By Christine Kearney
PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - Dramas "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "The Surrogate" won big at the Sundance Film Festival over the weekend, giving the event a burst of energy after early movies with grim sagas and star names failed to impress critics.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild," a poetic, mystical tale of the bond between a father and daughter, set in impoverished Louisiana with a cast of non-actors, won the jury prize for best U.S. drama and another for its cinematography.
"The Surrogate" claimed the audience award for U.S. drama with its witty and inspirational look at a man's quest to lose his virginity while confined to an iron lung, and it could prove to be the bigger winner at box offices when it reaches cinemas.
The film, based on the life of poet and journalist Mark O'Brien, fetched what may be the highest selling price at the festival by the time all the deal-making ends -- a reported $6 million from Fox Searchlight, the studio behind current Oscar hopeful "The Descendants."
"Surrogate" stars Helen Hunt as an oft-naked sex therapist, John Hawkes as O'Brien and William H. Macy as a priest, and together they picked up a special Sundance jury prize for ensemble acting.
Director and writer Ben Lewin said after a screening on Saturday that he tried to capture O'Brien's "self-deprecating humor and view of life as the absurd." Upon accepting his trophy at the award ceremony, he quoted a line from his script: "Love is a journey, that's it."
Another festival favorite, the documentary "Searching for Sugar Man," tells a miraculous tale of a quest to find an obscure 1970s Detroit folk singer known as Rodriguez who was rumored to have shot himself on stage. It picked up the audience award for world documentary and also won a special jury prize.
Malik Bendjelloul, making his directing debut, said his film began as a 6-minute TV story but ended up taking five years to turn into a feature film. It's a touching portrait of a modest, inspirational singer who failed to make it in the United States and quit singing before learning he was a huge hit in South Africa.
Other fiction films that impressed the crowds at Sundance included "Smashed," a refreshing comedy drama on alcoholism that picked up a special jury prize, and prison tale "Middle of Nowhere," for which Ava DuVernay won the directing prize.
SEARCHING FOR HITS
Festival winners and movies that premiere at Sundance, which has debuted hits in past years such as "Little Miss Sunshine" and "An Inconvenient Truth," often go on to become some of the most talked-about films for fans of independent cinema.
But this year's festival got off to a slow start, marked by what Robert Redford, whose Sundance Institute for independent filmmaking backs the event, characterized as films that reflected the "dark and grim" times Americans are facing.
Some winners did serve that theme, including documentary winner "The House I Live In" by Eugene Jarecki. It made a case that America's decades-long "war on drugs" had failed and mostly resulted in huge prison populations and hurt poor communities.
"The war on drugs is a terrible scar on America," Jarecki said at Saturday's awards ceremony, citing the large number of unfair drug penalties affecting minorities, as well as police and judges. He called it "tragically immoral and so heartbreakingly wrong and misguided."
"The Invisible War," which tells of previously unknown incidents of rape and sexual assault in the U.S. military, won the U.S. documentary audience award. Director Kirby Dick dedicated it to those in the military who speak out in hope that "this epidemic finally stops."
Among world cinema, Chile's "Violeta Went To Heaven," based on the life of Chilean folk singer Violeta Parra's journey from a poor upbringing to hero, won the jury prize for best drama.
The world fiction audience award went to Kashmiri tale "Valley Of Saints," and "The Law In These Parts," which looks at the system of law administered by Israel on Palestinians, was the jury's pick for best world documentary.
Other world cinema premieres that impressed outside the competition included "Shadow Dancer," British filmmaker James Marsh's look at a mother who's deeply entrenched in the IRA and forced to become an informant.
SHOWBIZ AT SUNDANCE
While Sundance has attracted more foreign films in recent years, its main focus remains its role as the premiere event for U.S. independent films and as a marketplace for buyers and sellers.
This year, while business was brisk, buyers were more cautious after several higher-profile movies from 2011 failed to perform as expected at the box office.
Festival films did not fetch the high dollar figures, and there were fewer deals compared with last year's robust marketplace. But, as in year's past, some deals won't materialize until after the festival's end on Sunday.
A flurry of deals did get done over the closing weekend, with Hollywood showbiz website Deadline reporting that rights to Stephen Frears' "Lay The Favorite" were bought by Weinstein Co. for about $2 million.
But many of the widely hyped films going into the festival, including Spike Lee's "Red Hook Summer" and closing film "The Words," starring Bradley Cooper, were panned by critics.
Others, such as "Arbitrage," starring Richard Gere as billionaire hedge fund magnate whose world falls apart, and "Red Lights," with Robert De Niro playing a blind psychic, received mixed reviews but still found buyers thanks to their star appeal.
(Reporting By Christine Kearney; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Sheri Linden)