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Sundance 2012, Day 7: Let's make a deal

Posted by Ty Burr  January 25, 2012 02:53 PM

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surrogate.jpgThe business side of Sundance has shuddered into life the last few days and deals are finally getting done, even as the festival starts winding down. HBO bought "Me @ the ZOO," a documentary about Internet madman Chris "Leave Britney Alone!" Crocker. Focus picked up "For a Good Time, Call...," a comedy about two roommates (Ari Graynor and Lauren Anne Miller) who start a phone sex business; audience response was positive if not over the moon. Sony Pictures Classics bought distribution rights to divorce rom-com "Celeste and Jesse Forever" and disappearing-60's-rocker documentary "Searching for Sugar Man," both well-received, while the new LD Distribution snagged midnight mumblecore horror movie (you heard me) "Black Rock."

Even Stephen Frears' "Lay the Favorite," widely pegged on shuttle buses and in ticket lines as the single worst film of the festival, looks like it will be picked up by Weinstein, a company not given to turning up its nose at any movie with Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones, no matter how miscalculated. If there's a mid-fest winner, though, it's probably Fox Searchlight, which not only grabbed rights to the year's one genuine buzz movie, "Beasts of the Southern Wild," but also bought crowd favorite "The Surrogate" (photo above), starring John Hawkes as a man in an iron lung looking to lose his virginity to a sex surrogate played by Helen Hunt.

The amount Fox Searchlight paid for "Beasts" wasn't immediately disclosed, but I hope it wasn't too much: This fiercely original fable will be a tough sell even on the specialty circuit. (Although you could easily push it as "Whale Rider" with a side of po-boys and peyote.) "The Surrogate" went for $6 million, the festival's biggest sale to date, and my hunch is that it's a smart deal. Released at the right time and properly promoted, it could be one of those small films that ends up with critical plaudits and awards bling. Remember "Winter's Bone"? That netted Hawkes an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. "The Surrogate" could conceivably get him nominated for best actor.

The performance falls into a category awards voters love: the severely disabled hero trapped in a body he can't control and struggling to live a full life in spite of it. "My Left Foot" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" are the obvious forebears, but "Surrogate" is uncalculated and free of obvious influences. Based on the life of San Franciscan Mark O'Brien, it's unimaginatively shot (Ben Lewin wrote and directed), hits the expected smart, sentimental notes, and is just about bulletproof; I can already see the full house at the Coolidge weeping happy art-house tears. Hawkes, who has made his bones playing violent hillbillies and creepy cult leaders, gets a welcome change of pace as an intelligent, soulful nice guy -- Mark's a poet, and a good one -- and on top of that he spends the entire movie sideways.

But you pull for the guy as he pursues his goal -- Mark wants to have sex, yes, but more than that he aches for human contact -- and you feel for the secondary characters as they interact with a good man who knows he's "approaching his use-by date." As the surrogate Mark hires, Helen Hunt gives a physically brave performance (I can't imagine too many other actresses in their late 40s who'd not only go the Full Monty but be willing to tackle such sexually intimate scenes), but it's an emotionally tricky part as well. The character's a professional forced to confront her personal feelings, and Hunt underplays to moving effect. Add in William Macy as a Catholic priest dealing with issues Pat O'Brien never faced, and you have a bona fide audience pleaser.

Among other things, this Sundance is turning into a showcase for character actors who are finally being allowed to show what they can do in lead roles. There's Hawkes in "Surrogate," Melanie Lynskey in "Hello I Must Be Going," and there's also the dour beauty Aubrey Plaza (of TV's "Parks and Recreation") in "Safety Not Guaranteed," playing a Seattle magazine intern getting to the bottom of a classified ad asking for time travel volunteers. (Based on a true story, and loosely, I hope.) All-purpose indie guy Mark Duplass plays the possible lunatic who placed the ad, and Jake Johnson ("The New Girl") is Plaza's sleazy boss; the movie is small and shaggy and thoroughly enjoyable if your expectations are correctly tweaked.

And Plaza is easily the most charming thing in it. As her character's slacker cynicism melts away under the spell of Duplass's craziness, the actress loosens up -- smiles, even! -- and her persona and potential blossom as you watch. I was reminded of Winona Ryder in her earliest roles, a young actress wary of giving anything away and astonished to find herself doing so.

Some quick hits: I was underwhelmed by "WRONG," the daft, precious second film by Quentin Depieux of the killer-tire horror comedy "Rubber." It's not a genre parody but a surrealist midnight movie (which is when I saw it) about a man searching for his missing dog and meeting various weirdos on the way. It plays like Bunuel without the underlying rage or David Lynch without the existential dread -- which is to say there's not very much to it at all beyond lightweight Dada yuks. That was enough for some of the audience; I may not have been adequately prepared, if you catch my drift.

"LUV" and "Filly Brown" are two promising first films about African-American characters who get derailed by cliched writing and plotting; both make me want to see what their filmmakers do next. "LUV," directed by Sheldon Candis, gives rapper Common a solid lead role as an elegant Philadelphia gangster giving his young nephew (Michael Rainey Jr.) a tour of the thug life; Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, and Dennis Haysbert do what they can with their formula roles. "Filly Brown" is an Olmos family project -- Edward James Olmos co-produced and has a supporting role, his son Michael D. co-directed with Youssef Delara -- about an LA female rapper (Gina Rodriguez) rising, falling, and rising while trying to keep it real. Rodriguez is very good and it's nice to see Lou Diamond Phillips (playing her dad) again, but you've seen this story many times before. Still, nice to meet you guys, glad you're here, and hope to see you again.

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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 Boston.com's features editor.

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

Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.

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