What is the shape and size of a human soul? Does it look like a chickpea? A gumdrop? A pet rock? And if you could somehow extract your soul from your body, what would be left? Would you still be you? These are among the concerns taken up by writer-director Sophie Barthes' Cold Souls, an amusing divertissement that has injected some welcome levity into the dramatic competition of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, which has otherwise been dominated by visions of poverty, incest, domestic violence, dead children, bloody border crossings, and the shadow of 9/11.

Barthes' film, which could alternately be called Being Paul Giamatti, features the hangdog American Splendor star as himself, in a gently existential comedy about the little-known but highly lucrative world of international soul trafficking. During the rehearsals for a stage production of Uncle Vanya, Giamatti begins to feel consumed by Chekhov's lovelorn, chronically dissatisfied protagonist, finding himself unable to slip out of character when he goes home at night. At the suggestion of his agent, the actor puts his soul on deposit at a Roosevelt Island "soul-storage facility" run by a kooky David Strathairn (not playing himself), then later opts for a black market soul transplant — his new soul having been harvested in Russia and transported to the U.S. in the belly of a human mule (played by the excellent Russian actress Dina Korzun, last seen at Sundance as the wife of Rip Torn in Forty Shades of Blue).

Maria Vasilyevna Voinitsky Full of Grace? Not exactly. Like a lot of Sundance entries past and present, Cold Souls begins with a blast of self-assured ingenuity that it can't quite sustain over the course of an entire feature. But Barthes' low-fi futurism and respect for audience literacy are easy to admire, and vastly preferable to this year's other competition film about people searching for the answers to life's big questions. In writer-director John Hindman's Arlen Faber, Jeff Daniels plays to the back row as a reclusive Philadelphia author who 20 years ago published a book, Me and God, that came to define spirituality for an entire generation. "Hell is other people," Faber says at one point, quoting Sartre; but unlike the self-absorbed, misanthropic writer Daniels so effortlessly brought to life in The Squid and the Whale, this one never convinces as anything but the destined-to-be-lovable central figure in a wide-screen sitcom.

A scene from Ballast
A scene from Ballast

While the characters on Sundance's screens were gripped by such life-altering conundrums, Sundance audiences wrestled with an even greater one: Will Susan Sarandon stop playing grief-stricken mothers before this once-great actress becomes a one-trick caricature of her former self? Having fretted over a son feared missing in Desert Storm in Safe Passage, mourned the death of her son's fiancée in Moonlight Mile, and most recently grieved for a son killed upon returning from Iraq in In the Valley of Elah, Sarandon makes it a four-peat with director Shana Feste's dubiously titled The Greatest, in which her 18-year-old son dies in a car crash and his surviving girlfriend (newcomer Carey Mulligan) subsequently announces that she's pregnant. Seemingly included by the festival only because of its shameless plagiarism of Sundance founder Robert Redford's Ordinary People, The Greatest is a mourning-family turkey with all the trimmings: a father (Pierce Brosnan) who can't bring himself to grieve; a mother who refuses to alter so much as one dust mite in the dead boy's room; a recovering-addict brother (Johnny Simmons) forever in the shadow of his golden-boy sibling; and an incessant love-songs-with-Delilah soundtrack meant to wring tears from even the stoniest of viewers. No movie at Sundance this year has depressed me more — not because of the story it tells, but because of the creative bankruptcy it embodies.

Those searching for signs of how leaner economic times are affecting Sundance 2009 need look no further than the festival's opening weekend, which yielded only one major sale — and that one was something of a foregone conclusion. Although the tepid reaction to director Antoine Fuqua's Brooklyn's Finest from critics and audiences alike led upstart Senator Entertainment (which paid a reported $5 million for the North American distribution rights) to immediately start calling the film a "work in progress," you had to figure that if a cop drama from the director of Training Day, starring Richard Gere and Ethan Hawke, couldn't close a deal at Sundance this year, it really was going to be a long 10 days in the snow.

By the mid-point of Sundance 2008, the standout film of the dramatic competition was Lance Hammer's Ballast, which mined unexpected poetry from the story of a poverty-line black family making ends meet in the Mississippi Delta. This year, it's a film that casts an equally penetrating gaze on the trials and tribulations of disenfranchised blacks in the urban jungle of pre-gentrification Harlem, circa 1987. Adapted from the first novel by the Nuyorican poetess known as Sapphire, Push: Based on the novel by Sapphire immerses us in the life of a morbidly obese 16-year-old, Clareece "Precious" Jones (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe), whose welfare mother (Mo'Nique) beats her with a frying pan, who is repeatedly raped at the hands of her father (resulting in one Down Syndrome baby and, early in the film, a second pregnancy), and whose only escape from her bleak existence are the vivid daydreams in which she imagines herself a ghetto-fabulous fashion model or pop star.

Directed by Lee Daniels, who established himself as a producer (with Monster's Ball and The Woodsman) before making his directorial debut with the risible 2005 mother-and-son assassin romp Shadowboxer, Push isn't half the piece of controlled, confident craftsmanship that Ballast was, but it may be that Daniels' crude, wildly undisciplined, anything-goes directorial style is exactly what the movie calls for. Hothouse melodrama one moment, pungent social realism the next, with dashes of slapstick farce (be they intentional or not) in between, Push takes the better part of an hour to settle on something resembling a consistent tone, yet even when the movie is at its most schizoid, you can't take your eyes off of it.

Not one for subtlety, Daniels puts black female lives destroyed by abuse and defeatism on the screen with a brute-force intensity and lack of sentimentality (The Color Purple this certainly isn't). He also gathers a collection of startlingly effective performances from such unlikely players as Mo'Nique (whose monster mom is anything but a one-note villain), Mariah Carey (deglamorized as an empathetic social worker), and the magnanimous Sidibe, who carries this exhausting and strangely exhilarating film on her mighty shoulders. Push is far from perfect, but there isn't much I've seen at Sundance this year that I wouldn't trade for the sight of a hard-won smile finally making its way across Precious Jones' stoic, beautiful, wounded face.

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