Sundance ’09: Mo’Nique wins

Matt Busekroos

Mo’Nique, star of the late UPN television series, “The Parkers” and films like “Phat Girlz,” earned raves for her performance in Lee Daniels’ “Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “Push” was the most winning film of the fest, which ran Jan. 15 to Jan. 25.

The film won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, while star Mo’Nique won a special prize for acting. Mo’Nique stars as an over-bearing mother who constrains her high school-aged daughter (Gabourey Sidibe) both emotionally and physically. Precious (Sidibe) is pregnant for the second time with her father’s child and is teased at school for being overweight and lacking the ability to read or write. Supporting performances from Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd and Lenny Kravtiz also won raves at the fest.

“This is so important to me,” Daniels said as he accepted the audience prize. “Because this is speaking for every minority that’s in Harlem, that’s in Detroit, that’s in Watts, that’s being abused, that can’t read, that’s obese and that we turn our back on. And this is for every gay little boy and girl that’s being tortured.”

The Sundance Film Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary this year and was home to approximately 120 full-length dramatic and documentary features along with 60 to 80 shorts. Sundance is one stop for many indie features hoping to receive attention from large studios and distributors for eventual release into movie theaters.

Newcomer Carey Mulligan had two films at Sundance and became the breakout star at this year’s fest for her performances in “The Greatest” and “An Education.” According to the blog Defamer Mulligan who “makes Ellen Page’s ‘Juno’ turn look like a Lifetime reject” as Jenny in “An Education,” about a teenage girl living in suburban London during the ’60s. “The Greatest” is still without a distributor (the family drama also stars Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon); however, “An Education” was purchased by Sony Pictures Classics for roughly $3 million, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

“The Office” star John Krasinski directed one of the most highly anticipated films going into the fest, an adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s book, “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.” Krasinski also wrote the screenplay and acts toward the end. However, the film was marred with lackluster reviews and “Brief Interviews” left without a distributor when the festival concluded. The decidedly ambitious film was a risk with an untested television star behind the camera and the film premiered just four months after Wallace’s death. With Krasinski’s star on the rise, “Brief Interviews” may be a worthwhile investment, which potential buyers should note.

Despite “celebrities” like Paris Hilton showing up to the fest and Linda Hogan prancing around Park City, Utah, with her boy toy, Sundance is still one of the premier festivals for indie features. Sundance represents the snow covered grounds of Park City where wholly talented groups of filmmakers bring their art for film lovers to enjoy, while giving studios the hope of finding the next “Little Miss Sunshine.” Only eight films have been purchased so far (including, “Brooklyn’s Finest” from the director of “Training Day” and “Humpday,” a comedy about two straight friends who decide to make a gay porn).

In a time of economic crisis, buyers were more hesitant and sales were not as exorbitant as they have been in the past. Last year’s disappointing “Hamlet 2” is one example of buyers spending too much money at Sundance. Focus Features paid a reported $10 million for the film, but brought back less than $5 million at the box office, according to Box Office Mojo. With movie theaters off to a great start during the recession, studios may be more willing to take risks in order to find the next breakout box office and critical hit.