If you only read last year's Sundance halftime report, you probably thought that the 2010 edition was no big whoop: Other than Blue Valentine and Exit Through the Gift Shop, at that point the festival had produced precious few stop-the-presses entries. Then came the second half, and out marched Last Train Home, Winter's Bone, I Am Love, Animal Kingdom and The Kids Are All Right. What initially seemed like an artistic dust bowl actually yielded a bumper crop.
So I'm loathe to judge Sundance 2011 based on its rather ho-hum first weekend; maybe John Cooper, now in his sophomore year as head programmer, still has a few tricks up his sleeve. There are new films by David Mackenzie (the epidemic romance Perfect Sense), Azazel Jacobs (small-town teen drama Terri) and Dito Montiel (The Son of No One, a Queens cop thriller starring Channing Tatum and Al Pacino) on the horizon, so hope for a showstopper springs eternal. But other than one truly outstanding work, the 15 or so movies I've seen have largely produced a shrug of the shoulders rather than a drop of the jaw.
What is certain is that two themes are already threading their way through a number of disparate flicks. The kids most definitely aren't all right this time out: Movies like the creepy character study Martha Marcy May Marlene, the formalist haunted-house riff Silent House (both starring young Olsen sibling Elizabeth, the official It girl of this year's fest) and Fox Searchlight's quirk-com Win Win all feature teens with chips on their shoulders and traumas in their past. The pitching of screaming, flailing fits is less a matter of if so much as when, and in that respect, this trio doesn't disappoint. Even James Marsh's Project Nim, a documentary involving scientists who try to raise a chimpanzee like a human child, finds its simian acting out once ape adolescence sets in.
The other recurring motif seems to be religion as a modern bugaboo, with everything from Paddy Considine's Brit-miserablism-on-metabolic-steroids drama Tyrannosaur to Kevin Smith's fundamentalist horror show Red State casting evangelical zealotry as an enabler for evil behavior. Though the aforementioned Martha Marcy involves a Mansonesque cult, it shares a dread of spiritual manipulation and messiah complexes with its more obvious brethren. Only Vera Farmiga's near-great directorial debut, Higher Ground, treats faith with any sort of complexity—and you still get a lead character whose entanglement with a born-again congregation becomes the ultimate crutch.
Real salvation did arrive, however, in an unlikely form: The Future, Miranda July's superior follow-up to Me and You and Everyone We Know. Like much of this performance artist's work, her new film starts off courting a hipster-tweeness that suggests cinma du McSweeney's. Then this tale of a couple (July and Hamish Linklater) that chucks their normal life detours into some dark, profoundly sad material, and you're so moved by the movie's mournful beauty that even a helium-voiced kitty narrator doesn't grate. It's the one thing I've seen so far that suggests a sui generis sensibility in full, glorious blossom. Should The Future signify the shape of things to come, Sundance 2011 may just be a late bloomer.