Pop Culture

'Primer' surprise grand winner at Sundance

A film with a budget “about the price of a used car,” according to its director, has stunned the independent film world by winning the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday.

For the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, writer-helmer Shane Carruth’s “Primer” beat out several films that had carved mountain-high profiles during the previous week -- including Zach Braff’s “Garden State,” Nicole Kassell’s “The Woodsman” and John Curran’s “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” all of which star major talent and found homes with indie distributors.

“Primer” -- the story of four men who invent, partly by accident, a mechanism with the power to give them nearly anything they could want -- also stars Carruth, who wrote the screenplay. The film also picked up the Alfred P. Sloan Prize, which carries a $20,000 cash award and celebrates indie films incorporating themes of science and technology, during a ceremony at Park City Racquet Club.

Carruth was nearly speechless at his own upset, thanking “the cast, who was also the crew.” He remembered when the project “wasn’t a Sundance film but was a bunch of guys moving furniture” at his parents’ home, which he used as a location.

In a less-surprising development, HBO Films continued its roll at Sundance -- where, last year, its “American Splendor” captured the Grand Jury Prize -- by claiming audience awards in the dramatic and documentary categories.

“We Don’t Live Here” -- a literary adaptation that stars Naomi Watts, Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern and Peter Krause -- won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for Larry Gross. The film was picked up during the fest by Warner Independent Pictures, the banner’s first acquisition.

The Documentary Grand Jury Prize also was a bit of a surprise, going to Ondi Timmoner’s “Dig!” The film follows the very different paths of two 1990s alt-rock acts -- the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre -- with one heading to success and the other to obscurity. “Dig!” was pitted against several politically charged works, including Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski’s “Born Into Brothels,” an HBO project that won the documentary audience award and follows life in the red-light district of Calcutta, India.

“Dig!” had buyers circling throughout the festival and announced a deal hours before winning its prize. Appropriately, music impresario Chris Blackwell’s Palm Pictures will distribute the film theatrically and on home video/DVD; Sundance Channel is taking pay TV rights. The film will roll out through Palm in the fall.

The audience prize for dramatic film went to “Maria Full of Grace,” another HBO Films project (in association with Tucan Producciones Altercine). Written and directed by Joshua Marston, the movie follows a desperate 17-year-old girl who takes a job as a “mule,” smuggling drugs into the United States to pay for her mother’s and sister’s bills.

Marston said “Maria’s” win proves that foreign-language movies can cross over to American audiences. Fine Line Features and HBO Films agree, and are teaming to release the movie.

The dramatic directing award went to Debra Granik for “Down to the Bone,” which follows a working-class housewife with two young boys who is struggling with drug addiction. The film’s lead, Vera Farmiga, won a Special Jury Prize for acting.

Morgan Spurlock took the documentary directing award for “Super Size Me,” for which the helmer decided he would eat solely at McDonald’s, three meals a day for 30 days, to see what happened -- with harrowing results. “Super Size” became one of the fest’s most talked-about documentaries and served as grist for the Main Street rumor mill, with indie insiders wondering if the fast-food restaurant chain might keep the unflattering movie from opening theatrically.

But during his acceptance speech, Spurlock assured the audience that a theatrical deal was in the works and that the film’s TV rights had been sold to A&E.

“I don’t know about you guys, but I’m lovin’ it,” Spurlock quipped, mocking the McDonald’s tag line. “We came here with such medium-sized expectations.”

In the World Cinema sections, Canada stole the show. The dramatic prize went to “Seducing Doctor Lewis,” director Jean-Francois Pouliot’s story of a Montreal doctor who is asked to relocate to a dreary fishing village to save its economy inadvertently.

The World Cinema documentary winner was “The Corporation,” from co-helmers Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott. Based on a book by Joel Bakan, the Canadian film traces the evolution of corporations from publicly regulated institutions to their present social predominance.

“Corporation’s” award stirred controversy when Achbar cracked from the stage, “I am obligated to thank the corporate sponsors of the festival, and I thank them particularly for their subtlety,” referring to the ubiquitous branding that has claimed Sundance.

One of the evening’s subsequent presenters, John Cameron Mitchell, offered a rebuttal, commenting that “we’re a country that does not have government-sponsored art anymore, so we all turned to the corporations.” He added that there are good people unwillingly “trapped inside corporations, as we are all trapped inside this current government,” a comment that drew loud applause.

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