It’s been four years since I was in Austin for SXSW, and things have definitely changed. As a film festival, it is unique, buttressed by the Interactive Festival on the front end and the Music behemoth on the tail end. Film is in it for the long haul, with screenings throughout the week, though many industry folks hightail it after the Tuesday night awards. I was there throughout and was glad for the extra time to navigate my rented bike from East Austin to South Lamar and back (dodging the extra traffic and pedestrians makes that a trek). To the point, what struck me is that the experience of being at SXSW can be as formative as the content, which is probably what makes it such a popular festival. There’s a creative synergy between the thousands of people who flood this small city with ideas, venture capital, and groundbreaking cinema. There’s also an overwhelming buzz of noise, as everything is tracked, tweeted, and filmed for the internet. By midweek, bands covered every available inch of space, playing parking lots and backyards across the city. It made the “official” activities on 6th Street seem almost corporate.
In film, art and commerce have long been bedfellows, and the festival lineup had larger profile titles coexisting peacefully with breakout new work. The biggest challenge was navigating a landscape of temptation, resisting the urge for an urban BBQ treasure hunt or the promise of a solid band and cold beer to get to my next screening. But the lineup kept me grounded and excited about spending hours of every day indoors. The hub at the Austin Convention Center was also host to an excellent series of panels and Q&As with filmmakers. If there is an ethos to SXSW Film it’s definitely “work hard, play hard” — then go back to New York or L.A. and sleep it off.
In 2008, Janet Pierson took over as head of the Film Festival, and she has continued to raise its profile, premiering both mainstream Hollywood pics (this year’s Bridesmaids) and championing truly indie voices. SXSW has become a home for a particular type of microbudget filmmaker in the vein of Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs, SILVER BULLETS), Aaron Katz (Cold Weather), and last year’s sensation, Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture). In truth, the festival has few films actually in competition, and the Emerging Visions section is often where you’ll find the more startling, interesting work. I’m a big fan of their documentary programming, which foregoes the latest political maelstrom for subtle, character-driven docs. I dabbled in several categories, making for a somewhat schizophrenic, but diverse and satisfying, experience. Here, in no particular order, are some of the films that I enjoyed.
Natural Selection (Robbie Pickering)
Writer/Director Robbie Pickering has said this film is inspired by his own mother, as well as animated classic The Secret of Nimh. What resulted is a dark, funny road-trip movie about a barren Christian housewife who goes on the lam with her dying husband’s sperm-donation son. Zany and mildly violent, the film bears the stamp of Pickering’s training as a Hollywood screenwriter, which made it a bit slick for critics bent on mumblecore. The festival jury (and audiences) disagreed, and the film swept this year’s awards. I liked its Coen-esque reach and thought leads Rachael Harris and Matt O’Leary made the most of the script, filling in their character sketches with humor and pathos. The production design and cinematography are notable for their realism and simultaneous complexity. Indeed, the film’s nimble execution on every front is perhaps Pickering’s greatest accomplishment, and I’m betting that whoever ends up distributing will have a sleeper hit on their hands.
Kumaré (Vikram Gandhi)
Anyone who takes issue with this documentary has no sense of humor. The trickster character is as old as storytelling itself, and Vikram Gandhi plays the role to the hilt in his hilarious film. Gandhi is a Jersey boy who was raised by Hindi immigrants from India, and in his early adulthood he goes on a spiritual quest of sorts to his homeland. An entertaining montage depicts his journey, and though he dutifully swaddles himself in white rags and does yoga on mountaintops, he comes away disillusioned by the inauthenticity of the gurus he meets. To better understand the guru-devotee dynamic, Vikram decides to transform himself into Sri Kumaré, a made-up mystic. He trades off American provincialism and ignorance, adopting a comical accent and even making up fake yoga moves and childlike “teachings.” But as this film potently proves: if you build it, they will come. He soon has a following of acolytes in the Arizona town he chooses as his target. As these relationships deepen, Gandhi realizes that Kumaré is becoming real, and he must give his ultimate teaching in “the great unveiling.” A barbed homage to the American spirit.
