Written and directed by Chusy Haney-Jardine, Anywhere, U.S.A. won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for 'independent spirit;' the phrasing of the explanatory language in that award says almost everything you need to know about his film, and at the same time doesn't say nearly enough. Anywhere, U.S.A. revolves around three separate stories -- a torn relationship, a family born of crisis, an old man's journey of self-discovery -- but those brief capsules can't possibly convey the loopy energy and bizarre brilliance Haney-Jardine splashes up on screen in strong, sloppy brush strokes.
And I don't use that metaphor lightly; at times, Anywhere, U.S.A. feels more like a modern art project than a film. Haney-Jardine's film mixes striking still photos, text overlaid the images on the screen, a wry sense of the absurd in the everyday, the capacity to see the banal in the extraordinary, and the capacity to find the extraordinary in the every day. Internet chat, sexual frustration and snack food selection somehow become a hotbed of international intrigue; a man's innocent stories for his niece clash with her brutal experience of life so far; a man's quest to broaden the horizons of his racial experience has a bizarre conception and woefully bungled execution. Haney-Jardine's film takes place among the trailer parks and strip malls and clean McMansions of anywhere, U.S.A., but it had a distinctly southern flavor as well, from the simple drawl of the phrase 'y'all' to the complexities of race and history. At its best, Anywhere, U.S.A. played like a hickory-smoked take on the same kind of modern mischief Miranda July showed us in You, Me and Everyone We Know.
And at the same time, I found myself thinking that Anywhere, U.S.A. might have played better as a series of modern art projects, or as a loose affiliation of shorts. There's no real tie between the three segments aside from the dryly omniscient narrator and Haney-Jardine's sense and sensibility. And, as can so often happen at Sundance, the film's deadpan can often simply read as dead space. (At 123 minutes, Anywhere, U.S.A. felt more than a little interminable at the 8:30 AM screening I attended at Sundance; others, reporting the same opinion from other screenings, made it somewhat more likely that my sense of fatigue wasn't just a function of the pre-breakfast screening time.) Haney-Jardine has a rich sense of the absurd: the narrator notes of one character, in round, profound tones, that "His beard was a beard of privilege. ..." But that also occasionally overwhelms his sense of story. And while it's funny to have two characters leap from a discussion of household cleaning to an argument -- "Did you Swiff in here?" "Yes ... " "I knew it! Wet, or dry?" -- that kind of dry and wry comedy keeps the film at arm's length. I will note that the middle section of the movie -- which, coincidentally or not, stars Haney-Jardine's young daughter Perla -- is the one section of the film that feels more affecting than affected.
Anywhere, U.S.A. fairly vibrates with enthusiasm and energy; at the same time, that energy often manifests itself in fidgety, manic distraction followed by too-long pauses to rest. A lot of the time, a Sundance debut makes you contemplate what the director might wind up doing next; Anywhere, U.S.A. made me wonder what Haney-Jardine wound up doing the first time around. That possibly says more about my tastes than Haney-Jardine's skills and ambitions; Anywhere, U.S.A. may not be consistent or coherent, but it definitely stood out, even against a backdrop as wild and weird as the slate of films surrounding it at Sundance 2008.