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January 25, 2008 |

By Dustin Rowles | | January 25, 2008 |

Click here for Day One of our coverage.

Ted: What a day for socalledonlycousins! We opened Day 2 at 9:15 am — a.fucking.m., after getting back from Osama at 2:30 a.m. — with the premiere of Phoebe in Wonderland, a thoughtful and entertaining film from first-time feature director Daniel Barnz. Phoebe has a helluva cast, with Felicity Huffman playing the frustrated mother of a gifted 10-year-old girl (played by Elle Fanning, of those Fannings) challenged by the onset of Tourette’s. The cast includes Bill Pullman as her loving, concerned father, Campbell Scott as a hilariously inept principal, and Peter Gerety as a gentle child psychiatrist.

But straight to fucking hell with all those people. Want to know why? Because at the end of the film, I was less than 50 yards away from my long-time actress love Patricia Clarkson, who plays Fanning’s ethereal, supportive drama teacher in the film. Patricia Clarkson of The Station Agent, Pieces of April, and various other films where Patricia Clarkson (!) knocked it out of the park. Restraining order or no restraining order, I went within 50 yards, right down to the first row of the theatre for the Q&A with Patricia Clarkson, and festival security did not bat an eye. So far, so good. There was also some guy who directed the film and some guy who did the cinematography.

This was the highlight of the week for me: the full, rich blonde hair, porcelain skin, Glenda-the-Good sharp features, curvy-sexy in her tight jeans (she just turned 49 in December). Aside from the fact that Patricia Clarkson is fucking awesome, she’s also a dead ringer for that Dunhill-smoking, ball-punching hellcat who prefers to drink her champagne from a jeroboam made of the skulls of inconsiderate drivers, whom some of you may know as Mrs. socalledonlycousins. It may interest you to know that I have never seen the two of them at the same place and the same time. There is no god but Patricia Clarkson, and She is Good.

Hi Mrs. socalled. Thank you for letting me make this pilgrimage.

Dustin: Believe it or not, there was more to love about Phoebe in Wonderland than Patricia Clarkson (though Ted’s drool-spackled chin would suggest otherwise). That “other” Fanning, Elle, turned in an incredible performance as a Tourette’s sufferer who finds solace in a grade-school production of “Alice in Wonderland.” In fact, she’s so good in Phoebe that it’s impossible to hold her lineage against her - it’s not an easy part even for an adult, but she absolutely nails it. The movie itself had the occasional lull and the fantasy sequences were not particularly necessary, but any movie that managed to keep me awake at that time in the morning after the previous night’s shenanigans had to be impressive. In fact, it elicited the first standing ovation we’ve witnessed so far at the festival. I think, too, that it has quite a bit of potential in the real world, though Ted could probably make it profitable on repeat visits all by his little self.

Seth: Yeah, what they said. I already suspected that Elle was the more talented of the Fanning sisters, having seen her in several television shows, and Phoebe in Wonderland confirmed - youngin’ can act. The rest of the performances were across-the-board solid (except for Huffman’s god awful wig), with Campbell Scott’s performance as the principal being a particular standout. The film is beautifully shot for the most part, and while it started out a little on the slow side, its eventual path held my attention and interest. As I told a friend who had heard that the movie was great - I don’t think it’s great, but it’s very good. Which, performances aside, is largely due to the fact that, although it may be hard to relate with issues surrounding Phoebe’s Tourette’s onset, it’s very easy to relate with the greater aspect of her character and dilemma, that of being the young child who is different and has trouble finding her place in the world. But I was a sucker going into this movie because of my affinity for Alice in Wonderland which, as the movie’s title would suggest, plays a central role in the film. And while Dustin felt the Alice-related fantasy scenes weren’t necessary (which I don’t wholly agree with), they were beautifully filmed in a fuzzy dreaminess which would’ve made up for this being a lesser move. Thankfully, they didn’t need to

And speaking of dreams, Sleep Dealer lives up to its title, at least insofar as Dustin fell asleep, and Ted and I both fought off the Sandman like a kid trying to stay up to catch Santa porking mommy. Holy hell was this movie dull. The background sci-fi element of the flick is that America has closed its doors to Mexican immigrants, so Mexicans now do lots of work in the states virtually, via Matrix-like hookups which allow them to control little helper robots. Following a mishap with the U.S. army which leads to a Mexican man’s death, the man’s son travels from their small village to Tijuana, so he can earn money for his family by working in one of these worker factories (which the locals call Sleep Dealers). Along the way, he meets a very yummy Mexican writer (Leonor Varela, the first of the two Martas on “Arrested Development”) and then some shit happens and some other shit happens and then a guy from the U.S. army comes to Mexico seeking his own form of retribution and some other shit happens and then the kid does a solid for his village, and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz …

