Sundance’s final drama unfolded on the way home, and not because the Salt Lake City airport was closed for much of the day thanks to a freak episode of freezing rain. I’d pushed Valentine Road (A) aside a few times during the festival; the subject, the murder of a 15-year-old gay boy by a 14-year-old classmate, was compelling enough, but the film didn’t seem to have much buzz. It was going to be on HBO in a few months, and most critically, I’d been slipped a DVD by a colleague. So it was that I ended up watching one of the best films of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival on the way home.
The 2008 murder of Larry King, who was shot twice in the head by his classmate Brian McInerney, made national news and sparked widespread protest. But in Oxnard, at least according to Marta Cunningham’s documentary, the main reaction was to sweep the murder under the rug, and sympathies leaned less towards King than his killer. By asking McInerney to be his valentine in front of a group of friends, the argument went, King had provoked, even bullied him, so that McInerney had no choice but to bring a .22 revolver to school the next day and execute him.
The movie paints both King and McInerney as worthy of some degree of sympathy. King was raised in a series of foster families and group homes; McInerney’s mother was a drug addict, his father a dealer who once shot his wife after an argument. But as the case against McInerney moves slowly to trial, the injustices and outrages mount. Former teachers of King's fault the school for not suppressing his behavior; one casually says she warned the principal that if King kept wearing women’s clothing, a group of classmates would eventually “beat him to death.” The lack of empathy extends to both sides: The prosecutor who charged McInerney as an adult chortles and all but rolls her eyes as she watches footage of him getting into fights in lockup.
Cunningham, a first-time filmmaker, expertly moves the story along piece by piece, sometimes withholding information until it fits more coherently into the larger argument. It’s appalling to watch adults twist the facts of the case to fit their own agendas, like the defense expert who describes how King “wobbled” up to McInerney on a basketball court, or the juror who excuses McInerney’s fascination with drawing Nazi symbols by likening it to her own idle doodling. I can’t remember the last time a documentary moved me so deeply, or angered me so profoundly.
Matt Porterfield’s I Used To Be Darker (B) is a doodle of a different kind, a loosely constructed drama that coalesces around a young Irish woman (Deragh Campbell) who takes refuge with her stateside aunt (Kim Taylor) and uncle (Ned Oldham). She doesn’t know until she arrives that Taylor and Oldham’s marriage is in the process of breaking up, but she has nowhere else to go. Like their characters, Taylor and Oldham are both musicians, although Oldham’s has long since given up gigging in favor of the concrete business—a more lucrative and symbolically resonant profession. Porterfield built the plot around their songs as if constructing a neorealist jukebox musical, so that when Taylor sings the melancholy “Days Like This,” she seems to be drawing inspiration from her character’s life rather than shaping it. I Used To Be Darker isn’t destined for wide release, but it will be a crime if it doesn’t sell at least a few of Taylor’s smoky, broken-hearted records.
Cutie And The Boxer (B+) begins as an adoring portrait of Japanese artist Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko, who have lived in New York for several decades. But it’s quickly revealed as a complicated film about a marriage unbalanced by Ushio’s boundless, and often fruitless, ambition, and Noriko’s thwarted attempts to return to making her own art. Ushio, whose methods include dipping clothbound boxing gloves in paint and sparring with a massive canvas, has mellowed in his old age—he’s no longer an alcoholic, for one thing—but he’s still openly jealous when a gallery owner proposes a joint show of husband and wife’s work. In addition to plumbing the difficult task of balancing one spouse’s dreams against another’s, it shows how marriages work best when partners have the freedom to take each other down a peg.
And with that, an exceptionally strong Sundance Film Festival comes to a close. A final ranking of favorites, and profound thanks for reading.
1. Upstream Color: Shane Carruth’s long-awaited follow-up to Primer is a heart-stopping enigma that keeps expanding in your mind long after the lights come up.
2. Valentine Road: A devastating portrait of a horrible crime and the injustice that followed it.
3. The Spectacular Now: Teen drama done with sustained honesty and tenderness, with incredible performances by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley.
4. Crystal Fairy: A hilarious, deeply discomfiting story of a psychedelic Chilean road trip, with Michael Cera as an insufferable enlightenment junkie and Gaby Hoffmann as a damaged free spirit.
5. After Tiller: Intelligent, morally complex discussions about abortion take place in the unlikeliest of places: the offices of doctors who perform third-trimester abortions.