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Touchy subjects flood Sundance films

Movies offer a look into other people’s beliefs

SHARE Touchy subjects flood Sundance films

They're conversation starters. Movies that tackle touchy subjects — religion, conversion, teenage struggles with tradition versus freedom to experiment — are flooding this year's Sundance Film Festival.

There are fly-on-the-wall documentaries that bring us into families' homes, showing us lives we wouldn't otherwise see. And there are dramatic features that pull us into stories about the faith journeys of young men, elderly women and some in between.

The films offer us deepened understanding of other forms of spirituality. And judging from the number of screenings that are sold out, we're fascinated with stories about people whose beliefs differ from our own. Here are some of the films that will deal with spirituality and diversity at Sundance 2002, which began Thursday and runs through next weekend.

"Family Fundamentals" takes us to rural Utah and introduces us to an LDS bishop whose son is gay. Then we meet conservative Catholic Congressman Bob Dornan, R-Calif., who believes homosexuality is evil but regards his gay chief of staff, Brian Bennett, as a son. The documentary feature also includes a visit with a Pentecostal church leader and her lesbian daughter.

"Fundamentals" is about families struggling to reconcile church teachings and love for their children. "I wanted to find out what happens when parents believe that their own children represent the very element that will lead to the destruction of the human race," director Arthur Dong writes in the Sundance Film Festival guide.

"Sister Helen" is the true story of a South Bronx widow in her 60s who became a Benedictine nun and opened the Travis Center, a private home for drug-addicted men. Filmmaker Rebecca Cammisa moved into the center to live full time with Sister Helen and the 21 male residents. "We were able to capture events as they happened, regardless of the hour," Cammisa writes in the Sundance guide.

"Sister Helen" is the kind of documentary not often seen outside festivals such as Sundance.

"Stolen Summer" and "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys," by contrast, are likely to enjoy theatrical release sometime in the next year. "Summer," produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, is about 8-year-old Pete O'Malley, who takes the advice of his teacher, Sister Leonora Mary: Spend the summer making amends to God. Pete decides the best way to improve his standing in heaven is to convert a Jew to Catholicism. Spending days on the doorstep of a synagogue, he gets to know Rabbi Jacobsen and his son Danny.

"The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" brings us into the lives of two Southern teenagers who believe their strict Catholic school will suffocate them. Jodie Foster, of all people, plays Sister Assumpta, the ruler of their lives. One pivotal day, she seizes one of the boys' artwork, and he and his closest friends set out on "an obsessed trail of revenge that ultimately changes their lives," Sundance codirector Geoffrey Gilmore writes in the festival guide.

Amish teenagers are the subject of "Devil's Playground." The documentary follows four 16-year-olds who've been given a pass to party and try out the temptations of the modern world — so they might get it all out of their systems and return to their Christian community. This picture juxtaposes teenage experimentation and secluded Pennsylvania Amish society.

At press time, tickets were still available for "Family Fundamentals" showing at noon this Sunday, Jan. 13, at the Sugarhouse Movies 10 in Salt Lake City. "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" has screenings still open at 6:30 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 13, and 6:30 p.m. and next Saturday, Jan. 19, both at Trolley Corners in Salt Lake City. "Sister Helen" has three open screenings: at 9 p.m., Monday, Jan. 14; and at noon on Wednesday, Jan. 16, at the Yarrow hotel in Park City; and at noon Saturday, Jan. 19, at the Sugarhouse Movies 10 in Salt Lake City. "Stolen Summer" and "Devil's Playground" are sold out, but occasionally unclaimed seats become available just before show time. And if a documentary or dramatic feature wins one of the festival's prizes, it will screen in Park City on the last day of the festival, Sunday, Jan. 20, and seats may be open then. For complete Sundance information, consult www.sundanceonlineresourcecenter.com or www.sundance.org.

E-mail: durbani@desnews.com