On the first Saturday of the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, I rolled out of bed and hustled up Main Street for the 8:30 a.m. screening of Tamara Jenkins's The Savages, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as adult siblings caring for an irascible elderly parent. Only, I went to the wrong theater by mistake and instead found myself at a screening of writer-director John Carney's Once, a low-budget Irish drama selected for Sundance's international competition and starring nobody you've likely ever heard of. It's a mistake I'm glad I made. That's not to say anything against Jenkins's film, which has been generally well received here; but The Savages is due in theaters soon from Fox Searchlight and, like so many of the movies people beg, borrow, and steal to get tickets for here in Park City, will be easy enough to see after the festival is over. Once, on the other hand, will be lucky to get a release at all, even though it certainly deserves one. It's the sort of completely un-hyped, unheralded little gem you go to a festival like Sundance hoping to find and, every once in a while, do.
I don't want to overstate the case for Once it is, after all, a very small story about a Dublin street musician (Glen Hansard, of the band the Frames) who meets up with a Czech immigrant pianist (Marketa Irglova) and discovers that they make beautiful music together. But I liked this movie right from the opening scene of Hansard standing on a corner strumming a beat-up old guitar and belting out an inspired version of Van Morrison's "And the Healing Has Begun." And I especially liked how the characters are allowed to have untidy personal lives he's still hung up on an ex-girlfriend in London, she has an estranged husband and a young daughter to boot so that, in spite of their mutual attraction, they hesitate to get too deeply involved. But Once is at its best when it bursts into song, which is, fortuitously, most of the time. Whether Hansard and Irglova (who co-wrote all of the music in the film) are improvising a duet in a music shop or heading into the recording studio with an entire busker band, the songs they create are groovy and soulful and stick in your head for days afterwards. Little wonder that, at the film's post-screening Q&A, there were multiple requests for a soundtrack album, before the two stars caved to audience requests for an encore and led the sold-out Egyptian Theatre crowd in an a cappella rendition of Daniel Johnston's "Devil Town."
Hansard and Irglova should count themselves lucky that Dublin falls outside the territory canvassed by the huckster music-industry executives of Craig Zobel's disarming debut feature, Great World of Sound. The title is the name of a fly-by-night Charlotte record label and the movie follows two of its "producers" white, soft-spoken Martin (Pat Healy) and black, gregarious Clarence (Kene Holliday) as they set out across America to sign new acts, preying on the hopes and dreams of nave, small-town folks with glimmers of stardust in their eyes. Talent is negotiable: If you can pony up the cash for the recording session, you're in, even if the album you cut may not be worth the vinyl it's printed on. Great World of Sound is screening in Sundance's noncompetitive American Spectrum sidebar, which is often perceived as a refuge for also-ran titles that failed to make the competition cut. But like Mean Creek and The Puffy Chair (among others) before it, Zobel's smartly scripted, terrifically well-acted movie is a reminder that there are still discoveries to be made here.
The dramatic competition proper has yet to produce a consensus front-runner, but my own personal favorite thus far is Starting Out in the Evening, the sophomore feature by director Andrew Wagner, who was in Sundance two years ago with The Talent Given Us, an oddball, semi-improvisational road movie starring members of Wagner's own family as themselves. I was a fan of that film, but wondered if Wagner could bring the same intimacy to bear on a conventionally scripted drama starring professional actors. As it turns out, he has, and the result is an unhurried, beautifully observed tale of aging, regret, and second chances built around superb performances by Frank Langella (as an out-of-print novelist), Lauren Ambrose (as the impetuous grad student writing her thesis about his work), and Lili Taylor (as Langella's still-unmarried-at-40 daughter).
There is much more to come, of course, but already in its first few days, Sundance 2007 has given audiences a few things worth singing about.