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Sundance 2011: Difficulties on screen, reflecting the challenges off it

January 29, 2011 |  4:22 pm

The money and wine that flowed at the parties over the last week up and down Main Street in the resort mountain town of Park City, Utah, may not have suggested a particular kind of hardship. But Sundance has a way of depicting tribulations on its screens that belies the revelry of the festival itself.

This year, with the recession more than two years old, many of the movies, conceived when the recession was just starting, incorporated economic and other difficulties into their fabric. The struggle to make it in today's America was an on-screen trend related to -- or perhaps even the antecedent for -- the Sundance Film Festival's other common theme -- that of characters looking for spiritual salvation.

The struggle was not apparent in a Michael Moore-Barbara Ehrenreich power-to-the-people sort of fashion, though one documentary, "The Flaw," stopped to take a look at ordinary citizens affected by the subprime mortgage crisis. It  did, however, permeate the movies in more subtle ways.

In Tom McCarthy's "Win Win," a character played by Paul Giamatti cuts corners because his family-law practice has come upon hard times. Andrew Maclean's Alaskan Inuit thriller "On the Ice" showed the desperation of characters in a  remote, economically blighted part of the country (and then throws in some more reasons for desperation). In festival breakout "Martha Marcy May Marlene," Elizabeth Olsen's wanderer argues materialism and capitalism with her yuppie brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy).

In "Take Shelter," Michael Shannon's family man spends much of the movie readying himself for a coming storm that may be as much symbolic as meteorological. Danfun Dennis' documentary "Hell and Back Again" shows a sergeant struggling to adapt to everyday North Carolina life after he is wounded in Afghanistan.

J.C. Chandor's  "Margin Call" takes on the subject of modern-day crisis with an absence of metaphor: it shows how executives up and down the ladder of an investment brokerage are thrown for a financial and spiritual loop when the Wall Street unraveling begins.

Meanwhile, no one seems to be struggling financially (just emotionally) in "I Melt With You," the Rob Lowe-Jeremy Piven drama about a weeklong retreat of male bonding gone horribly wrong. But modern forces close in on them anyway:  Lowe's doctor becomes a pill-supplying quack to make extra cash, while Piven's banker has stolen from his clients to give his family an upper-class life and is, as the movie begins, bracing himself for a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation.

Even genre films got in on the act: Brit Marling, the Sundance It Girl who co-wrote and starred in two movies here, explored a young woman with no prospects in the science-fiction-tinged "Another Earth" -- her best chance at redemption is represented by, literally, a trip to another planet.

Independent movies have explored difficult times in previous years."The Company Men," which played at Sundance last year, looked at the effects of the recession on upper-middle management. The 2009 festival-circuit  hit "Wendy & Lucy" showed a drifter whose lost dog may have represented a larger absence of hope. But this year's Sundance may be the first large-scale gathering of English-language cinema in which hardship isn't just the subject of an occasional movie but a veritable through-line.

"Things seem so strange, especially in the wake of the economic collapse and the confusion over 'if consumption isn't everything, how do you construct a meaningful life?'" said Marling, who also brought the episodic drama "Sound of My Voice," a cult-centric story that explores spiritual desolation and salvation of its own kind, to the festival. "Both of my films  are really investigating our faith in being alive: who are we, what are we doing and why should we keep going?" The filmmakers here have one answer to those questions: to make and see movies about just that.

-- Steven Zeitchik in Park City, Utah


Photo: Alex Shaffer, left, and Paul Giamatti in "Win Win."

Credit: Sundance Film Festival