I’m surprised and encouraged that this year’s festival has introduced me to four wonderful, low-key, character-driven dramas. They say this isn’t good for business—these aren’t the kinds of movies that will gross millions—so even under the pressure of the writers strike, distributors have been understandably sluggish to acquire anything at this year’s festival.
And yet I couldn’t be happier to report how great Sugar, Momma’s Man, The Visitor, and Ballast are, each in its own way, each willing to confront head-on the difficulties faced by its characters while still believing in their ability to prevail.
Sugar, probably my most anticipated film of the festival, follows a promising baseball pitcher named Miguel—nicknamed Sugar—from his home in the Dominican Republic through a series of minor league teams in the US. This isn’t The Natural but rather a naturalistic view of the underside of professional baseball, where young men are chasing the American dream in its most iconic form, facing culture shock and loneliness in the process. I don’t remember seeing this aspect of the game before, and the peek behind the curtain is fascinating, but Sugar is, more than anything else, a character study of a particular young man, not an indictment of the system, and as you might expect from the writers and directors of Half Nelson, the film is far more interested in the details of Miguel’s life than in a dramatic arc. Whether the end is a frustrating side-step or a personal triumph depends on whether you’ve taken the many opportunities for understanding Miguel that Boden and Fleck offer. I found it sublime.
The most directly personal of these four tender dramas is Momma’s Man, the third feature by Azazel Jacobs. It’s about a thirty-something man named Mikey who visits his parents in New York while his wife and infant stay home in California. When it’s time for his visit to end, he doesn’t leave. He spends days trying to reconnect with old high school friends, rummaging around in his old room, and assuring his parents that he’ll be leaving soon, without ever buying that plane ticket.
The story may be fiction, but many of the elements are from Jacobs’ life. He cast his own parents, the soft-spoken Flo and Ken Jacobs, and shot the film in their amazing, cluttered, loft-like New York apartment, which was also Jacobs’ childhood home. Ken Jacobs, of course, is a legendary avant-garde filmmaker, and his work appears several times in Momma’s Man. He’s playing someone much like himself.
When Mikey is going through his old things, he finds old song lyrics, a notebook adorned with Garbage Pail Kids, and a Rubik’s Snake, but unlike the 90’s references in The Wackness, which are solely for the audience’s benefit, these are long-lost elements of the character’s childhood, as meaningful to him as they are familiar to some viewers.
I vividly remember the last scene of each of these films. It’s not a crescendo, not a closing door, but a simple, elegant flourish showing where the characters have been and where they’re headed, placed there by storytellers who truly believe in the people on the screen.
It was clear from the beginning that the makers of Half Nelson, The Station Agent, and the little-seen Nobody Needs to Know were talented, and it’s a tremendous thrill to watch these directors grow into confident, thoughtful artists. I made time to meet with each of these filmmakers briefly to ask them about their work, and I discovered that Jacobs was inspired by watching Half Nelson at Sundance two years ago; that both Hammer and McCarthy are deeply inspired by the Dardennes; that McCarthy, Fleck, and Boden are more committed to placing their characters into a social context than making political films; and that all of them are bursting with ideas for future projects.
And I can’t wait to see them.