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  Home :: 2007 January :: America's reel pain 

America's reel pain

Contemporary directors tackle war, torture and abuse in this year's crop of movies – with little comic relief

From Monday's Globe and Mail

PARK CITY, UTAH— Something is rotten in the states of Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana,Texas, well, pick your flyover locale at this year's Sundance FilmFestival. Here are a few of the things that seem to be on the minds ofcontemporary American filmmakers: Guns, religious hypocrisy, missingchildren, alcohol and drug abuse, adultery, torture, senile dementia,negligent or abusive parents, and pretty much everywhere, explosiverage and violence.

How much these films about the varieties of heartland pain have todo with contemporary American political disillusionment is an openquestion. There is one Iraq-related drama, Grace is Gone, withJohn Cusack, looking almost unrecognizable, heavy-set with oversizedglasses and a round-shouldered shuffle. He plays a politicallyright-wing, small-town home-supplies manager whose soldier wife hasjust shipped out to Iraq, leaving him to take care of their daughters,a precocious 12-year-old and a plump, cute, eight-year-old.

Early scenes show him as an oppressive disciplinarian. Then he getsthe news that his wife has been killed in Iraq and he becomes a muchmore sensitive dad. Rather than break the bad news to the girls, hetakes them on a spontaneous road trip that plays out like a sadderversion of About Schmidt, with accompanying minors. When hiseldest daughter asks him about the possibility that the war is wrong,he tells her that she just has to believe: "But what if you can'tbelieve?" asks the girl. "Then we're lost," he says.

There are a lot of lost people in Snow Angels, from David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls, Undertow). The most accomplished of the American dramas shown here so far, Snow Angelsis alternately wryly humorous and shocking, as it follows theexperiences of two families with estranged fathers. Sweetly bewilderedteenager Arthur (Michael Angarano) falls in love with an off-beatclassmate while struggling with his professor dad (Griffin Dunne) whohas left the family. Meanwhile, his former babysitter (Kate Beckinsale)has separated from her husband (Sam Rockwell), a fanatic born-againChristian and recovering alcoholic who grows increasingly unstable inhis efforts to win his wife and child back.


Though the Stewart O'Nan novel on which the movie is based was setin West Pennsylvania, the film's location is not specified (it was shotin Nova Scotia). Another runaway production sees Winnipeg standing infor a small Nebraskan town in The Good Life, a shaggycoming-of-age drama starring Mark Webber as a young man who cares for asenile friend (Harry Dean Stanton), supports his irresponsible motherand gets victimized by a local bully. The movie begins with a suicideand, in a foreshadowing opening scene, appears to end in a murder.

An American Crime takes a historic view of the sick soul ofAmerica, drawing from trial testimony of the 1965 torture and murder ofSylvia Likens, a 16-year-old girl who was tortured to death in thebasement of a Indiana house, led by the church-going woman who was hertemporary guardian and who encouraged her own and neighbourhood kids toparticipate. With Catherine Keener as the sadistic mother and thediminutive Canadian actress, Ellen Page, as the victim, An American Crimedoesn't lack for acting talent, and is careful to underplay thegrotesque realities of the crime, but neither the script nor TommyO'Haver's direction bring any insight to the girl's ordeal.

Audiences in the mood for a comedy fare marginally better. Teeth,a drama about a Christian student and sexual abstinence advocate inTexas who, while being sexually assaulted, discovers she hasrazor-sharp teeth in her vagina. Veering between mutilation horror,campy religious satire and David Lynchian strangeness, Teeth is a different kind of shock film looking for a reason to be.

For comic relief, the best option was probably The Savages,starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as competitivemiddle-aged siblings, struggling to find a solution to their father'ssenility and nursing-home needs. Okay, not that much comic relief.

The prevailing despair led to the disproportionate enthusiasm for Broken English,the directorial debut from Zoe Cassavetes, the daughter of independentcinema hero, John Cassavetes. A fluffy and derivative romantic comedy, Broken Englishstars Parker Posey as a thirtysomething New York singleton who drinkstoo much, is bored with her glamour hotel co-ordinator job then finds acute French boyfriend. The movie's major point of recommendation isthat nobody is mutilated, murdered or beaten, and the only seniledementia is from a charming old French lady who mistakes the heroinefor her lost grand-daughter.

And even that movie's mood only really picks up when it moves to Europe.


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Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in Australia