PARK CITY, Utah - Realistic, hard-hitting movies about marginal Americans in dire straits won major awards at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival's closing ceremonies Saturday night. "Trouble the Water," Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's film about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, won the grand jury prize for documentary, in no small part due to disaster footage shot by Kimberly Rivers, one of the film's subjects. Courtney Hunt's "Frozen River," about a desperately poor single mom (Melissa Leo) and a Mohawk girl (Misty Upham) who smuggle immigrants from Canada, was the surprise winner of the grand jury prize for dramatic film; the movie had flown under the radar during the festival itself.
"Ballast" had not; Lance Hammer's debut film, about characters in the Mississippi Delta region struggling with a relative's suicide, was one of the most-praised films at Sundance '08, and it took two prizes, for dramatic film directing and excellence in cinematography. "Ballast" has yet to find a distributor, which is absurd - the film needs to be seen.
The documentary film directing award went to another festival favorite, Nanette Burstein's "American Teen," which follows four Indiana high school students through their senior year. "Sleep Dealer," a cyberpunk drama set in the near-future, won both the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for outstanding film focusing on science or technology.
The audience award for documentary, voted on by festivalgoers, was "Fields of Fuel," about the alternative-fuels movement, while "The Wackness" won the audience award for drama for its baroque comic look at a high school drug dealer (Josh Peck, of Nickelodeon's "Drake and Josh") and his pothead therapist (Ben Kingsley).
In the world cinema categories, "Man on Wire," a movingly poetic essay about tightrope walker Philippe Petit's 1974 crossing of the World Trade Center towers, won both the audience award and the grand jury prize for documentaries. The Swedish coming-of-age drama "King of Ping Pong" won the grand jury prize for drama as well as a cinematography prize, while "Captain Abu Raed," the first feature film to be made in Jordan in 50 years, won the world cinema audience award for drama.
The Sundance awards aren't a high-profile glamour sweepstakes like the Oscars or the Golden Globes. In a sense, they're more important: a crucial vote of approval to filmmakers toiling in the fields of low-budget, independent fiction films and documentaries. Or as "Ballast" cinematographer Lol Crawley said as he regarded his trophy with stunned happiness, "Well, this is going to help."