Every once in a while, you assemble a day at a film festival in which the films seem to resonate with each other, thematically or because of casting choices or perhaps just the zeitgeist.
I happened to catch three films in a row on Saturday at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival that all dealt with issues of family, particularly the idea of creating a family from people to whom you aren't necessarily related but to whom you feel a connection.
They were all examples of what apparently is now thought of as the old Sundance sensibility -- cast with familiar faces, either with distribution already in place through one of the indy majors (in this case, Sony Classics) or with a school of sales agents and distribution execs scampering for seats at the screenings. This, as opposed to the rebellious, devil-may-care Sundance that throws commercial considerations to the wind and lets the artists follow their inspiration, no matter how unwatchable the result may be. (Hello? Obselidia?)
The films I saw ranged from the uneven HappyThankYouMorePlease, a film written, directed by and starring Josh Radnor of the TV show How I Met Your Mother; to the uncomfortably funny and moving Please Give by the too-long absent Nicole Holofcener; to the touching, understated Welcome to the Rileys, that featured the fascinating acting triad of James Gandolfini, Melissa Leo and Kristen Stewart.
HappyThankYou and Rileys both involve people who either accidentally become guardians to a young person or find themselves compelled to do so. In the case of HappyThankYou, it's Radnor himself, as Sam, a struggling writer in Manhattan, who spots a young child of color on the subway while on his way to an important meeting about his unpublished novel. When the child's apparent mother gets off the subway and the little boy winds up stuck on the train after the doors close, Sam reluctantly assumes responsibility for the youngster.
The best parts of HappyThankYou deal with Sam's alternately unwilling and surprisingly tender stewardship of the lad, along with his blossoming relationship with a waitress and would-be singer named Mississippi, played by the always intriguing young actress Kate Mara. The least interesting portions focus on a relationship between two friends of his, played by Zoe Kazan and Pablo Schreiber. And the least likely plot thread focuses on Malin Ackerman, as Sam's best friend, a woman who suffers from alopecia (loss of all body hair) and is being wooed by a dorky attorney (played with affecting grace and wit by Tony Hale, finally freed from playing goofs). It's a hit-and-miss romantic comedy, a little too eager to please but not without its charms (including an exceptional scene with Hale pitching himself to a doubtful Ackerman).