Arts » Arts Feature

A Southern Sundance

Two Tarheel productions impress in Park City, while two other Southern productions take the top prizes


Say you're a North Carolina indie filmmaker with your first dramatic feature in the can. What are your chances of getting into the Sundance Film Festival? Back in the 1980s, when Robert Redford began turning his little snowbound convocation into the premier launching pad for American independent movies, the numbers weren't too forbidding; a few score films were submitted for the handful of screening slots. But Sundance has mushroomed since then. As a New York Times article, ominously titled "The Sundance Odds Grow Longer," revealed in mid-January, a staggering 2,613 feature films were submitted to the festival for 2005. And there are a mere 16 slots in Sundance's main section, the dramatic competition.

So the odds of a North Carolina filmmaker making it into that section are, shall we say, astronomical. But what if there are two North Carolina films aiming for the same honor? What are the chances that both will make it in? Well, what's ten times less probable than "astronomical"?

Yet that's exactly what happened at Sundance '05. Tim Kirkman's Loggerheads went before the cameras in Wilmington, Kure Beach and points west last May-June, followed shortly by Phil Morrison's Junebug, which was shot in and near Winston-Salem. Both were submitted to Sundance in the fall. And lo and behold: When the festival's roster was announced in late 2004, an eighth of the places in its dramatic competition were occupied by these low-budget Tar Heel productions.

I was surprised--and not. Having known both filmmakers since they were college students in the '80s (Kirkman at NCSU's School of Design, Morrison in New York University's filmmaking program), I was amply aware of their talent and the work they'd done in recent years honing their filmmaking skills. While Morrison had directed numerous music videos (for bands such as Superchunk and Yo La Tengo) and high-profile TV commercials, Kirkman had made two nonfiction features, the N.C.-centered essay film Dear Jesse and the performance doc The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me (written by and starring David Drake). If anything, these two were overly ready for their dramatic-feature debuts.

Still, seeing those features meet the world at Sundance had a certain drama of its own. Park City, Utah, the mining town turned ski resort that hosts the festival, is still small enough to register a collective surge every January when it's invaded by a swarm of tyro cineastes, press people, studio acquisitions teams, Hollywood agents, stars and starlets and the would-be famous, and insatiable film fans. In such a circus-like atmosphere, and given the pressures of finishing a film in time for the festival, it's hardly surprising that filmmakers sometimes walk onstage after their screenings looking as stunned as if they'd just landed on another planet.

You never know how an audience is going to react, after all. When Tim Kirkman came onstage Jan. 22 at the Eccles Arts Center, the festival's largest venue, it looked to me like he might've been suffering a moment of disbelief at the sight of many in the audience of nearly 2,000 rising in a standing ovation. It was an emotional moment for many viewers, too. Several in the crowd rose to tell Kirkman how moved they were by Loggerheads, some noting how many times they cried toward its end.

The reactions to Junebug were similarly effusive, though the testimonials it drew spoke of laughter more than tears. One woman at the film's first screening, at Park City's Racquet Club, stood up and told Morrison and the film's writer, Winston-Salem playwright Angus MacLachlan, that she felt their idiomatic (and ultimately serious) comedy drew two kinds of laughter--one from non-Southerners to whom the people and proceedings on screen were strange, another from Southerners laughing and shaking their heads at the all-too-familiar.

I don't know how many people at Sundance saw both films, but those who did surely noticed similarities beyond the abundance of N.C. license plates. Both movies deal with the tangled bonds of family and do so from a perspective of deep humanity and compassion rather than derision. Both are beautifully crafted, looking far more polished and assured (and expensive) than many of Sundance's low-budget debuts. And both, despite those modest budgets (under $1 million each, according to their producers), feature striking work by large, distinguished casts. Loggerheads toplines Bonnie Hunt, Chris Sarandon, Tess Harper, Kip Pardue, Michael Learned and Michael Kelly. Junebug stars Amy Adams, Embeth Davidtz, Ben McKenzie (TV's The O.C. ), Alessandro Nivola, Celia Weston and Scott Wilson.

The two movies also have that proverbial Southern "sense of place" in common, though they make different expressive use of their locales. Loggerheads, which is based on a true story, concerns the "triad" of people involved in any adoption: birth mother, child, adopting parents. In the film, this human configuration finds a geographic correlative in North Carolina's division into mountains, Piedmont and coastal plain.

In Asheville, an airport car-rental agent (Hunt) throws in the towel on her job due to a gnawing dissatisfaction that's pushing her toward a long-delayed quest: facing the legal barriers that keep her from finding the son she gave up for adoption two decades before. Across the state in Kure Beach, an impecunious young man (Pardue) obsessed with loggerhead turtles meets a friendly motel owner (Kelly), who offers him a place to stay and learns that the footloose ecologist is in flight from both his own body and his family. Over in Eden, N.C., meanwhile, a skittish housewife (Harper) tries to work up the courage to confront her minister husband (Sarandon) over their estrangement from their only son, who's gay.

