VIDEO: Spike Jonze Sundances With Robot Love Story Premiere

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Spike Jonze joined Sundance's opening-night madness on Thursday, debuting his brand-new short I'm Here as part of the festival's rock-solid Shorts Program One. Which sounds a little yawnily non-descript, I know, until you break its four terrific films down as the ones by a former Oscar nominee, two future Oscar nominees, a Kennedy clan representative and Sweden's bright new hope -- all of whom were on hand, with Jonze weighing in on video after the jump.

I'm Here is the 30-minute result of a partnership between Absolut Vodka and Jonze, who somehow correlated a bittersweet love story between two robots with the Scandinavian booze monolith. A patron is a patron, I suppose, and it certainly doesn't affect the quality of Jonze's work: Andrew Garfield stars as Sheldon, a robot whose lonely yet resolutely cheerful life attempts to contradict the second-class citizenry of his "species" populating Los Angeles. Awaiting the bus one day, he espies Francesca (Sienna Guillory), a cute mechanoid giddily, illegally driving down the same street. "You can't drive a car!" an old woman shouts at her -- mostly out of instinct, it would seem, angry about nothing in particular but the upset of so.cial order. It's hard to tell exactly to what extent Jonze is sending up L.A.'s ethnic discord; Sheldon lives one step removed from the slums where the alien prawns were sequestered in District 9, and the ordeals these ultra-humanized, emotional robots are subjected to -- grief, embarrassment and ultimately love -- seem to implicate the inhumanity of their flesh-and-blood counterparts.

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Yet Jonze soon tamps down that tension, opting instead to pursue a pretty straightforward romance between Sheldon and Francesca. Their meet-cute occurs after another, not-so-chance meeting on the road; their courtship unfolds in the white light of deserted parking lots, the honey-tinged hue of dusk and, hilariously, in Sheldon's bed, where the sexual chemistry is literally electric. Jonze still has never met an emo-folk montage he doesn't like, and heading toward its midpoint, I'm Here may not have made it out of this twee purgatory alive were it not for the extraordinary presence of these characters -- their animated eyes as suggestive as anything in Avatar, their bodies with the loose, limber spirit that accompanies new love. When Sheldon, a librarian played by an actor wearing a huge, blocky mask, cheerfully tosses a book behind his back and catches it with his free hand, it's just one of those miniscule Jonzeian treasures that you take for granted in a world seemingly full of them.

Speaking last night about the character design in particular, Jonze explained his primary instructions to the designer:

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And then, the downturn. As with most short films (especially Jonze's) it's not what you expect, and not when you expect it. And you won't read specifics here. But for a film underwritten by a vodka manufacturer, I'm Here features some pretty subsersive bits of body horror and despair. It's perhaps mitigated some by its last shot, but only because the hope viewers project on these moody, earnest machines. Yet for a cohort that could conceivably enjoy eternal life together, the question "At what cost?" is just as loaded as it would be when posed to humans.

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