Imagine, for a moment, a charming and adorable young actress, like Kirsten Dunst or Natalie Portman. Now imagine that she's been blessed with the ravaged fearlessness of a junior Liv Ullmann, the kind that gives you goose bumps on your goose bumps.
You have just imagined Evan Rachel Wood's performance in Thirteen, one of those rare, indelible movies at the Sundance Film Festival in which the audience feels the excitement of a star being born, and a star filmmaker along with it. The director, Catherine Hardwicke, works with such flair and fury that it's as if the camera were jutting right out of her heart. Wood, star of TV's Once and Again, brings a radiant fire to the role of Tracy, a Venice, Calif., cutie on the cusp of adolescence who is drawn into the self-destructive orbit of the reigning bitch goddess in junior high. The drugs, the piercings, the drift toward anorexia, the shoplifting for baby-porno outfits -- it's all part of a continuum of growing up too fast that is now the official decree of capitalist delinquent cool. Yet none of this is quite as shocking as the way that Tracy snuffs her own humanity -- her sweetness -- as an act of revolt. Holly Hunter, as the loving mom who helplessly watches her daughter's descent, seems to stand in for an adult generation that may feel as if there's no competing against the siren song of pop-cultural excess. Thirteen could turn out to be the kind of youth-movie explosion that galvanizes teens and terrifies their parents.
The movie incarnated the talent surge that defined Sundance this year, with a new wave of filmmakers standing wild and visionary and tall. Take, for instance, Capturing the Friedmans, Andrew Jarecki's extraordinary documentary about the dark secrets of one mild, quibbling Jewish family in Great Neck, Long Island. It unveils the tale of a mousy, bespectacled father who kept a hidden stash of child porn, and who, in 1987, was arrested along with his son for the crime of molesting boy students in his basement computer class. In fact, the two may have molested no one; the film generates singular true-life suspense as it presents what looks to be an insidious case of communal sexual hysteria. The Friedmans were neurotically relentless camcorder junkies, and Jarecki pieces their most anguished interactions into a terrifying portrait of a family as it comes apart at the seams from the inside and the outside.
The desire to tickle taboos remains a quintessential Sundance mode, and Party Monster, a camp tabloid nightmare set in the New York club-kid demimonde of the late '80s and early '90s, may be the closest the movies have come to capturing the poison Day-Glo flamboyance of the gay glam underground, a scene as riveting in its hatred as the outer reaches of punk. Macaulay Culkin, as the hustling ringleader Michael Alig, and Seth Green, as his fabulous mentor James St. James, turn stunt casting into a heroic act of slumming, and the movie, which codirectors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato spun out of their 1996 documentary, is a stagy yet gripping look at the scandalous lost stepchildren of Warhol, Divine, and Halloween.
On a milder note, The Station Agent, a sweet and funny wafer of a movie, is held together by Peter Dinklage's revelatory performance as a lonely dwarf whose deadpan manner is his way of refusing to be held up as ''different,'' even if that means keeping the world at bay. He inherits an abandoned train depot and begins, despite himself, to make friends -- notably Patricia Clarkson as a local painter caught in a howl of rage.
Oliver Stone went to Cuba and spent 30 hours conversing with Fidel Castro to assemble Comandante, a convulsive one-on-one vision of power. Stone's camera circles and jabs as if stalking a caged animal. He prods Castro, the wiliest of charmers, into offering up revealing tidbits about the Cuban Missile Crisis and Che Guevara, yet the bearded one remains impervious to the issue we most want to see him confront: How does he rationalize away all the Cubans he has silenced? That a freedom fighter as committed as Stone barely raises the question suggests that his identification with Castro's I'm-still-standing charisma may have trumped his political savvy.
A number of other documentaries were triumphs of straightforward portraiture. In Born Rich, director Jamie Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, showcases himself and 10 wealthy New York friends in an arresting study of youth, privilege, and the anxieties that go with it. Lauren Lazin's Tupac: Resurrection assembles a treasure trove of interviews and video footage into a hypnotic vision of the murdered rap star Tupac Shakur as a soul divided against himself. And A Decade Under the Influence, codirected by Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme, captures the American film renaissance of the '70s in all its enduring fascination and glory.
It is often said that the documentaries are the best films at Sundance; this year, the best movies were dramas that were also documents. That's true of Thirteen and Party Monster, and it's also true of the finest film I saw at the festival, American Splendor. A cross between Crumb and Ghost World set in the lower depths of Cleveland, it's a magnificent, moving fable that interweaves comic books and actors, real life and reel life to present the blue-collar lug Harvey Pekar in all his transcendent gloom and grime and longing. Brilliantly played by Paul Giamatti as a sad, scowling turtle of a man, Pekar is a loser who rescues himself through art, leaving one ecstatic at the possibilities of life, and of movies.