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Sundance 2012 Day 2: The race goes to the Swift

Posted by Ty Burr  January 20, 2012 09:26 PM

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ethel.jpgDepressing but not surprising news: Taylor Swift means more to the US news media than the Kennedys. In the red carpet tent outside the MARC Theater before the premiere of "Ethel" today, the crush of paparazzi was happy enough to see director Rory Kennedy, her 83-year-old mom, Ethel (Robert F. Kennedy's widow and the subject of the film), and more of their relatives than the mind can easily encompass. (What do you call that many Kennedys in one space? A gaggle? A clutch? A confirmation?) Robert Redford popped up to shake Ethel's hand and the camera crews got busier. Then Swift entered the staging area, and the place went nuts. Turns out that the pop star and Ethel Kennedy are BFFs -- seriously, they sat together at the screening and giggled like schoolgirls -- which is a weird but rather enchanting mash-up of American pop icons and eras. Still, the press knew what side their editors' bread is buttered on. "I care about the Kennedys," said the reporter for Us Weekly crammed next to me. "But I work for people who don't."

Swift knows how to work the media -- she posed, doll-like, for the battery of cameras but seemed human and pleasant enough when I asked her a few questions about Ethel before the lights went down. (My piece on the film runs in tomorrow's paper). Ethel, for her part, has little patience for the public glare, and she only made the movie because her daughter asked her to. Luckily, her daughter's a decent filmmaker, and "Ethel" turns out to be surprisingly moving. (It airs on HBO later this year.)

Rory had access to an astonishing trove of home movies and other archival material, and most of her siblings pitch in with anecdotes that are funny and warm -- there's a real family vibe to the film that manages to make this oft-told story seem fresh, mostly because it's seen from inside the circus. And Ethel's a piece of work for a nice Catholic girl from Greenwich. She's the kind of mom who takes her kids to watch the sharpshooters at FBI headquarters for entertainment, then drops rude notes to J. Edgar Hoover in the suggestion box. When asked by a member of the Sundance audience after the screening if she learned anything new during the filming, Rory deadpanned, "I didn't know my mother bet on horses in college."

In an odd way, "Ethel" makes an interesting companion piece to "The Queen of Versailles," the documentary that opened the festival last night. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, whose "THIN" made a splash several Sundances back, the film follows the ups and downs of David and Jackie Siegel as they try to build the largest residential home in America before the recession comes along to bite them on the ass. David has made his billions by founding Westgate Resorts, the world's leading time-share vacation home company -- he's essentially the lending crisis in miniature -- and when the film opens the Siegels are living a life of pornographic opulence. Jackie's a trophy wife with seven children, countless lapdogs who never seem to get taken for a walk, and a life of such consumer excess that it would turn Glenn Beck communist.

In short, they're a grotesque parody version of the Kennedy clan, down to the scrum of kids and pets. Where Ethel taught her children that other people exist and that participating in the world is a duty and a gift, the Siegels are self-involved to the point of tragicomedy. When the crunch comes and Westgate starts tilting toward bankruptcy, Jackie has to rein in her spending; the scene where she rents a car at the airport and asks where the driver is makes for uproarious parvenu comedy. But Jackie's also an unexpectedly moving stand-in for the American consumer at his or her most psychologically desperate. If she couldn't buy things, you sense she'd cease to exist.

The one problem with "The Queen of Versailles" is that it ends before the story does. David and his lifestyle are on the way down, but we never learn where the bottom is, and the movie unfortunately leaves us hanging. This is a built-in problem for documentary filmmakers who put years into following their subjects but have to call "cut" sooner or later. I wanted more of the Siegels, even as I found them painful to watch.

All Sundance movies are sold to festivalgoers as perfection in the rough, and almost all of them have flaws that keep them from achieving that perfection. Which is life and which is to be expected. Parts of Todd Louiso's "Hello I Must Be Going" made me happier than I have a right to be, especially the early scenes in which Melanie Lynskey burrows into the misery of her character, Amy Minsky, a 30-something divorcee who has crawled back home to her parents' suburban home in defeat.

Lynskey usually plays character parts (she was the bad mom in "Win Win"), but she can blossom like a neurotic rose when she gets a lead. The actress finds a cosmic nobility in Amy's degradation, even as her parents -- John Rubenstein and a superb Blythe Danner -- look on in growing horror. There's a touch of "Harold and Maude" whimsy to the character's romance with a disaffected 19-year-old (Christopher Abbott), but their relationship is hotter and funnier and more emotional than you expect. They're the only living boy and girl in Westport, CT, at least until Danner rears her head in fury toward the end of the film.

I liked this movie so much, in fact, that I tried to ignore screenwriter Sarah Koskoff's increasing tendency to have her characters state their innermost feelings in psychologically accurate terms. There's a reason it's called subtext: you slip it in under the text. The more sincere "Hello I Must Be Going" gets, the more boilerplate it becomes, until all you can hold on to is the star's glorious mixed-up confusion. (Lynskey's so good, in fact, that I forgot she was from New Zealand until the post-screening Q&A.) Points for the Marx brothers clips, though, and Abbott has a future. So would Lynskey, if Hollywood were paying attention.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.

Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.

Katie McLeod is's features editor.

Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at

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