One thing you do not see very much at the Sundance Film Festival — sitting in the theaters, hauling up on ski lifts or dipping into the shops and parties in Park City — are children. Given that this is primarily a festival of American indie cinema hosted in a resort town, this is hardly surprising, although Sundance does offer a special “Kids” program consisting of a grand total of three films. One place you do see them in abundance, however, is in the movies: the lives of children are all over the Festival’s programming slate.
Princess, an Israeli film directed by Tali Shalom Ezer, follows Adar (Shira Hass), a precocious 12-year-old whose eccentrically lax mother, Alma (Keren Mor), along with her unemployed boyfriend, Michael (Ori Pfeffer), allow her largely to dictate her own life with precious little input from either of them — at least, this is how the film starts. On a visit to Adar’s school for the gifted, where she has repeatedly failed or not bothered attending, Alma listens to her teacher’s lament, then seems not in the least bit concerned on their ride back home. Alma and Michael share a sensuous relationship, constantly grabbing and deep-kissing one another as if Adar wasn’t in the room, just several feet away from them. In their small apartment, their bedrooms separated only by a thin wall, they have enthusiastically loud sex with Adar covers her ears to block out their moaning.
The situation turns seriously peculiar when Adar brings home Alan (Adar Zohar-Hanetz), a sweet-faced homeless boy who looks (and dresses) a great deal like Adar herself. Michael, ever playful (one of his games with Adar is to refer to her as “Prince” or “boy”), takes an immense shine to Alan, who is open-faced and devouring all the attention he’s getting. Michael becomes increasingly aggressive with his devotion, stroking both Alan and Adar with his hands and becoming more and more inappropriate, building to a terrible scene where he visits Adar in her room at night and forces himself upon her. Alan, meanwhile, seems to come and go from Adar’s bedroom like a phantom.
The film strongly suggests that Alan is some kind of Adar surrogate, the boy Michael keeps insisting she is, someone who might take offense on her behalf. With her mother seemingly helpless to stop Michael, or even care much about what he’s doing, Adar is forced to take action on her own behalf. You can see her sense of empowerment build on her immaculate little face, but you also see it comes at a terrible price.
Children are the focus of the documentary The Wolfpack, which has made big waves at the Festival. It’s about a group of six cloistered brothers and one younger sister living in the Lower East Side of New York. Their father denies them the chance to interact with the outside world: they stay inside and obsessively watch movies — Tarantino is a favorite — and painstakingly recreate their most beloved scenes complete with props and handwritten scripts. If ever a movie were to appeal to a group of film critics, filmmakers, buyers, and festival programmers, you’d think this would be the one.
Film: The Wolfpack
Director: Crystal Moselle
Cast: Bhagavan Angulo, Govinda Angulo, Jagadisa Angulo, Krsna Angulo, Mukunda Angulo, Narayana Angulo
Studio: Kotva Films
US Release Date: 2015-01-25 (Sundance Film Festival)
And, lo that has largely come to pass. We see home video footage of the boys as younger children with long hair and rumpled charm, running in and out of rooms, getting ready to play in their makeshift band or, more often, planning and performing their cinematic reenactments with adorable handmade props culled from painted cereal boxes and cut-up yoga mats. (It is of note that their younger sister is largely left out of these images.) Sadly, we don’t get to see terribly much of the fruit of their labors, save for a glorious handful of scenes of The Dark Knight and their recreation of Pulp Fiction, replete with a spot-on Travolta imitation. In those scenes, it’s clear they mean to recreate the films down to the smallest detail (another brother’s Samuel L. Jackson is not quite to that same standard, but gamely attempted). You can imagine them studying these scenes over and over again, staring into a mirror to rehearse the dialogue until they’ve reduced each line to a short, intricate series of memorized gestures and vocal intonations. It’s precisely the kind of thing you can do when you’re left to your own devices for hours on end.
The boys are all home-schooled by their accredited mother, whose presence in the film serves as something of window into their father’s half-crazed soul. He keeps largely off screen until right at the end, which leaves many pressing questions unanswered. We can, however, gather from the mother’s helplessly sheepish expressions when she discusses his bizarre methodologies that she might have thought better of the whole thing but was too afraid to challenge him. Indeed, in an odd scene near the end, she picks up the phone and calls her mother after a 50-year silence, a decision that apparently displeases her husband.
But by that time, with the boys finally venturing outside and beginning to carve out lives for themselves, it’s clear that their father has lost much of his maniacal hold on them. The documentary doesn’t much delve into the boys’ post-seclusion lives, or differentiate among them. But first-time director Crystal Moselle maintains your interest and a point appears to emerge near the end. As it happens, the same note of hope can be found in both films: a child’s resilience might thwart even the most determined of boogie men.