The Myth of Fingerprints

(Bart Freundlich, USA, 1997)


The backlash against American independent cinema – the variously soft, grungy or vacuous films that have been clogging up our arthouse cinemas for too long – finally set in by the late '90s. As with every backlash, this one arrived with an element of miscalculation and zealous excess: in particular, the vicious targeting of every one of these titles as so-called Sundance films.

A Sundance film is any that has been developed, awarded or merely screened at the Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival or its affiliated workshops. Many movies of quite different shades are ground through the Sundance mill. But when people lazily wield this term of abuse, I think they have a very particular type of film in mind: low key, largely naturalistic, a bit precious, placing a personal story of family or relationship breakdown within a precise social and geographical setting.

Whatever the ills of the American indie scene and its lamentable monopoly over film distribution here, we should not let ourselves be wilfully blinded to the fact that the month's finest release is, in every respect, quintessential Sundance fare. The Myth of Fingerprints is a nuanced, moving, beautifully oblique drama of troubled family life.

It is a pity that writer-director Bart Freundlich's fine debut must now ride on the coat-tails of Ang Lee's grossly overrated The Ice Storm (1997), even though it was made earlier. There are definite family resemblances between the two films: a web of typically dysfunctional relationships; an emphasis on experiences that are unspoken, unresolved and quietly traumatic; and a constant attention to the life of a community and the character of the natural environment.

The Myth of Fingerprints is vastly superior to The Ice Storm in two respects. Firstly, it is subtle. The emotional difficulties that Hal (Roy Scheider) has visited upon his children is an elusive thing, slowly and never completely unravelled in the course of the story. Each member of this family copes in his or her way with this legacy – Mia (Julianne Moore), for instance, has become a hard-edged, contained control freak, while Warren (Noah Wyle) pines for his former, home-town love, Daphne (Arija Bareikis).

Secondly, where The Ice Storm is contrivedly cold, mechanical and humourless, Freundlich's drama has the breath of life and compassion in it. The film's attitude towards sex is particularly cheerful and good-natured. Best of all, in a story where so much depends on so little – a look, a word, a gesture – there is no ultimate attempt to force a tidily resolved ending, whether happy or tragic.

The Myth of Fingerprints does not shove its qualities in the viewer's face. Understated, finely crafted – and making superb use of a music selection that includes an original score by the Australian team of David Bridie and John Phillips – it insinuates itself into the audience's unconscious, and stays there.

MORE Freundlich: Catch That Kid

© Adrian Martin April 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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