A common refrain heard over the first few days of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival continues to be "is it special?"  And while this commentator has seen strong performances across the board, hardly any of the filmss so far could be called "special."  That's changed today with the debut of Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine."

A lyrical and passionate portrait of the ups and downs of a relationship between a late twentysomethings couple (we assume), "Valetnine" features absolutely stunning performances by leads Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.  In fact, in terms of screen time it might be the best thing either actor has done to this point.

On the other hand, "Valentine" is a hard move to describe.  Cianfrance creates an incredibly realistic and intimate tone to the film that conjures comparisons to Terrence Malick although he's much less dependent on score than that cinematic master. The film begins with what we assume is an idyllic small family living somewhere in the countryside of New Jersey.  Their young daughter (the adorable 5-year-old Faith Wladyka) opens the film waking her father (Gosling), who is sleeping on a chair in the living room, to let him know their dog is missing. As the day progresses, we learn that Williams' character, who is a nurse or medical specialist, has a new opportunity in a different city, but still hasn't told her husband.  Gosling's character does manual labor and besides his obvious musical talents has no ambition to do anything else.  Lastly, theye quickly discover their dog has been hit by a car. Thus begins a web of contemporary scenes featuring the couples interaction grow to a tense firestorm contrasted against moments from their long, passionate and dramatic courtship years ago.

Cianfrance creates haunting moments during both storylines and the chemistry between Gosling and Williams is so tuned in that sometimes you forget this is not a window of a real couple in crisis.  As a veiwer, the ups and downs collectively reach a point where you either personally feel the harsh pain of their last few flare ups and are rooting for it to work out or become emotional knowing what has been said between them may not be repairable. For anyone who has been in a difficult break up or witnessed a dramatic divorce in their immediate family, its hard not to see the pain and passion in this cinematic relationship.

It's a tribute to Ciafrance, Gosling and Williams that after a day of other intense screenings, "Valentine" is sticking with this commentator the most.  Still, this is not an easy film to sit through at times.  More intriguingly, it will be interesting what distributor will take a chance on a film that may divide critics.  Moreover, let's hope "Valentine" does get adequate distribution, because performances like these don't just deserve to be seen, they demand to be.

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