Because it's such a crucial launching pad for low-budget American films, Sundance has become not just a place to exhibit independent features, but a pejorative word for the types of films that meet its approval. Accepted for the Dramatic Competition section at this year's festival, Loggerheads offers a how-to course in getting your movie into Sundance: Plaintive acoustic guitar score? Check. A sensitive take on Important Issues (HIV, how small-minded and repressed Southern Christian conservatives are, etc.)? Check. Some precious, arty metaphor that will tie everything together? Hey guys, it's right there in the title! No doubt writer-director Tim Kirkman (Dear Jesse) feels deeply for his sad characters, and his three-tiered time structure is delicately wrought, but the film suffers from its tastefulness, lacking the passion and grit that makes for compelling drama. And every time those damned loggerhead turtles come up, the themes get explained away.
The three separate story threads are set in North Carolina and spread over consecutive years from 1999 to 2001, periods that are needlessly underlined by audio from Clinton or Bush speeches bleeding into the background. In the small town of Eden, a name that bears some unfortunate symbolic fruit, Tess Harper plays the fretful wife of conservative minister Chris Sarandon, who feels some pangs of regret for driving their adopted gay son out of the house. Harper's son Kip Pardue, a handsome young drifter with HIV, has wandered to a loggerhead sanctuary on the Carolina coast, where a local motel manager (Michael Kelly) recognizes his vulnerability and takes him under his wing. Meanwhile, Pardue's real mother, Bonnie Hunt, who was forced to give him up for adoption when she was 17, searches for him, but adoption law forbids her from getting information about him.
They all converge in the cathartic third act, but until then, they spend an inordinate amount of screen time staring wistfully off into the distance. (See, they're like those ancient turtleslonely, drawn toward home, waiting for some profound connection to bring them out of their shells, blah blah blah.) Pardue never registers as more than a weak, victimized orphan, and though Harper gives an affecting performance, Kirkman's typically narrow indie take on small-town repressiveness does her no favors. That leaves Hunt, who slips naturally into the role of a lost mother compelled to find her son at all costs. Too bad she's been asked to check her terrific sense of humor at the door: A little less earnestness could have done this movie some good.