Sundance Film Festival premieres exceptional dramas

Katherine Roth

‘Tis the season of award shows and competitions, so it’s no wonder that the dramatic competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival premiered some wonderful independent films that have movie aficionados abuzz.

The 2007 festival took place from Jan. 18 to Jan. 28 in Park City, Utah and screened 128 feature films in nine categories, including 15 in the dramatic competition. “Adrift in Manhattan,” “Grace is Gone” and “Hounddog” were among the films to make the biggest impact on their audiences.

“Adrift in Manhattan” tells three intertwining tales of life along Manhattan’s subway No. 1. Originally called “1/9,” the title was changed due the discontinuation of subway No. 9. The first story line deals with an optometrist preoccupied with the death of her child who is no longer able to make a connection with anyone. The second deals with a teenager whose disturbing home life only allows him to relate to the outside world through the lens of a camera. The final story line deals with an elderly painter who is rapidly losing his eyesight just as he discovers love with a younger woman. Reviewers stated that the movie is full of character-driven dramas with solid plots in which the featured players take interesting, unexpected paths.

The film is filled with great characters, each of which could be the single focus of a film. It’s to the credit of the director, Alfredo de Villa, that all the characters fit within the confines of the movie in such a satisfying manner. Reviewers also complimented the diversity of New York City – not only in the terms of race but also in terms of age, class and aspirations.

“Grace Is Gone” is another film that impressed audiences and reviewers alike. John Cusack plays Stanley Philipps, a man who learns that his wife has been killed in the Iraq war. Unable to tell his two young daughters, he takes them on a roadtrip to an amusement park, buying a few days before he has to break the news.

Critics are comparing this film to last year’s competition shining star, “Little Miss Sunshine.” Greg German of the Chicago Sun Times writes, “Last year’s big road-trip tale at the Sundance Film Festival was greeted with guffaws. This year’s has [been] met with sobs. Both ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ from last year and the current Sundance entry ‘Grace Is Gone’ are highway heartbreakers, ‘Sunshine’ showing a family that comes together through hilarious adversity, ‘Grace’ depicting a family shattered by the cruelest of tragedies.”

“Grace Is Gone,” directed by first-time director James C. Strouse came to Cusack at a good time. Cusack was extremely angry that the Bush administration had banned media footage of coffins bearing soldiers that had been killed in Iraq.

“I thought it was the most brazen, cowardly, egregious political act I’d seen in my lifetime,” Cusack fumed in an interview. “Do you think that’s going to stop anything? Do you think if you don’t show the coffins we won’t find out?”

Cusack had been looking to tell the story behind one of those coffins for a while, so it’s safe to say that he put his heart into the role.

Strouse commented at Sundance, “I hope it’s the type of story that holds up five or 10 years from now, but I hope that it does sort of hit a nerve.”

Finally, “Hounddog” has been creating the most buzz. The film, written, directed and produced by Deborah Kampmeier, takes place in the 1960s American South and stars Dakota Fanning as Lewellen. Lewellen is a troubled 12-year-old girl who finds solace from an abusive life through blues music, particularly the music of Elvis Presley. The film has garnered a great deal of attention and generated significant controversy. The character Fanning plays is a victim of sexual abuse and rape. The scene in question takes place in a dark alley. Fanning wore a body suit to give the illusion that she is nude from the waist up. After its premiere, viewers reported that Fanning does not appear nude and that the scene in question could not be described as graphic for sexual reasons. The apparent controversy at one point caused the film’s financial backers to withdraw, and production was halted while additional financing was arranged.

“Let’s get this out there right from the top: Yes, Dakota Fanning’s performance in ‘Hounddog’ is mature, powerful and everything it should be to launch her career to the next level as a young actress who can handle serious roles,” says Kim Voynar of

“That said, however, ‘Hounddog’ is also one of the least likeable films I’ve seen here at Sundance – and not, as you might expect, merely because it has a scene of the young actress being violently raped.”

“Hounddog” is still expected to be released in the U.S. this year.

Other films that premiered in the dramatic competition category during the 10 days were “Broken English,” “Four Sheets to the Wind,” “The Good Life,” “Joshua,” “Never Forever,” “On the Road with Judas,” “The Pool,” “Rocket Science,” “Snow Angels,” “Teeth” and “Weapons.”