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best of the fest

The Obama Sundance: The Buzz So Far

500 Days of Summer, oh la la.

Is it the weirdly warm weather? The Obama effect? Or are all those filmmakers scrambling to film the next Little Miss Juno? Past opening weekends have pushed festivalgoers through a gauntlet of tragedies (abortion, rape, abuse, deportation), but this weekend, optimistic, humanist stories bloomed like daisies — and romances snagged big cash deals. Hope is in the air.

The significant early deals have almost all been romances and comedies. 500 Days of Summer, picked up by Fox Searchlight pre-festival, is a postmodern bag of tricks, a time-skipping romance with Zooey Deschanel (yes, she sings) and Joseph Gordon Leavitt (terrific without his typical tics and twitches). Black Dynamite, a shamelessly goofy blaxploitation spoof, was the first major deal of the fest. Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, picked up by Magnolia, stretches a ludicrous premise — two “straight dudes” decide they’re going to have sex with each other on camera — into a hysterically poignant meditation on finding meaning in your thirties (honestly, Revolutionary Road has nothing on this). This morning, Fox Searchlight announced that they’d picked up Adam, another quirky boy-meets-girl romance, and last night Greg Mottola’s eighties carnie romance, Adventureland, starring Jesse Eisenberg, lit up the Eccles. Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor traipsed over the screen as gay lovers in I Love You, Phillip Morris — and more people laughed than were offended.

It’s not that there aren’t issue films here — of course there are — but the noisiest ones of this festival have almost all been uppers: Call Don’t Let Me Drown a gritty, realistic drama about Latino kids in New York if you want, but it’s as romantic as it is utterly authentic — these kids live and breathe like the mixed-up decent kids you know. The openhearted Amreeka, about an Arabic family struggling in the Midwest, is the tonal, uplifting opposite of Alan Ball’s bitter, condescending Towelhead. Even the war in Iraq was replayed as a sitcom in the well-reviewed In the Loop — a film that’s more Seinfeld than Dr. Strangelove (to its detriment, actually).

In an unusually strong festival, we’ve even had our one star-is-born moment: the startling performance of Brit newcomer Carey Mulligan as a 16-year-old girl seduced by Peter Sarsgaard in An Education. In a festival overstuffed with hope, her performance has critics hoping for much, much more.

Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight