I have come to think of the 10 days of Sundance as a kind of controlled haemorrhage: The festival begins at maximum capacity as everyone rushes into Park City at the same time, and then as each day passes film news and film people leak out at a roughly proportional rate. My favourite part of this process comes around day six, when all the opening weekend warriors have left, there is time to catch up on the things you've missed, and room to turn around in the press tent without swatting someone with your badge.
By the time the awards ceremony takes place, Park City has been mostly emptied of its industry invaders and the important decisions have been made. Still, news continues to trickle out of Sundance, and although it doesn't look like this year is going to come close to topping last year in sales, a few buyers seemed to find what they were looking for—most notably Magnolia and Fox Searchlight. The former picked up The Queen of Versailles, a reality TV-styled doc about a couple who were in the midst of building the biggest home in the United States when the economic crisis hit, Compliance, Craig Zobel's feature based on the true case of a prank phone call to a fast food outlet that ended very, very badly, 2 Days in New York, Julie Delpy's winsome culture clash sequel to 2 Days in Paris, V/H/S, a compilation of short horror films of the “found footage” variety, and Nobody Walks, a drama directed by Ry Russo Young and co-written by Lena Dunham.
Fox Searchlight landed the festival's two unlikely big fish: The Surrogate and Beasts of the Southern Wild. The former won the Sundance audience award for best U.S. feature, and the latter took the Grand Jury Prize for best feature. Both are by first-time directors, and both tell stories of characters on what I guess you could call the fringe—a man confined to an iron lung by polio and a little girl who imagines her Louisiana town is perched on the edge of the world. Though films with marquee names attached like The Words (Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper), Arbitrage (Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon), and Lay the Favorite (Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall) are quietly signing deals for VOD and/or theatrical distribution, it seems safe to declare Sundance 2012 The Year of the Ringer.
One of the trend stories that seemed poised to happen but didn't quite get there involved the preponderance of young women in writing and directing roles. Along with Young and Dunham's Nobody Walks there was Bachelorette (pictured), which director Leslye Headland adapted from her play, Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister (picked up locally by Hopscotch), For a Good Time Call…, a sex comedy by writers, co-directors, and three name sharers Lauren Anne Miller and Katie Anne Naylon, Black Rock, a thriller directed by Katie Aselton and starring Kate Bosworth, and For Ellen, a character study of a young father in the midst of a custody battle starring Paul Dano and directed by So Yong Kim. The strident bad girl raunch of Bachelorette seemed to eat up most of the available oxygen for the subject of women at Sundance, which is both good and bad. On the plus side, the sooner that Bridesmaids dress train-riding tactic plays out the better, but in the meantime it's a shame that Bachelorette's relative fizzle dominated the discussion when the diversity across these films should have been the real story.
But then it's easy to talk about what the real story should have been on day 10. It's probably also a little imprudent. The exciting thing about Sundance is watching how the films that debut here develop a life and personality throughout the year to come. Last year I couldn't wait for the rest of the world to see The Interrupters, the Steve James documentary about how cycles of violence form in a Chicago community. This year it's Detropia, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's numinous look at a city in ruins, The Invisible War, a vital recovery of stories of rape in the military, and The Surrogate, which contains some of the most awkward and life-affirming sex scenes I've ever watched on screen. At the heart of it Sundance is all about making people care, after all—about your film, about your favorite. And though caring is not always enough, it's a nice place to start.