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Sundance '11 Day 2: Who I am

Posted by Wesley Morris  January 21, 2011 06:40 PM

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Adepero Oduye in Pariah.jpgSo all that talk about returning the festival to its roots may not be bunk after all. At about 10:10 this morning a packed house of strangers wiped away tears and hooted and hollered when the credits began to roll for "Pariah," a very now movie that also feels very much like it could have been shown here in 1995. It also feels like an incidental rebuke of the festivals long-standing suggestion that the sexuality of young white boys is the center of the universe. 

Dee Rees's "Pariah" is essentially a coming-out drama that naturally blends humor and crisis without ever blowing a gasket. In that sense the film communes with the  of New Queer Cinema of three decades ago. But it's also suffused with shifting social textures and wonderful grace notes. Alike (it's pronounced "Ah-LEE-kay") has a loving but rigidly churchy mother (a very good Kim Wayans) and a loving but aloof detective father (an even better Charles Parnell), and they've given their daughter a long leash. The excitement and beauty of the movie is that it's not just a sexual coming-out but a racial one, too."Pariah" is about the grunt work of identity politics. 

Miranda July is also trying to figure herself out. Her desperately awaited second film -- 2005's "Me and You and Everyone We Know" was the first -- premiered tonight, and the title suggests she's got a lot on her mind. It's called "The Future." Before the lights went down, the anticipation in the sold-out 1,200-seat theater was high. 
Miranda July and Hamish Linklater in The Future.jpg
Introducing the film, July sounded nervous. When the closing credits came up, we all understood why. Rather than huge applause, there was awkward silence. It was as though no one knew what to make of what they'd just seen. 

"The Future" is about -- well, "about" is probably the wrong word, since July doesn't really work even that conventionally. She and Hamish Linklater (Julia Louis-Dreyfus's brother on her CBS sitcom) play a shabby-chic Los Angeles couple that agrees to pursue their bliss before the sick cat they've adopted arrives in 30 days. The cat, represented by a pair of gesticulating paws, provides slow, gurgling narration. Time freezes, then shifts. The couple's relationship begins to dissolve. After 40 or so minutes, the only explanation for the couple's forced quirks, lack of social acuity, and glazed-over visages is body snatching -- or garden-varity mental illness. She wants to make a viral dance video. He knocks on doors asking people to plant trees. 

But then something changes -- time stops, really -- and the movie's rigid eccentricity grows wings and becomes almost spiritual in its strangeness. July drops the little-girl act and seems, for the most part, womanly, sharing scenes with the manlier and more carnally direct David Warshofsky. The cat's narration, which July performs, doesn't change, but its otherwordly meaning does. She's haunted by a T-shirt that inches toward her like an enormous yellow worm or a tempting garden snake. Either way, by the time she slips into it, as a body stocking, it doubles as cocoon. Accordingly, this movie feels very much like a transition to some higher artistic place. Watching it, I honestly thought of David Lynch and the animism and erotic metaphysical shapeshifting in the movies of Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul.     

And its sleepy effect on a confused audience is fair. They thought they were getting a comedy as original as July's first movie. But after a while you notice how uncannily she and Linklater resemble each other -- or rather how much he, with his hive of black hair, resembles her -- and that it may not be for naught. Miranda July invited us to watch her break up with herself.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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