PARK CITY, Utah — We all know about the cathartic power of blues music, but until the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, who knew that it could serve as a cure-all for everything from nymphomania to childhood sexual abuse? In Hustle & Flow director Craig Brewer’s Black Snake Moan, whose out-of-competition premiere screening was one of the festival’s hottest tickets, a gaunt and almost unrecognizable Christina Ricci stars as a proverbial piece of poor white trash whose inability to suppress the “itch” between her legs leads her to spread those twiggy appendages for anyone with a pulse. Enter a bitter, newly divorced musician (Samuel L. Jackson) who finds a battered Ricci by the side of the road and decides to rid her body of its sinful desires by chaining her to a living-room radiator and serenading her with the blues.
Few detested Hustle & Flow, with its white-boy fetishization of pimp culture, more than I did, and though I can’t deem Black Snake Moan an advance (at least where its attitudes toward women are concerned), it does offer ample proof of Brewer’s facility with the camera, his understanding of southern culture, and — once you cut through all the bondage and anal penetration — a sweet-natured temperament. The 35-year-old Brewer is actually a surprisingly old-fashioned guy: Just as Hustle & Flow seemed like a revisionist take on the classic Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney, let’s-put-on-a-show musicals, Black Snake Moan is, at its core, a fairly straightforward variation on George Bernard Shaw — Pigsfeetmalion, if you will. When he outgrows his terminal adolescence, Brewer might be the perfect filmmaker to take on Faulkner or Tennessee Williams.
Better him, in any event, than Deborah Kampmeier, whose competition film Hounddog had already earned the scorn of the Christian right before it ever arrived at the festival, mostly owing to a fleeting rape scene involving the 12-year-old child star Dakota Fanning. As is almost always the case, that controversy turns out to be more noteworthy than the movie itself — an unrelentingly unpleasant southern gothic about a barefoot backwoods urchin (Fanning) whose habit of dancing suggestively to the titular Elvis Presley single sparks the desire of an acne-riddled milkman and ultimately leads to the now-notorious act of deflowering. She too is then rehabilitated by a kindly black man, who teaches her to sing the real blues and explains that anyone can be a “nigger,” regardless of skin color. Thanks, Sundance.
For kiddie porn of a different sort, there was James C. Strouse’s Grace Is Gone, which amounts to 89 minutes of emotional foreplay leading up to a one-minute “money shot” of two little girls sobbing at the news that their soldier mother has been killed in Iraq. Starring John Cusack as the widower who can’t bring himself to tell his daughters the truth (and so takes them on a road trip to a Disneyland-like theme park), Grace Is Gone has plenty of champions who proclaim it a sensitive, non-partisan allegory about Americans’ unwillingness to acknowledge the full horror of Iraq. What I saw, however, was a cowardly film only interested in using its angel-faced child stars to manufacture a cheap, tear-jerking payoff. No matter: Grace Is Gone left Sundance with the audience award, the jury prize for best screenplay, and a seven-figure distribution deal with Harvey Weinstein.
Always important to remember when discussing Sundance: The festival is ultimately at the mercy of the films being made — and if one is to take the festival’s 2007 dramatic competition as a barometer of today’s American indie-film landscape, the news is not encouraging. Even the better films this year registered less as purely personal visions than as calculated attempts to follow in the footsteps of earlier indie successes. In the category of Wes Anderson facsimiles, there’s Jeffrey Blitz’s charming Rocket Science, while J.J. Lask’s On the Road With Judas deserves special mention for stealing its best moves from a movie — Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep — that was in Sundance only last year!
So it was altogether karmic that this year’s Sundance dramatic jury awarded its grand prize to the competition film with the least “buzz”: Christopher Zalla’s Padre Nuestro, a gripping morality play about a Mexican illegal who comes to America in search of his long lost father, only to have his identity stolen by a fellow immigrant. Part thriller, part Greek tragedy, the Spanish-language Padre Nuestro stars a cast of unknowns in what is an often bleak portrait of America’s have-nots, and is one of the only movies I saw in this year’s competition that reminded me of the original mandate of the indie-film movement: to tell stories that Hollywood itself would not tell and to give voice to those who are too often silenced in mainstream movies.