By TOM DUPREE
A verite (meaning there is no narration or underscored music) look at a peculiarly American institution. Each year, the American Legion sponsors statewide convocations of bright high-school students who spend one week together forming a government (this one is in Texas). They decide on platforms, run for office, and, as we discover, use many questionable techniques they have osmosed from their elders. Any documentary is inherently biased because you see only what the filmmaker allows you to see, but as the boys divide into “Nationalists” and “Federalists,” the “mock” element seems to recede, until the all-important election for Governor — the highest Boys State office — becomes both more political and more personal. As you watch, you may casually think of the many analogues to our real-life political system, but your attention is repeatedly thrust back to these boys. It’s riveting.
DINNER IN AMERICA
This was one of my favorite films of the fest, but I was in the distinct minority among our group, so as the kids say, YMMV. About ten minutes in, you think you have it nailed. Then the movie takes a severe right turn, maybe even a yooie, and the screenplay remains one step ahead of you until the credits roll. I don’t want to say too much, but it’s a misfit-couple-road-movie starring a punk-rocker pyromaniac and the cutest nerd you’ve ever seen. It’s both brutal and funny, and I so admired the ability and the determination required to surprise us again and again. The depiction of the punk era and punk-era fandom is just off the scale. It’s one of those movies that asks you to let go and float down the river with it. But if you’re game for unexpected shenanigans, you will HOWL.
FOUR GOOD DAYS
Harrowing mother-daughter confrontation as Glenn Close takes one last chance on Mila Kunis, a hopeless junkie who has thrown her life away and shows up at Mom’s door trembling from withdrawal. She can get treatment that will break the horrible cycle, but the drug won't be safe unless she can stay clean for the titular time frame. Player Stephen Root acts against type as Close’s long-suffering husband who really wants to end his wife’s long suffering. Both women are able to blast it in their own ways, and the moral heart of the movie has you cheering for each of them — but not without serious trepidation bordering on dread. The climax I will leave for you to discover, but it ends on the best final shot I saw this year.
A Korean family moves from California to Arkansas, where the father, an expert chicken-sexer (yes, that’s actually a thing), wants to “plant a garden.” That is, start a farm. The family has been reluctant, but he can’t be dissuaded from his vision, especially since he becomes a clock-punching superstar while his wife’s slower speed is still judged “good enough for Arkansas.” Eventually they invite Grandma to join them, and she powers the rest of the plot. I noted as I walked out that there had been no racial prejudice depicted: this film is about a family that happens to be Korean, and their ethnicity does figure into the story, but no more than would yours or mine. They are assisted by a cross-bearing, God-fearing farmhand delightfully brought to life by Player Will Patton.
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof meets 1973 South Carolina. Beth (Sophia Lillis, the ingenue from the It movies) adores her Uncle Frank (a stalwart Paul Bettany), but when she moves to New York for college, she learns a deep family secret: Uncle Frank is gay. Furthermore, circumstances conspire to bring both Frank and his husband Wally (Peter Macdissi) down South for a family funeral. The three characters already named form the crux of the story, but our busy Stephen Root also has a ball as the patriarch, “Daddy Mac.” It’s a bit Douglas-Sirky, and the melodramatic moss hangs heavily from the trees, but it’s the kind of tale we can really use these days.
Tom Dupree has been a professional newsman, adman, critic and editor, and an actor and director at the college and community level. His personal blog is at tomdup.wordpress.com, where there are many other Sundance capsule reviews, a few of which have proven rather embarrassing in the fullness of time.