The Moviegoer

The Purgatory Prize

''Old Joy'' may be making a little noise on the festival circuit, but is it too quiet to land a distribution deal?

Old Joy stars Daniel London (top) and Will Oldham
Old Joy stars Daniel London (top) and Will Oldham

Here's a great movie you may never get to see

Last week at the Sarasota Film Festival, serving on the jury for the festival's 2006 Narrative Feature Competition Award, I had the pleasure of presenting the prize certificate (and, better yet, the prize check) to filmmaker Kelly Reichardt for her stark and shimmering indie drama Old Joy. It so happens I had seen Old Joy in January at Sundance, where it was buried away from buzz and opportunity in the experimental ''Frontier'' section. And I had returned to New York telling everyone I knew about this quiet, spare, wise study of friendship between two men (late 20s? early 30s?), old friends who spend a weekend camping and and hiking in Oregon's Cascade Mountains. But my fellow jurors hadn't seen it, and I was happy to watch the movie again.

They were as beguiled as I was. Nothing much happens in Old Joy, no sexual cataclysm, no catastrophe — it's not Brokeback Mountain and it's not Gerry. There's talk and silence, a time when the two guys are lost and a time when they're on the right trail together. Sometimes all we hear is the natter of talk radio filling a car. But in the little moments (each of which matter, even the shot of a bird on a branch or a dog with a stick in her mouth), the movie is rich with story, and emotion, and visual elegance — a gift for grown-ups, from a filmmaker with a clear sense of just the right way to say just exactly what she wants to say.

I can't imagine Old Joy won't beguile moviegoers in film festivals around the world. But unless you can get to one of those rarefied settings, there is, for the moment, no way to see it, since as of this writing the movie has no distributor outside of the Netherlands. (As an element of a prize it won in February at the Rotterdam Film Festival, it's guaranteed broadcast on Dutch public television.) And while the pragmatist in me can understand the reasons why the picture languishes in the capitalist world (the actors are unknown and unstarry, the plot is based on a short story by Jonathan Raymond that defies the geometry of ''beats,'' and the running time is less than 80 minutes, which satisfies neither TV nor theatrical conventions), the idealist in me wants to walk up and down the streets of Park City, Utah, with a sandwich board that reads ''Repent!''

There's got to be a way to nurture Old Joys between ''gambles'' taken on March of the Penguins and Napoleon Dynamite or else...well, or else the mediocrity terrorists win.

I'd never claim that our little jury of three in the Sarasota sunshine did the work of superheroes. But I am indeed proud that we were able to shine new attention on Old Joy. Maybe, if the picture ever goes to DVD release and a life on Netflix, my jurors and I can take to the streets waving a banner that says, ''Rent!''

Originally posted Apr 13, 2006