Sundance Reviews: "Padre Nuestro," "Blame It On Fidel," and "Waitress" All Superb

by | January 28, 2007 | Comments

Short reviews for three of the better films we saw at Sundance (the strongly acted Spanish language thriller "Padre Nuestro," French 1970s-set kid drama "Blame it on Fidel," and Adrienne Shelly‘s Southern women’s comedy, "Waitress"). A few of these festival flicks will probably even make it to theaters near you!

"Padre Nuestro"

Diego (Jesus Ochoa) opens his door to find a long-lost son in "Padre Nuestro"

Director and screenwriter Christopher Zalla makes an impressive debut with "Padre Nuestro," a tale of stolen identity and desperation that unfolds as a taut thriller and excels with tragically drawn performances by a multi-generational cast.

Seventeen-year-old Pedro is making an illegal border crossing from Mexico to New York City when he meets fellow youngster Juan, an orphaned hustler. When Pedro arrives, he discovers his belongings and identity have been stolen by his new friend, who himself sets out to find Pedro’s restaurateur father Diego, pose as his never-before-seen son, and steal his supposed riches.

But Diego (Jesús Ochoa) isn’t a restaurant owner, and he’s not rich. The working-class dishwasher begrudgingly takes in Juan (Armando Hernandez) — who secretly hunts for hidden money in Diego’s house and steals wallets by day — and despite himself, finds a fatherly love for the kid beginning to seep into his rough, lonely life. Meanwhile, the Spanish-only speaking Pedro (Jorge Adrián Espíndola) is lost and penniless on the streets of New York, his only friend the coke-addicted street girl Magda (Paola Mendoza) who initially steals from him, then helps him track down his father. Even their friendship is only a tenuous partnership for survival, challenged by the hard fact that, living on the street, the only thing that matters — not health, not love, not ethics — is cold, hard cash.

Zalla’s script is a rich thread pulling his characters ever closer, with a constant feeling of dread lurking around the corner, a hint of love, and a redeeming suggestion of hope. All four of his actors are heart-rending and excellent, playing each turn of fate — loss, deception, discovery — with tragic, lived-in understanding.

"Padre Nuestro" currently has one Sundance review in. As of Saturday, the film has won the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic film of the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

"Blame it on Fidel"

Nina Kervel as the 9-year-old Anna in "Blame it on Fidel"

The only thing cuter than the 1970s-set French comedy-drama "Blame it on Fidel" is the film’s young star (first-time actress Nina Kervel), who plays 9-year-old Parisian girl Anna de la Mesa, a perfectly-mannered young parochial school girl whose civil, ordered life is thrown into chaos when her bourgeois parents decide to become super-liberal political activists.

Young Anna likes her cushy existence just fine — learning Genesis from nuns, living in a big house with a garden, eating her fruit the civilized way with fork and knife. But when her writer mother (Julie Depardieu) and lawyer father (Stefano Accorsi) decide to abandon their complacent lifestyle to participate in social change, Anna must learn a new way of life, whether she likes it or not.

It’s the "or not" part that comprises "Fidel," the clever and funny tale of Anna’s dogged resistance to change. Though her parents seem almost neglectful as they turn their attentions from caring for Anna and her brother to organizing Allende supporters in Chile and fighting for women’s rights, it’s Anna’s transformation from doctrine-taught conservative (repeating the anti-Communist venom of her grandmother, demanding to stay in Catholic school) to open-minded citizen that is the focus of our attentions.

There are plenty of cute moments in director/writer Julie Gavras‘ script, including the titular conclusion that Anna draws when her family’s new socio-economic status necessitates moving from the house with a garden to a cramped apartment, eating "strange" food cooked by a lineup of multi-national nannies, and hosting Marxist meetings at night in her living room. Most remarkable is that the young Kervel pulls off her character’s complicated trajectory from prissy and conventional to accepting and worldly, all the while conveying the familiar logic of childhood reasoning that we all may remember from our youth.


Keri Russell as Jenna, a pregnant woman desperate to escape

Small town women with dead end lives are given a sweetly comic treatment in "Waitress," starring Keri Russell as a pie-shop server stuck in a miserable marriage who discovers (to her horror) that she’s pregnant.

Adrienne Shelly’s script paints characters with a Southern twang and a wicked sense of humor, women who know their lot and have learned to commiserate and deal with disappointment — decrepit old husbands, nerdy suitors, loveless marriages. There’s Becky (Cheryl Hines), a trophy wife looking for excitement; Dawn (writer/director Shelly herself), a nerdy dreamer with low self-esteem; and Jenna (Russell), who’s gotten used to unhappiness, hates her husband Earl (a slimy Jeremy Sisto), and dreams of running away.

Jenna’s only solace is creating wonderful pies for the diner (like the hilariously titled "I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie") until a new OB-GYN comes to town in the form of the handsome, awkward Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion, alternately impassioned and amusingly uncomfortable). Their attraction brings Jenna a newfound contentedness, but the good doctor is married, and Jenna’s about to have a baby she neither wants nor is prepared to love.

Shelly’s posthumously released film is a charmer, though its simplistic characterizations take a minute to absorb and accept. At least the story’s central character, Jenna, is written with texture and depth; all others are just supporting caricatures (the perky, naïve friend; the oversexed, older gal pal; the skuzzy, needy husband) that don’t have, but don’t really need, the same degree of development.

"Waitress" utilizes a visual wit to great effect, and benefits from two very surprising, scene-stealing supporting roles to look for: Andy Griffith as Old Joe, the crotchety pie-shop owner, and Eddie Jemison as a love struck, bad poetry-spouting bumpkin.

"Waitress" currently has five Sundance reviews in, winning over the hearts of critics like’s Ed Douglas, Film Threat’s Jeremy Mathews, and Moviehole’s Paul Fischer. The quirky Southern comedy sold last week to Fox Searchlight for $4 million and will be released later this year.

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