Ted: … zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz …

Dustin: … zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz …

We ended the night, however, on a spectacular high note. Adapted from Alicia Erian’s brilliant novel, Alan Ball returns to familiar themes (sexuality, suburbia, race, and self-liberation) in Towelhead, which is just chock-full of sick, twisted awesomeness. Set in suburban Texas during Desert Storm, the film is about a half-white, half Lebanese 13-year-old girl, Jasira, who discovers orgasms while crossing her legs, and then experiences her sexual awakening the hard way when her suburban, redneck neighbor (Aaron Eckhart) takes advantage of her naiveté in a much more aggressive way than did Alan Ball’s Lester Burnham. Not only that, but she has to contend with a bitch of a mom (Maria Bello) and her temperamental, abusive prick of a father (“Six Feet Under’s” Peter Macdissi), who won’t let her date an African-American kid, Thomas (Eugene Jones), though that doesn’t stop Thomas from also taking advantage of Jasira’s sexual ignorance. Meanwhile, her only hope is a hippy, Our Bodies, Ourselves enthusiast (Toni Collette, who generates three films worth of poignancy in her 10 minutes of screen time), who takes an altruistic interest in Jasira. The film, like the novel, is “fearless” (as Alan Ball - who is kind of a smug, self-important jackass in person — repeatedly maintained during the Q &A). The film is dark, but situationally comic; at times intensely uncomfortable, but never grim; and exactly the sort of greatness we’ve come to expect from Alan Ball. Oh, and in Summer Bishil, Towelhead also boasts the best young actress this side of Ellen Page.

Seth: Yeah, Towelhead ain’t a warm-and-fuzzies kind of movie. It deals with some seriously dark shit. And yet, in his film directorial debut, Ball manages to portray said dark shit in a way that makes you uncomfortable without feeling wrong for watching it (although I believe Ted is going to take issue with this sentiment in a moment). Eckhart’s redneck neighbor is a sunuvabitch, to be sure, but the movie itself doesn’t judge him, leaving it up to the audience to do it, which is a refreshing thing these days. And when the movie isn’t being dark, it’s got some great comedy beats (having not read the book yet, I’ll take Alan Ball’s post-film comment, that the book is even funnier, at face value), sugar for the medicine, if you will. I think Dustin has pretty much said all I have to say about things, particularly the always wonderful Collette and the strong and daring performance by Bishil, so I’ll turn it over to Ted who, based on our shuttle-ride discussion, has some issues with the flick.

Ted: Ugh, I hate being the moralizer in the group; I’m so bad at it. But I’m getting on my high-horse. Was I the only person in the theatre troubled by Towelhead’s graphic, prurient sexualization of a 13-year-old girl, then profoundly troubled by Alan Ball’s refusal to take responsibility when questioned about it? (Note that Summer Bishil was 18 when the scenes were shot, but she very credibly plays a blossoming 13-year-old girl in the film.) Towelhead is powerful and brilliantly funny, especially Peter Macdissi as Jasira’s Lebanese father, who stole every scene he was in. Eckhart and Collette delivered really strong performances, as always; Maria Bello was basically a non-factor. But while I appreciated the difficulty of the subject matter, I was repeatedly creeped out by highly sexual scenes involving Bishil that seemed deliberately designed to titillate and provoke a sexual response from adult viewers seeing this sexually awakening child (a) masturbating and (b) experiencing predatory sexual behavior from an adult.

In the Q&A after the film, Ball insisted that he was simply being faithful to the novel, which is just a major fucking cop-out from a screenwriter as creative as Ball. (Even worse, the bleating sycophants making up 90% of the crowd applauded Ball’s artless dodge.) Film is a medium with very different emotional and visceral weaponry from a novel, and directors and screenwriters take account of those differences all the time to achieve the impact they desire. A depiction of a child’s sexual activity achieved with prose makes a very different impact from a visual depiction that appeals to the male sex drive’s primary stimulus receptor, as Ball is certainly well aware.

I’m a fan of Ball’s work generally, and Towelhead flashed the dramatic muscle and depth, as well as the humor, of American Beauty and “Six Feet Under.” But I’m going with my instincts on this one: It is artistically irresponsible to graphically sexualize a child, regardless of any alleged good intentions about the message. OK, can I go back to juvenile drinking binges and vulgar commentary about Sienna Miller’s assets?

Smile! You're at Mr. Smiley's

Sundance Dispatches / Dustin Rowles, Seth Freilich, and Ted Boynton

January 25, 2008 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

Sundance 2008 Day One | Pajiba Love 01/25/08

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