -- for some probably the worst slur one can throw at a film at Sundance these days -- that also makes it exactly the kind of film all the rhetoric of renewal and rebellion is meant to support. A film of quiet boldness guided by a deep regard for humanity, "3 Backyards" is rich, personal filmmaking.

The film has three non-intersecting storylines set amid a sleepy, leafy Long Island suburb. A housewife (Edie Falco) is excited that the actress (Embeth Davidtz) renting a beach house down the block has asked for a lift to the local ferry. A young girl (Rachel Resheff) missed her school bus, which sets off a series of adventures. A businessman (Elias Kotas) has a flight delayed and must kill time in an unfamiliar part of town.

Though this may not sound like the stuff of great drama, Mendelsohn is able to find the beats that are emotionally compelling in mundane moments, drawing out profound feelings from simple situations. He frequently uses interludes of nature scenes, beautifully shot by cinematographer Kasper Tuxen, to place these small concerns within a bigger world, such as a remarkable rack-focus from a spider within its delicate web to the indelicate rumble of a parking lot of school buses.

Most of the questions in the post-screening Q&A had to do with the score by Michael Nicholas as well as the sound mix. That score, a bracing modernist blast of flutes and woodwinds, jolts the viewer, a welcome device given the film's otherwise low-key pacing. Not everyone was so enamored, however; one questioner declared it "an assault on the audience."

Mendelsohn seemed to really enjoy interacting with the audience even as they were criticizing his work. He cheerfully asked one questioner where he was from (Buffalo, it turns out) or wanted a woman to tell him her take on why a character was crying before he gave his answer. "Don't worry," he said calmingly, "It's up there, but it's not said."

Wrapping up, Mendelsohn said plainly, "Thank you all. I'm glad to have met you in this way."

-- Mark Olsen

Photo of Embeth Davidtz and Edie Faclo in "3 Backyards" is courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival