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Sundance, Day 7: The Kids Aren't All Right

Posted by Ty Burr  January 27, 2011 02:40 AM

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marthamarcy.jpgToday's festival meme, class, is the damage that damaged young people can wreak and the interesting cinema that can make. One of the buzz titles at Sundance '11 is "Martha Marcy May Marlene," starring Elizabeth Olsen, one of the festival's two buzz actresses (the other is Felicity Jones of "Like Crazy"). Olsen is the younger sister of the much-mocked Olsen Twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley, and, judging by her eerily controlled performance in "Martha, etc," Elizabeth is the one with talent; yea, verily the Ashley Judd to their Naomi and Wynonna. Sean Durkin's film is a low-fi but gorgeously photographed tale of a young girl who escapes from a vaguely Manson-ish cult (led by the freshly Oscar-nominated John Hawke) in upstate New York and settles in with her brittle older sister (Sarah Paulson) and officious brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy). She doesn't tell them what she has fled, but the movie shows us in carefully composed flashbacks that deepen the unease into gradual horror. One scene in particular drew a collective gasp from this morning's Park City audience. (A side entertainment, by the way, has been listening to people try to remember the film's full name, with most getting as far as "Martha Marcy" before tailing off into mumbles. Even the festival programmer who introduced the movie at the screening muffed it. Twice.)

"Martha Marcy May Marlene" (ta-da) is a character study and a mood piece more than a genre film in any studio sense, but Olsen manages to hold us for the duration even as Martha -- the other names are her cult aliases -- spirals further into post-traumatic stress syndrome and general bad behavior. Fox Searchlight, which has been on a buying spree this festival, snapped up distribution rights to the film for $2 million; with proper care and feeding, it should get to the right audience of arthouse patrons and Olsen completists.

Our next bad girl is Lily, the runaway teen hellion played by Juno Temple in "Little Birds". Lily lives in white-trash-land, California, on the edges of the Salton Sea, but she books it to Los Angeles after she meets a sensitive young skate-punk (Kyle Gallner) and his less charming friends, bringing her wary best friend Alison (Kay Panabaker) along. There's a touch of "Thirteen" to Elgin James' debut feature (not for nothing is that film's director, Catherine Hardwicke, thanked in the end credits), but "Birds" is pitched less on the verge of hysterics and much of the cautionary wringer its characters get put through feels honest and real. True, my bogosity antenna does go up for any movie that casts two Hollywood hotties, Leslie Mann and Kate Bosworth, as trailer-park mamas, and the film's climax is as contrived as they come. But, hey, it's the director's first movie, and the flaws are less notable than the fact that there are so few of them. Overall, James' skill and assurance, his empathy with his characters, and his ability to build mood and tension are striking.

He has an interesting back-story -- James was a Boston area gangbanger before forswearing violence and lucking into a few mentors at the Sundance screenwriting and directing labs -- and based on this, he's got a future. I just hope it's not making Paul Walker movies or 3D horror sequels. Temple, for her part, gives a solid performance as an all-American adolescent basket-case; despite a few forced moments, she gives off heat-waves of energy and discontent. You'd never know she was British (and that her dad is "Absolute Beginners" director Julien Temple).

"In a Better World" just won the Golden Globe for best foreign language film and it has a very good shot at this year's foreign language Oscar, too. It's a high-minded, high-stakes melodrama from a director, Denmark's Susanne Bier, who has proven her skill with the original 2004 version of "Brothers" (the lesser 2009 Hollywood remake starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire), 2002's "Open Hearts," and other films. And it has a screwed-up kid in it: Christian (William Johnk Juels Nielsen), a tightly wound 12-year-old who burns at the world's injustices in the aftermath of his mother's death from cancer. Disgusted with the way his father (Ulrich Tomsen) and others back down from confrontation, Christian takes it upon himself to visit revenge on a schoolyard bully and then a grown version of same, with mixed results. He's a very proper young vigilante.

Bier's more interested in a wider field of philosophical inquiry, though, and "Better World" spans the globe from Denmark to Kenya and back again, wending its way through a handful of main characters as it gnaws at the question of evil and the proper response to it. And Bier does believe in evil -- there's an African war lord in the film who'll haunt you in his jolly embrace of sin -- even if she's not sure how far it can be fought before the infection spreads to the fighter. Occasionally glib, often fully felt, always well-filmed and acted, "In a Better World" is classy issues drama of a sort Paul Haggis can only dream of making.

"Troubadors" is a movie I dragged myself to. Do I really need to hear James Taylor and Carole King sing "You've Got a Friend" one more time? Isn't there a state regulation that requires "Fire and Rain" to be playing somewhere on Massachusetts radio at any given second? Can't we as a culture at long last say goodnight, you moonlight ladies, and mean it? But I went into the screening with vague local obligations and am glad I stayed: Morgan Neville's very enjoyable music documentary is a wider piece of work that uses Taylor's and King's dual career paths and recent reunion tour as a lens on the entire early-70s singer-songwriter movement and the Los Angeles nightclub, Doug Weston's Troubador, that birthed it. Solid pop history with an eye to the personalities -- Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Roger McGuinn, the eccentric Weston, the whole Laurel Canyon mellow mafia that turned confessional songcraft into pop art and big business. Neville doesn't get everyone on the record (no Mitchell or Neil Young) but he gets enough, and his access to the archives is pretty amazing: "Fire and Rain" is made fresh and bearable (to this listener, anyway) via Taylor's Newport Folk festival performance of it two weeks after the song was written.

And, in keeping with today's theme, "Troubadors" does remind a viewer of a brief, long-off time when these people actually were tormented youth, with Taylor's drug problems and other demons surfacing in this telling (if rarely in his music) and David Crosby serving as a scarred, clear-eyed, and sometimes very funny tour guide to a long-vanished era when sensitive dinosaurs roamed the earth. And King's journey from teen Brill Building songwriter to best-selling Baby Boomer earth mother remains unique and cheering. Neville plays to his aging audience -- yes, there's a shot of the Berkshires all covered in snow -- but he gives newcomers the history and the reasons it matters. If it leads to a 70s revival, fine, as long as they leave the Eagles out of it. 

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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