Story Highlights• Critic says Sundance films had much promise, little delivery
• "Hounddog" clumsy, "Black Snake Moan" lacks follow-through
• Documentaries at festival often angry critiques
• "Manda Bala" and "Son of Rambow" among festival's best
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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PARK CITY, Utah (CNN) -- For Jason Kohn, the hardest thing at the Sundance Film Festival was the silence.
"They warned me it would be a roller coaster. You get these amazing highs one day and lows the next," the first-time documentary filmmaker said Wednesday evening.
He was waiting for the call, the reviews, some sort of assurance it hadn't all been for nothing.
This week represented the culmination of five years' work for Kohn, creator of "Manda Bala" -- a wide-ranging essay on social inequality in Brazil. In true indie fashion, he had sold his car, maxed out his credit cards and pulled in favors from friends and family to get his movie made.
It's not like anybody was falling over himself to invest in "Manda Bala," which touches on such apparently unconnected themes as frog farming, ear reconstruction, the largest private helicopter fleet in the world and billion-dollar political embezzlement. (The title literally translates as "Send a Bullet"; colloquially, it's "Shoot.")
A Sundance screening slot is vindication in itself, but it's not going to pay off his loans or secure his future, not even in the short term. A distribution deal is the biggest prize anyone could hope for -- and failing that, enough buzz to pique interest further afield. (Gallery: The stars come out at Sundance)
The financial stakes may be higher at Cannes or at any weekly Hollywood test screening, but there isn't another festival in the world that can make or break a filmmaker like Sundance. Catch the wave and you could be the next "Little Miss Sunshine." Miss out, and Park City can cast a deep and debilitating chill. ("I've been in a funk for two years," one director confessed, referring to his last, disastrous visit here.)
No bite in 'Hounddog'
Too bad this year's buzz film turned out to be a dog. Blindly condemned by rent-a-reactionaries, "Hounddog" stars 12-year-old Dakota Fanning as a Southern waif growing up without a mama and looking after her brain-damaged pop. (Gallery: Young actresses in risqué roles)
Granted that Fanning spends much of the movie "unself-consciously" gyrating to Elvis in her underwear, this is a nonexploitive film about innocence abused. It reportedly received a standing ovation at its first public screening but met with jeers at the press show.
The critics weren't objecting to the handling of the already notorious rape scene (which is actually quite discreet) but to the picture's clumsy storytelling, erratic performances and overcooked symbolism. Even a 12-year-old white girl can sing the blues, if she done-gone suffered enough. (Watch Fanning's take on the role )
Christina Ricci learns the same hard lesson playing a trashy nymphomaniac in "Black Snake Moan." "Hustle & Flow" director Craig Brewer's flick styles itself as a sleazy blues number with schlocky drive-in iconography, such as when Ricci is chained to a radiator for her own good by Samuel L. Jackson.
But underneath the raunch, this is an unmistakably, even boringly moral fable, and just about the only positive representation of religion in the festival. (For some reason abusive, crazy Christians were rife, played by Piper Laurie, Christine Keener, Sam Rockwell and Celia Weston, among others.)
This year Sundance definitively laid to rest the old indie paradigms of homespun Americana. There is agitation in the air. Not surprisingly, the documentary section was dominated by critiques of what is going wrong in Iraq ("No End in Sight," "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib"), Darfur ("The Devil Came on Horseback"), Brazil ("Manda Bala"), Uganda ("War/Dance"), the United States ("The Unforeseen") and the environment ("Everything's Cool").
Meanwhile the dramas reverberated with screams of torture ("An American Crime," "Joshua"), loss ("Grace Is Gone," "Snow Angels"), revenge ("Weapons"), the anguish of dementia ("The Savages," "Away from Her"), insanity ("Chapter 27") and a gnawing, spiritual emptiness ("The Good Life," "Broken English"). They made a wretched bunch.
But if these voices out of left field know they're hurting, they don't seem to know what to do about it. "What if we're wrong [about Iraq]?" John Cusack's young daughter asks him in "Grace Is Gone." "Then we're lost," he replies hopelessly.
What was lacking, almost across the board, was something to shape and define this vague malaise. Visually nondescript and overwhelmingly conventional in its language and address, American independent cinema has fallen significantly behind series TV for edge and originality.
News reports have noted that this year's Sundance has been a seller's market, with several films -- including "Son of Rambow" and "Teeth" -- going for millions.
But it's not that way for everybody. As of Friday morning, "Manda Bala's" Kohn was still waiting -- and hoping.
A "Hounddog" portrait: Jill Scott, Dakota Fanning, director Deborah Kampmeier, Piper Laurie and Robin Wright Penn.
THE BEST OF SUNDANCE1. "Manda Bala": Jason Kohn's dystopian documentary is a brilliant, eye-opening essay on endemic corruption and inequality in Brazil, filtered through stories of kidnapping, frog farms and political chicanery.
2. "Son of Rambow": An irresistibly inventive, slapstick celebration of preteen DIY moviemaking from Hammer & Tongs ("The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"). "Rushmore" meets "The Science of Sleep" in early 1980s middle England.
3. "Zoo": Robinson Devor's nonfiction film finds a somber, poetic path to understanding a taboo tale of sexual perversity. If you let it, this is a rare movie that might challenge your preconceptions.
4. "Snow Angels": Couples falling in and out of love supply the emotional epiphanies in this small-town tragedy from director David Gordon Green ("George Washington"). With a knockout Sam Rockwell performance.
5. "The Pool": An unexpected first fiction film from documentary maker Chris Smith ("American Movie"), "The Pool" is a subtle, sensitive portrait of an enterprising child in Goa, India.
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