Every year, scores of aspiring and struggling filmmakers bring their labors of love to the Sundance Film Festival. The luckiest ones leave Park City, Utah, with two kinds of prizes.
Sundance is arguably America's most prestigious film festival, and it concludes with an awards ceremony that honors a handful of films that its jurors and audiences find to be the most worthy. The backroom distribution deal, however, is probably the more practical prize, as it does more to ensure a film's life beyond the festival circuit.
Despite its mandate to champion original, independent film, Sundance seems to chase trends no less than Hollywood, as demonstrated by two new releases in Atlanta that premiered at Sundance in January. Courtney Hunt's Frozen River won this year's Grand Jury Prize for Drama and proves to be the kind of low-fi, earnest film that wears its lack of glamour as a badge of honor. Hamlet 2 made headlines for its pricey, $10 million acquisition by Focus Features, despite being a silly, over-the-top comedy with little "independence" in form or content.
Hamlet 2 is one of the highest acquisitions in the festival's history. Little Miss Sunshine set the record with $10.5 million – in retrospect a good investment, given that it earned nearly $60 million in its theatrical release, as well as multiple Oscar nominations. Competition for a potential sleeper indie hit sometimes sets off Sundance bidding wars, most notoriously with 1999's Happy, Texas, a comedy remembered more for its expensive deal and poor box office returns than its plot about escaped convicts who pose as gay beauty contest organizers.
Hamlet 2 could be called Happy, Tucson. Director/co-writer Andrew Fleming depicts the travails of Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan), a failed actor turned flailing drama teacher at an Arizona high school. Dana seems utterly under-equipped to handle his personal and professional problems, which include conceiving a child with his shrewish wife (Catherine Keener); disciplining his drama class that is overrun with unruly students; and facing the loss of the drama department thanks to the school's budget cutbacks.
Dana has a background in school-play adaptations of Oscar-winning movies, and soon gets the idea that a hit original musical could save the department. He pens a bizarre sequel to Hamlet that features a time machine, graphic sexuality, political satire and autobiographical daddy issues. Hamlet 2's would-be showstopping number, the Grease-style "Rock Me Sexy Jesus," isn't as outrageous as the filmmakers seem to believe, though. Incongruous cameos from Christ are practically staples of snarky, contemporary plays such as Reefer Madness: The Musical.
In a parody of the "inspirational teacher" genre (name-checking Dangerous Minds), Dana fulfills the adage "Those who can't do, teach," and motivates his class essentially by accident. Coogan has specialized in playing deluded wannabe celebrities, but here he overacts so much, Dana comes across as almost brain damaged. Fleming encumbers the character with so many sight gags and zany costumes, from roller skates to caftans, that Dana's antics lose all grounding in reality.
Hamlet 2 most resembles Christopher Guest's comedies about small-town has-beens and no-talents, particularly Waiting for Guffman. It's as if all of Guffman's buffoons were rolled up in a single person (although Amy Poehler has a tiny, memorable role as an ACLU lawyer who champions the play). If Guest's films aim at such easy targets they're like shooting fish in a barrel, then Hamlet 2 is more like shooting cows in a barrel.
Where Hamlet 2 ridicules small-timers, Frozen River approaches impoverished, marginalized groups with undeniable sympathy. It's easy to see why the Sundance jury wished to reward writer/director Courtney Hunt: Filmmakers who put the spotlight on disenfranchised people like the working poor deserve encouragement. The Hurricane Katrina film Trouble the Water (also reviewed in this section) probably won the 2008 Grand Jury Prize for Documentary for similar reasons.
Frozen River depicts an uneasy alliance between two desperate mismatched women: Ray (Melissa Leo), a penniless mother, and Lila (Misty Upham), an alienated young member of the Mohawk tribe. When chance throws them together, Lila enlists Ray in a people-smuggling operation before Ray quite realizes what's going on. Lila points out that because the Mohawk reservation straddles the U.S.-Canadian border, transporting undocumented immigrants across the frozen river isn't breaking the law. Ray doesn't trust Lila, but struggles with such financial pressures, including raising the balloon payment for a new double-wide home, that she becomes a reluctant accomplice.
The crime-thriller aspects seldom feel contrived, since Hunt focuses more attention on the details of illegal immigration and Mohawk reservation life, including the local Bingo Palace and the dynamics of tribal self-governance. With its Native American setting and small-scale epiphanies, Frozen River resembles Louise Erdrich's deeply felt fiction, although a pseudo-nativity on Christmas Eve lays on the spiritual implications pretty thick.
In its modest fashion, Frozen River can be treasured for showcasing Leo, a regular on the acclaimed cop drama "Homicide: Life on the Street" who's offered small but superb character turns in such films as 21 Grams. Leo's bale of red hair and creased facial features give her the aspect of a country singer from before the age of television, and she utterly inhabits the role of a woman worn down by hardship.
In a more just world, Frozen River would secure the big distribution deal based on Leo's performance alone. Instead, Hamlet 2's perceived as the more commercially viable film, even though it holds Middle Americans in much lower esteem. Frozen River will inevitably play to smaller audiences, but its impeccable craftsmanship may end up being its own reward.