With an incredibly varied program offeatures put together by event producer Matt Dentler and panels and production manager Jarod Neece, one can easily find something to enjoy at the SXSW Film Festival. Obvious choices (and big ticket sellers) are films like the Morgan Spurlock produced potshot at consumerism during Christmas-time “What Would Jesus Buy” and the low-budget version of a modern teen-horror movie “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane“. But don’t be fooled by those one-trick ponies. The real strength in the SXSW film programming this year lies in the surprisingly quiet, personal moments of several of the films on the slate. Whether it be a studio blockbuster like “Reign Over Me” or a two-day-shoot DV documentary like “Silver Jew,” Dentler and Neece’s program finds its strength in telling true-to-life stories.
The festival had many large Hollywood premieres this year, from the light and fun thriller “Disturbia” to the murky, low-key, depressing opening film, “The Lookout“, to the horrible atrocity that is Douglas Buck‘s remake of Brian de Palma‘s “Sisters“. Above and beyond all of those comes Judd Apatow‘s fully realized new comedy “Knocked Up“. From the director of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin“, this is a comedy starring Seth Rogen as a thrity-year-old child who must face the realities of adulthood when he accidentally impregnates an up-and-coming TV anchor and they decide to keep the baby. As with the best of Apatow’s work, the comedy comes from a very human place, whether it be in the uncomfortable, claustrophobic spaces of adolescence in “Freaks & Geeks” or the directionally challenged college years in “Undeclared“. At once funny and heartfelt, “Knocked Up” works on the most honest level, with plenty of juvenile humor thrown in for good measure.
The narrative competition was by far the weakest of the selection. Slow, brooding, pointless mood pieces like “Blackbird” and “When a Man Falls in the Forest” seemed to dominate many of the screenings. I was particularly confused by the jury’s decision to honor the worst of the bunch, “Itty Bitty Titty Committee“. Brandishing her own misunderstood brand of feminism, director Jamie Babbit attempts to skewer the trials and tribulations of lesbian teenage angst while chalking up fem-terrorism to something fun and noteworthy, completely missing the mark. The more creative selections like “Frownland” and “Orphans” have a heart and distinct vision behind them, but don’t quite communicate with the audience on the level that they should. Nothing in competition touches the outstanding new effort from SXSW favorite Joe Swanberg, “Hannah Takes the Stairs” or the more subtle, but nonetheless perfectly composed “Quiet City” by Aaron Katz, two of the best films to come out of the movement spawned by filmmakers like Andrew Bujalski and Mark Duplass. The intimately personal nature of the improvised “Hannah Takes the Stairs” and the petitely executed “Quiet City” play much stronger than any of the larger scale attempts.
The midnight program is no exception to the trend. Though highlighted by some soon-to-be-distributed hits from the festival circuit, such as “Severance” and “Black Sheep” — both strong films in their own right — the gem in the group was a tiny French film called “Them“. Shot on low-quality DV for a miniscule budget and employing almost no blood effects, this true story about a French couple who is terrorized by an unknown presence in the middle of the night at their rural Romanian home features the kind of gritty realism that shocked audiences in 1974 when Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released. “Them” does have its share of jump scares and clever camera shots, but its real terror emerges from its plausibility, both in the plot points and also the psychology of the hidden menace.
The documentary premieres were all over the place, from the required dose of cute crowd pleasing family films like the jump rope competition story of “Doubletime” and the aptly titled “Twisted: A Balloonamentary” (I’ll let you infer the content there) to what is probably the boldest programming choice I’ve seen in quite some time, a documentary on the history of the font “Helvetica“, only about half of which is as dull as it sounds. Some favored content over form: “Audience of One” shows just how far a misguided Pentecostal will go spending strangers’ money to produce a failing film that he believes was commissioned by God. “Kamp Katrina” takes a unique look at the lives of current New Orleans residents, dealing less with the physical effects of the hurricane and more of the psychosis of its estranged survivors. It is hard not to make a personal favorite out of “Run Granny Run“, the incredibly loveable tale of the 97-year-old woman who walked across the country and then ran for Congress, one of the most inspiring true stories of our time. In a sea of terribly constructed political documentaries like “Running With Arnold“, the pedantic and misguided version of Schwarzenagger’s race for Governor of California, an untimely topic to say the least, and “Manufacturing Dissent“, a Dateline- esque “in-depth” examination of Michael Moore that kicks up a lot of dust but uncovers no real dirt, “Run Granny Run” is a breath of fresh air.
While some of those documentaries certainly pack an emotional punch (particularly “Granny” and “Katrina”), the real carefully tender moments of cinematic documentation are contained with in two of the festivals best documentaries, “Silver Jew” and “Billy the Kid”. Clocking in at just under an hour and shot over the course of two days, “Silver Jew” is an intimate look at the first tour of the Silver Jews, with a focus on their front-man, the genuine and affable David Berman who, ironically, has just converted to Judaism, long after naming the band, and is finding himself while they play shows throughout Israel. At the heart of “Silver Jew” is a moment of incredible impact, padded with the beautifully stirring musical power also contained in AJ Schnack‘s “Kurt Cobain: About a Son“, but portrayed here less with cinematography and tone and more with deep character.
Easily the most-talked about documentary in this year’s SXSW Film Fest, and with good reason, is Jennifer Venditti‘s “Billy the Kid“. To say the film is a haunting, intimate portrait of a teenage boy struggling through the regular hardships of adolescence would be selling the film short. Venditti’s work is one of the strongest directorial visions, one made over the course of eight shooting days and months of precise, creative editing. The first twenty minutes alone are worth the price of admission for the contribution to furthering the language of documentary. Venditti’s pulls the audience in with a series of telling vignettes, wrapping us in the whirlwind of Billy’s life and dropping us deep into the verite of his first relationship, all the while never undermining but rather enhancing her subject. The touching nature of Billy’s story is the epitome of the emotional experience that this year’s SXSW has been; a crucial factor in why the film won the top documentary jury prize.