Back at you with another round of capsule reviews from the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. This is my quick fire way of bringing you all the latest from the screening rooms and converted high school auditoriums that make up this amazing festival. Up today is a trio of films, all with unique and fresh young voices behind them. By my estimation, they all have a shot at making my “Best of” list at the end of the festival, which is saying quite a lot seeing as this year has been a spectacular one in the snowy mountains of Utah.
By any estimation, a film such as Paper Heart is a very risky cinematic endeavor. Its unconventional narrative is sold as a documentary that follows actress and comedienne Charlyne Yi (Knocked Up) on her quest to find out what love is, and whether or not she has the capacity to love someone herself. What we aren’t told, at least not in any obvious manner, is that the entire thing is a mix between Charlyne’s real life interviews with a diverse group of subjects from all corners of America and a semi-autobiographical, mostly fictional romance that sparks up between her and Superbad star Michael Cera. For example, director Nicholas Jasenovec (who actually directed the film) is portrayed on screen by actor Jake Johnson. Though it is important to not that these two are a real life couple.
Real or fake, Paper Heart is an earnest attempt at taking a fresh perspective on the modern romance. And it is, for the most part, a very funny film. While most of the film’s humor belongs to Yi and her quirky personality, there are also some very funny and clever moments in which the camera crew becomes involved in the action. Adding to the film’s charm are paper reenactments of the stories told by the eclectic array of real life subjects that are interviewed by Yi. Overall the film succeeds in taking a series of awkward, sometimes goofy conversations and intertwining them with a simple, relatable narrative in order to create a film that is incredibly light and fun. And while I found it to be a bit tedious in the end, spending a little too much time lingering on the relationship between Yi and Cera, I did find it to be one of the more clever and unique films I’ve seen here at Sundance 2009, documentary or otherwise. It could make a solid date movie down the line and could find success based on the Michael Cera factor, so don’t be surprised if this is one of the films that breaks away from Sundance and finds some success out there in the wild.
Don’t Let Me Drown
From first time director Cruz Angeles, Don’t Let Me Drown is a beautifully constructed love story about two Latino teenagers living in New York City shortly after the attacks of 9/11. With grit and an unmistakable authenticity, it takes an intimate look at the struggles of two ethnically different families fighting to survive in the wake of one of the most devastating tragedies in American history. Lalo (E.J. Bonilla) is an American-born Mexican teen whose father worked as a janitor in the towers and now spends his days blackening his lungs as part of the Ground Zero clean up crew. Stephanie (Gleendilys Inoa) is a third generation Dominican girl whose family has relocated from Manhattan to Brooklyn after the death of her sister, who worked in one of the twin towers. Together they try to find stability and safety in an ever-changing and unrelentingly difficult world.
It combines a love story akin to Romeo and Juliet with a street-level authenticity of Boyz in the Hood, this film is an immensely impressive first outing for director Angeles. He aptly recreates the textures of a city and the turmoil felt by so many families in the five Burroughs at that particular time. He has also co-written with Maria Topete a very honest and sweet love story the pierces through the sometimes terrifying realism of the streets. Not to mention the fact that he’s put together a cast of young actors who deliver splendid performances, all brimming with confidence and charisma. He only runs into problems when it comes to pacing. The film takes a while to really get going, but once it does get up to speed it really shines. It shines bright like any fresh new American love story should, showing the gritty reality that exists for so many kids in our country but also reminding us of the healing power that can be found in love.
Though it is filled with — and starts quite prominently with — an almost annoyingly uneven soundtrack, there certainly isn’t much to pick at when it comes to director Adam Salky’s sexy, cleverly constructed teen dramedy Dare. It tells the coming of age stories of three kids from the same upscale high school. Alexa, played by the infinitely cute Emmy Rossum, is just an overachieving good girl trying to win praise in drama class. But when she is stopped in her tracks by a now famous alumni of her school’s drama program, played by Alan Cumming, she begins a brave and twisted journey toward finding her own range of emotions. Alexa’s search for real emotion leads her to an aggressively sexual encounter with Johnny, played by Zach Gilford, the rich and popular jock whose father and stepmother have left him to a seemingly consequence free life of partying. Then of course there is Ben, played by Ashley Springer, Alexa’s curiously effeminate best friend. His search for acceptance of himself also leads to a sexual encounter with Johnny. And as you can imagine, this leads to a whole host of problems as libidos kick into high gear and these three teens speed toward adulthood.
Sure, these characters do start out as high school movie clichés, but the brilliance of this film is in the execution of the story. The script, from writer David Brind, cleverly finds a balance between sexy and sweet. He mixes some intensely alluring moments with the sweetness that you might find in a John Hughes movie. It takes a very fresh and interesting perspective on the modern day teen romance, delivering moments that are equally comical and poignant. And it is all delivered wonderfully by a strong young cast. Emmy Rossum has never been better, while the performance from Zach Gilford steals the show. Though it is important to note that Gilford’s big climactic moment in the film is almost marred by some shoddy editing. We see that sort of thing here at Sundance. If purchased by a distributor with the right vision and marketing capabilities, Dare could win in the romantic dramedy arena, if for no other reason than the fact that it is so fresh and fun.