One of the joys (and terrors) of a film festival as vast and varied as Sundance is the fact that, at any moment, you can duck into a last-minute screening, with only a vague idea of what you’re about to see. Sometimes, of course, the film in question turns out to be a drag, and you sink slowly into your seat, realizing you just committed the next 114 minutes of your life to a Bosnian hip-hopera. But once in a while, you get something like Finders Keepers, a heartbreaking, often devastating documentary that’s one of this year’s first happy surprises.
Referred to by some around Park City as “the severed leg movie,” Finders Keepers goes deep on one of the better-known news-of-the-weird stories of the last decade: In 2004, a North Carolina man named John Wood lost his leg in a plane accident; later, after a series of mishaps and mistakes, the leg wound up inside a BBQ cooker that was sold in an auction to Shannon Whisnant, a flea-market maven whose subsequent discovery made him an instant celebrity — and set off a decade-long squabble between the two men, who fought in public (and on TV) over who could claim true ownership of the stuck-in-limbo limb.
Directors Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel — the latter of whom worked as a producer on the similarly delightful doc The King of Kong — could easily have kept this story at a surface level, playing up its absurd scenario and eccentric characters for laughs. But Finders Keepers quickly reveals itself to be less about a vagabond leg, and more about, well, America itself: The way our families’ deep-rooted histories and animosities can haunt us forever; the way that fame warps and compromises our baseline beliefs; and the way addiction can cause ripples that will never quite settle. Most of all, though, Finders Keepers isabout our shared stubbornness, which is portrayed here as both an innate survival skill and a cause of sometimes irreparable harm: “Forgive and forget?” a subject says at one point. “Let’s not.”
That fighting spirit — and the damage it can do — runs throughout Finders Keepers, and it’s one of the many reasons that a few festival-goers on Friday (including myself) could be heard quietly sniffling by the end credits. We’d come in to the theater expecting, at best, a goofy lark about a missing appendage, only to find a story as heartfelt and harrowing as anything the festival can offer. It’s proof that, for those choosing what to see at Sundance, sometimes it’s best to dodge the heavily hyped offerings and instead — dare we say it? — go out on a limb.