Film festival programmers rarely create festivals full of films built around a single theme, though journalists are always imputing that sort of premeditation to a festival.
Certainly, the 2011 Sundance Film Festival -- aside from celebrating work from outside the mainstream by new artists -- has no particular theme to it. And yet, quite unintentionally, I spent Friday seeing five films in a row that dealt, in one way or another, with the idea of abandonment, reunion and reconciliation.
The best of these were Denis Villeneuve's Incendies and Tom McCarthy's Win Win, with Jim Kohlberg's The Music Never Stopped and Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene not far behind.
Incendies has the weight of Greek tragedy and the white-knuckle twists of a great thriller. Based on a play, the film is about a pair of adult twins, Jeanne and Simon, raised in Montreal but of Middle Eastern extraction, who discover that their mother's will contains two startling revelations. The father they thought was dead is, in fact, still alive - and they have a brother they never knew. The will instructs them to find both and deliver letters from the dead woman.
As the daughter -- and then the son -- travel to the Middle East to unravel the mystery, Villeneuve tells the parallel story in flashback: of Nawal, their mother, forced to give up a baby born out of wedlock, who searches for the child even as her country disintegrates into civil war between Christians and Palestinians. (The country is never identified, though I was guessing Lebanon.)
The mother is played by Lubna Azabal with hard-eyed ferocity (she was also the best thing about the drearily arty HERE, my fifth film of the day). The story is both epic and intimate, sprawling and intensely personal, as Villeneuve circles his surprising climax before revealing it with almost unbearable power and feeling.
By contrast, McCarthy's Win Win is touchingly funny, featuring the most likably normal character Paul Giamatti has ever played -- and pairing him with the delightfully edgy Amy Ryan and the hilariously exuberant Bobby Cannavale.
Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a small-time New Jersey lawyer whose practice isn't exactly thriving and whose part-time job involves coaching the local high school wrestling team. Worried about money, he does what might be the first unethical thing in his life, involving the guardianship of one of his elderly clients, Leo (Burt Young), whose only daughter has been estranged for more than 20 years.
She's so estranged that, when Leo's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up on Leo's doorstep, Leo has never met him. And he's in no condition to take care of Kyle -- so it falls to Mike and his wife Jackie (Ryan) to take him in, if temporarily. Then Mike discovers that Kyle is, in fact, a superb wrestler. So he enrolls him in the high school and puts him on the team. Everybody wins -- until Leo's estranged daughter shows up, fresh out of rehab.
McCarthy's world of moral dilemmas and good deeds is fascinatingly real, with people doing the wrong thing and then finding the right reason. More to the point, he's got the always amazing Giamatti as a guy whose one step over the line blows back on hin in both funny and unnerving ways. The film offers wonderfully complex and lively performances by Giamatti, Ryan and newcomer Shaffer (who has a delicious deadpan affect) and a bold comic turn by Cannavale as Giamatti's upbeat buddy. It's one of the true delights of the festival.