Surrogate Valentine (Dave Boyle)
A slacker comedy with Jarmusch stylings, I was highly impressed with the sharp dialogue and classic visuals of Dave Boyle’s third feature. Inspired by the musician’s live set, Boyle teamed up with San Francisco’s Goh Nakamura, who contributed his music and deadpan, rumpled humor to the script. Goh also stars as, well, Goh Nakamura, a striving musician still in love with his high school girl. He’s hired to train TV actor Danny (Chad Stoops) how to “play” an indie musician in his upcoming film. Like an eager puppy, Danny follows Goh to guitar lessons, and eventually on tour. Stoops is so good as Danny he made me want to run home and write a role for him. The film is droll and knowing without being precious, as adroit spoofing a gun-crazy music exec as encouraging the bromance that emerges between the two men. The moments are small but pitch-perfect, with some of the best writing I’ve recently seen. Boyle has decided to forego traditional distribution hustle, opting to use his festival run as a theatrical release, with the film available on VOD later this year.
The City Dark (Ian Cheney)
In a tonal departure from his documentary King Corn, Ian Cheney goes solo to take a thoughtful look at the modern problem of light pollution and its obscurance of the night sky. He begins in New York but travels to Hawaiian mountaintops and a remote astronomical community in the Arizona desert, in search of the last refuges of darkness. Cheney’s approach as a documentarian is an unusual blend of measured curiosity and poetry that meanders while sticking to a clear and decisive thesis. His gaze is comprehensive and includes a diversity of subjects, from urban boy scouts to bird-rescuers to astrophysicists. We learn how the loss of darkness disorients migrating animals is being linked to certain types of cancer in humans and fosters spiritual discord. In lieu of stop-motion animation, Cheney this time makes creative use of still photographs and animation to bind the film’s sequences together. The lovely score, by The Fishermen Three and Ben Fries, took home a festival award for best music.
The Other F Word (Andrea Blaugrund Nevins)
My conversation with the filmmakers has already been posted here, and the film truly was a festival highlight. Vaguely reminiscent of Anvil, this doc follows (Pennywise frontman) Jim Lindberg — and a pantheon of other punk rockers — into fatherhood. The deft camerawork and editing of young gun Geoffrey Franklin takes the story from punk’s days of mosh pits, broken glass, and no future to the milder rhythms of family life. For some reason, many of these men seem to spawn blonde daughters, whose pink, fluffy bedrooms get a big laugh. But the film goes surprisingly deep, tracing the punks’ anarchist roots to their own broken homes and absentee fathers, and their determination to build a better life for their own children is touching. The soundtrack also kicks ass.
John’s Gone (Josh & Ben Safdie)
The rise of these New York auteurs continues with this bizarre and lovely short film. They shoot like mavericks but more than earn their Cassavetes comparisons. John is better seen than described, and the shaky, handheld, blue-black video has a numinous quality in its 35mm print. The film loosely follows John through outer-borough encounters, from spraying for roaches to haggling with the man who delivers Chinese takeout to his building. There are bits about a withering romance and John’s internet sales of his junk, before the film builds to a suddenly emotional finish. The aesthetics are artsy and topnotch, proving once again that these young brothers are some of the most interesting and coherent filmmakers out there.
Green (Sophia Takal)
Takal is engaged to filmmaker Lawrence Levine, and the two previously teamed up on his Gabi On the Roof In July. That production had Levine spending hours on set with other attractive young women, an experience that enflamed Takal’s self-professed jealousy issues. This inspired Green, her eerie, erotic directorial debut. She partners again with Levine, who plays Sebastian, a harmless, whiny sort of man-child, and friend Kate Lyn Shiel, who plays Genevieve, his frustrated girlfriend. The two retire to the countryside so Sebastian can write about sustainable agriculture, but this is no lover’s idyll. Genevieve is as ripe and poisonous as a hothouse flower, and it doesn’t take much to set her off. When their neighbor Robin begins hanging around, Genevieve’s suspicions grow into psychosexual nightmares. The effective score and lush cinematography give the film its haunting, ominous tone, and distract from the somewhat flat characterization of Robin. Overall, it’s a strong debut, and Takal is well-deserving of this year’s Chicken & Egg Emergent Narrative Woman Director Award.