ROBERT DENERSTEIN | Commentary Let a little reality intrude into Planet Sundance

PARK CITY, Utah -- Come with me to the alternate universe known as the Sundance Film Festival, henceforth known as Planet Sundance.
Here are some things that you should know about this distant and odd outpost in Utah, inhabited by filmmakers, wannabes, devotees, journalists, publicists, actors, musicians, people who want to be photographed and people who don't:
It's overrun: The population of this town, normally around 7,500, swells to 45,000 during an event so hype-heavy it attracts everything from dog-food promotions (psychic communication with absent pets was offered) to synergistic publicity for Intel, the computer chip-maker.
It's growing: With more than 200 films, the planet just keeps expanding. This year, the festival added international-feature and -documentary competitions to its closely watched domestic-feature and -documentary competitions.
It has its own star: Robert Redford, the actor credited with founding the planet, almost always shows up to assure visitors that although a circus-like atmosphere surrounds Sundance, the festival's heart remains pure.
Getting to it
OK, those are the basics.
This year the view from Planet Sundance, which will again become a ski resort Monday, seemed cloudy -- devoid of huge trends and large, rumbling insights. That left me free to cultivate smaller observations as I raced around this sprawling mountain town to watch films.
My report from Planet Sundance follows.
Films about lifestyles seldom are about life. I refer to the Sundance opener, "Happy Endings," another movie that deals with the ways in which disparate lives (gay and straight) intersect. The film's based in Los Angeles.
Credit director Don Roos ("The Opposite of Sex") with one bit of convention-defying bravado: He includes a sex scene between Tom Arnold (yes, that Tom Arnold) and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Arnold plays the father of a gay kid who's being hustled by Gyllenhaal's character, a woman whose morals prove as wispy as the movie's many plot strands.
The word "independent" (when appearing before the word "film") often means "glacially slow." Tim Kirkman's deliberately paced "Loggerheads" has trouble joining three slender stories. But it falters in such gentle fashion that you almost go along with it, losing yourself in a mood of mildly expressed indie langor and regional balm. (The movie was shot in North Carolina.)
Go, Bonnie
The film's most notable achievement: Bonnie Hunt's persuasively touching performance as a woman who, as a 17-year-old, gave up her child for adoption.
"Forty Shades of Blue," a slightly better film, also moved slowly as it focused on a blustering Rip Torn as a music producer who helped popularize Memphis soul during the '50s and '60s.
If you were looking for an all-sex-all-the time double bill, this year's festival had just the ticket.
Michael Winterbottom's "9 Songs" is an ultra-explicit film in which a couple has sex in many positions, and we're left to wonder precisely what keeps the film from being labeled as "hard-core porn." Not much, as it turns out. Maybe an attempt at documentary-style urgency in what I presume was Winterbottom's desire to portray honestly a relationship in its sexually ardent early stages. (Said a friend: "Porn generally is better lit.")
Later that same day, Sundance offered the premiere of "Inside Deep Throat," a documentary about the influence of a history-making porn film. The makers of this NC-17-rated effort, distributed by Universal Pictures, makes the case (in very entertaining fashion) that "Deep Throat" helped lift the veils of shame from American attitudes toward sex -- only to be beaten back in the ongoing culture wars.
No matter how you slice it, the times are definitely changing. Harry Reems, who starred opposite the late Linda Lovelace in "Deep Throat" (1972), is now a born-again, real-estate agent living in Park City. He appeared at the premiere of the film. Some audience members stood and applauded. Hey, I'm as opposed to censorship as anyone else, but Reems as a culture hero? I'm not buying.
Coming-of-age films aren't dead. They're not even sleeping. Two of the better films I saw were "Thumbsucker" and "The Squid and the Whale," both of which deal, at least in part, with kids trying to survive in difficult environments.
A success
Director Mike Mills does a surprisingly good job adapting a novel by Walter Kirn in "Thumbsucker," a movie about Justin (a totally convincing Lou Pucci), a 17-year-old who still sucks his thumb. Mills stocks the screen with fine performers (Vincent D'Onofrio and Tilda Swinton as Justin's parents) and Vince Vaughn (as his high-school debate coach).
Although "Thumbsucker" doesn't exactly break new ground, it's a wonderfully acted and often funny look at how one young man learns to cope with life's uncertainties. And get this: Keanu Reeves (yes, that Keanu Reeves) gives the movie's funniest performance as a hippie orthodontist who aspires to be Justin's guru.
"The Squid and the Whale" provides director Noah Baumbach -- who collaborated with Wes Anderson on the script of "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" -- with an opportunity to portray the lives of two kids dealing with the divorce of their self-absorbed parents (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney).
Set in Brooklyn during the 1980s, the movie includes fine supporting performances by a conniving Anna Paquin as one of Daniels' students and a sharply funny William Baldwin as a tennis pro who establishes a relationship with Linney.
XRobert Denerstein writes for Scripps Howard.

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