You can see the pattern emerging here, but it's not as simple as it may sound. One clever twist in Kirkman's carefully wrought script is that the three interwoven stories are not transpiring concurrently, as we first assume, but are separated by a couple of years each: This temporal disjuncture (which mirrors the story's geographic dispersal) starts out as intriguing, and ends up contributing mightily--and surprisingly--to the movie's final emotional wallop.

Separation and distance infuse Loggerheads' dramatic textures, too. While Kirkman's writing of ordinary, middle-class North Carolina characters is flavorful, minutely precise and entirely lacking in condescension, it also catches the ways Southern reticence and obliqueness can turn tragic: I don't think I've ever seen a movie that so powerfully conveys how people ruin their lives by what they don't say.

Though the tone of Morrison's Junebug is mostly comic and its characters generally more garrulous than Kirkman's, it also deals with the ways people--even lovers and close relatives--fail to connect. It starts when a handsome North Carolina transplant (Nivola) meets a svelte and cosmopolitan Chicago art-gallery owner (Davidtz). Cut to a few months later as the newly married couple come south in pursuit of a Howard Finster-like visionary folk artist, and end up staying so the bride can meet her husband's family for the first time.

The foursome she encounters embody a vast range of emotional temperatures. While her husband's dad (Wilson) is a recessive, slightly dotty putterer, and mom (Weston) one of those Southern matriarchs whose smiles even are fined-tuned control mechanisms, his redneck brother (McKenzie) seems to be seething with a lifetime of resentments, including the current fact that he's having to live at home and depend on his parents while his very pregnant wife, Ashley (Adams), waits to deliver their firstborn, a kid she's already nicknamed Junebug.

As it turns out, the rotund, deeply provincial but endlessly effusive Ashley is the open-hearted center of this dysfunctional family circus. She's also the one portal of entry for an outsider from Chicago who seems profoundly puzzled by the working-class Southern milieu she's just married into. Cooing and wide-eyed, Ashley looks at her new sis-in-law as an exotic visitor from afar, yet her unguarded vivacity also makes you wonder: What would this family do without her irrepressible high spirits?

In the way it evokes both the strength and fragility of families, Junebug has a quietly accumulating, ultimately transfixing incisiveness. This is a world of church suppers and factory jobs, one-story red brick ranch houses on shady suburban lanes, basement workshops and plaster N.C. cardinals mounted just-so on the playroom wall; if you're from North Carolina, you may not be one of these folks, but you sure do know them.

MacLachlan's script renders the character textures and verbal tics of this world with extraordinary wit and sympathetic knowingness. And while Morrison's eloquently subtle visual approach nods to such masters of cinematic quiescence as Yasujiro Ozu and Abbas Kiarostami, the terrific ensemble acting he elicits recalls the best of Mike Leigh. The Sundance jury recognized at least part of that achievement in awarding Amy Adams (who previously played Leonardo DiCaprio's fiancee in Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can) a special prize for her performance as Ashley.

Both Junebug and Loggerheads came out of Sundance having made lots of friends among audiences and industry folk. Though neither film has a national distribution deal as I write this, their makers say that, come what may, the films will play North Carolina theaters at some point. Compared to the long odds of getting into Sundance, that seems a safe bet.

Coincidentally, Sundance's dramatic competition also contained two features from Memphis, Tenn. --Ira Sachs' moody marital drama Forty Shades of Blue and Craig Brewer's hip-hop musical Hustle and Flow. Noting the geographic tilt this year, the festival's organizers didn't go so far as to proclaim a Southern new wave. But Sundance head Geoff Gilmore, speaking to Variety after the 2005 line-up was announced, did single out this group of "films about the South by Southerners. It's not the archetypal freak show. What these films offer is really an embrace of the South and Southerners while highlighting their differences."

The festival also put together a panel on the subject, "Southern Exposure," and asked me to moderate it. Talking with Morrison, Kirkman, Brewer and Sachs (as well as the makers of a Texas documentary titled The Education of Shelby Knox) before an attentive crowd at the Filmmakers' Lodge, I tried to re-approach a question posed by the work of filmmakers like Victor Nunez, Ross McElwee and David Gordon Green: Why not a Southern cinema, in the same way that there's Southern literature?

There's an obvious appeal to such an idea. Of this group, no doubt Brewer (who lives in the South, unlike Morrison, Kirkman and Sachs, who reside in New York) is now in the best position to make it a practical reality: His Hustle and Flow hit a commercial grand slam at Sundance, earning him $9.5 million and a three-picture deal with Paramount. (Sachs also did well at the festival, winning the dramatic competition's top prize.)

"I would absolutely love to" continue working in North Carolina, Morrison told me after Sundance, citing the cultural familiarity and such incidentals as the pleasure he found in working with students from the N.C. School of the Arts, UNC-Greensboro and Wake Forest. But the harsh reality is that the makers of Junebug and Loggerheads had to defy financial reality to shoot here.

According to Loggerheads producer Gill Holland, North Carolina still has numerous filmmaking resources and a dedicated film commission. But it has lagged so far behind other states in offering financial incentives to filmmakers that one notable competitor, New Orleans, has attracted 18 recent features that otherwise might have filmed here. If North Carolina's legislature doesn't act fast to rectify this situation, Holland said, the state's formerly booming production center at Wilmington "will become a ghost town."

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