Austin-based sibling filmmakers Nathan and David Zellner make movies in a loony vacuum in which the only constant is a fixation on the bizarre. While technically geared toward comedy, neither their feature-length “Goliath” (which also premiered in the NEXT section, at Sundance 2009) nor innumerable offbeat short films commit themselves to punchline-driven humor.
Instead, they allow the absurdity of individual moments to transform otherwise bleak scenarios into simultaneously funny and oddly perceptive observations. “Goliath” was a heartfelt story of a man coping with the loss of his beloved cat, and yet it elevates that premise to a level of strange hilarity without sacrificing the emotional truth sustaining it.
“Kid-Thing,” the brothers’ latest feature-length effort (for which David takes solo directing credit), pushes that style in a less comic direction while remaining distinctly Zellnerian. Unfortunately for Zellner fans, it has too many erratic digressions and rough production choices to obtain the persistently outlandish appeal of “Goliath.” The film relies on an unruly mash-up of inspirations; the results suggest Harmony Korine meets Terrence Malick. It lacks the subversiveness of the former and the epic sweep of the latter, but combines those reference points into a madcap collage of half-formed ideas.
“Kid-Thing” follows angst-riddled prepubescent Annie (newcomer Sidney Aguirre). We first see her looking bored and it doesn’t take long to see why: Wasting her days in a drab landscape on the outskirts of Austin, the moody 10-year-old lives in a decrepit home with her goat-farmer dad (Nathan Zellner), a clueless sad sack whose free time involves such aimless tasks as shooting fireworks and scratching lotto cards with his equally unfocused friend (David Zellner). Annie finds an outlet in random acts of social rebellion, chucking flotsam at passing cars, wielding a paint gun at the food mart and hurtling through the forest with aimless energy.
And then she happens upon a mysterious hole in the ground near her home, where she hears an old woman’s voice (Susan Tyrell) calling for help down below. Rather than share her discovery with her father, Annie keeps the secret to herself and cultivates a curious relationship with the trapped figure, whom she tosses a walkie talkie and engages in an increasingly heated debate about whether she deserves to be saved. The dialogue is just simple enough to leave open the possibility that the whole situation stems from Annie’s imagination. “Maybe you’re the devil,” she posits into the walkie talkie. “Maybe you’re the devil,” comes the reply.
While the scenario is a provocative enigma, it’s also fairly static and relies on the production’s two weakest qualities: Dialogue and performance. The Zellners are talented at crafting goofy sight gags and disorienting camera decisions, often at the same time: Their camera will linger on a single, repetitive event (such as Nathan Zellner milking a goat in “Kid-Thing,” or a couple signing divorce documents in “Goliath”) until it reaches a state of heightened comedy that defies precise explanation. But when Annie speaks, the filmmakers shift from formalism to gratingly simplistic conversations and Aguirre’s shrill delivery, which sadly holds the movie back from working its spell, since she appears in every scene.
However, when the plot indulges in various tangents, “Kid-Thing” maintains a hypnotic effect. Images of majestic nature pair up with consistently insightful framing strategies to reflect Annie’s perspective of the world as a wondrous environment littered with events and scenery just beyond her comprehension. A point-of-view shot that finds her watching her father from a distance through the triangular boundaries of her fingers stands out, but “Kid-Thing” contains many such provocative moments. And several effective scenes approach the possibility of humorous payoff before creating sudden blockades that take the tone in unexpectedly thoughtful directions, such as the image of a one-legged man–a friend of Annie’s father–playing an experimental guitar tune as she looks on. It’s a shot that invites specific meaning (the clash of beauty and solemnity) while simultaneously evading it by providing little context.
The weirdness of “Kid-Thing” invites many interpretations. With its cast of outcasts — all grown men, save Annie — the string of events can be read as a portrait of war veterans in which the young girl symbolizes collateral damage. But that doesn’t explain how everything in her world, from the paint gun to her BMX bike and the woman in the hole, drift through the frame like blaring signifiers. What do they signify, other than the unfocused nature of the child mind? Despite their eccentricities, the Zellners are narrative filmmakers and the story gets away from them here.
Experientially, “Kid-Thing” is less movie than kaleidoscopic barrage of visual concepts and abrupt exchanges. Some are more cogent than others and none are devoid of the Zellners’ relentlessly inventive approach. To some extent, “Kid-Thing” confronts its shortcomings: The filmmakers invite you to throw up your hands and keep them there, as Annie surely feels inclined to do on a regular basis. That makes it as recklessly dreamy and confused as its curious protagonist. Despite many flaws, “Kid-Thing” stands out for presenting a poetic and doggedly out-there encapsulation of backwoods Americana that’s occasionally transcendent.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Cinetic is selling the film at Sundance, but it’s too irreverent for any kind of mass market; that said, it’s already been accepted at the Berlin Film Festival and seems poised for a warm welcome at SXSW later this year; other smaller festivals should embrace its unconventional style. It may land a small VOD deal, where it’s best bet is a few passionate reviews driving cult appeal.