The following essay was produced as part of the 2017 Locarno Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 70th edition of the Locarno Film Festival.
The term “independent film” is vaguer than ever, but film festivals are the best place to look for its evolving definition. While American independent film has developed a unique identity thanks to Sundance and other North American showcases, it takes on a very different profile when these films travel abroad.
The Locarno Film Festival has developed something of a reputation for enabling European festival-goers to discover the best of American independent film, its visitors relying on the festival’s programmers to delve through the material sold as independent to find the films that deserve the label. Here’s a look at four highlights from this year’s lineup that were well-received by the festival’s audiences.
Though it is something of a step up from the directors’ other work, both in budget and in the involvement of a major star, Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Good Time” still feels like a renegade production. Despite having being conducted with all of the relevant production permits, every sequence is filmed as if the shot has been stolen, camera shaking dramatically and carrying the sense that the cast and crew have been dragged along with it. From the very first moment, the first strained expression, the first whip-pan and that first kick of the Oneohtrix Point Never soundtrack, there is an immediate sense of an intensity and velocity that hardly lets up.
Strung up and strung out, Robert Pattinson’s Connie Nikas hurtles across Queens in search of his brother, with the film itself barreling alongside him relentlessly, pulsating with a vibrant colors, sound and performance that intensifies the squalor of its world. “Good Time” is simultaneously wild and controlled, edited with a precision that makes for a propulsive, if traumatizing ride. International distribution from A24 will direct this in front of even more eyes than the 8,000 that saw it in Locarno’s Piazza Grande, the kind of indie-mainstream crossover success deserving of one of new American independent cinema’s most promising and prodigious pairs.
“Person to Person”
While it has little in common with “Good Time” plot-wise, “Person to Person” shares some of the other film’s faces: among the ensemble of Dustin Guy Defa’s supremely charming, Brooklyn-set tale, “Good Time” co-stars Benny Safdie and Buddy Duress play key roles. After a number of noteworthy, low-key shorts (including one on which this film is based), Defa seems to have called in all his favors to pack out the feature with both famous faces (Michael Cera, Abbi Jacobson, Philip Baker Hall) and friendly ones drawn from the short (Bene Coopersmith, George Semple III).
A film dense with interweaving narratives that doesn’t seem as forced in the way those films can often feel, “Person to Person” is written with exquisite craft, teasing gentle, pleasingly awkward comedy from a variety of modest moments, chance encounters, and humorous run-ins, that are all brought together by a jazzy soundtrack. Notably in the context of an indie-mainstream divide, there is a tension between Defa’s style — mannered dialogues designed to be delivered flatly and in a distinctive deadpan — and the mainstream faces scattered through the film. It’s his non-actors that embody the style with the most ease: Whenever a familiar face appears, it’s easy to become distracted from the appeal of this understated film.
Eliza Hittman’s “Beach Rats” is also very much a Brooklyn production, albeit one depicting a significantly different milieu, with characters of a different social class than those in Dustin Guy Defa’s film. One of the more genuinely off-kilter U.S. productions at Locarno, “Beach Rats” mimics a stylistic mode familiar in independent cinema—handheld, grainy 16mm cinematography, an electronic synth soundtrack, mumbled dialogues and muted desires—as well as many familiar locations—the club, the fairground, and the bedroom lit only by the light of a computer screen — and yet upends expectations for the genre.
From the opening scene, where the film’s teenage lead (Harris Dickinson in a breakout role) tentatively engages in a webcam flirtation with an older man, through more explosive encounters later on, Hittman reframes the process of growing up and coming out. “Beach Rats” initially deviates little from the expected format of the standard U.S. indie “coming of age” film, cycling through expected scenarios that see Dickinson and his friends flirting, smoking and goofing around, while he represses his true desires. As the narrative develops, and the pressures of hetero-masculine culture come into conflict with the already challenging experience of his burgeoning sexuality; Hittman — a capable and confident director despite only being on her second feature — successfully implants a queer perspective on a recognizable format with unpredictable and largely gratifying results.
“En El Septimo Dia”
With the more formulaic “En El Septimo Dia,” indie filmmaker-turned-television-director Jim McKay’s first film feature in 12 years shows a side of New York rarely glimpsed on contemporary cinema. As suggested by the title, the film follows a week in the life of a group of Mexican migrant workers in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park area as they prepare for a football tournament while balancing multiple jobs. The film’s message is one of communal bonds: When a hostile boss makes it impossible for the team’s star player, Jose, to attend the final, he’s advised that “there’s power in community, strength in numbers.” Fittingly when discussing notions of independence, “like a futbol team,” they seek a collective solution, pooling resources and pulling in favors in order to overcome the capitalist influences on their lives.
Gentrifying forces haunt the characters from every angle — the film’s white characters are so consumed by their own trivialities that they fail to see the damage they are doing to these working men — who play a critical role in the city’s unique identity. “En El Septimo Dia” is by no means a great film, but it is a humble and authentic one. By featuring no great dramatic twists but maintaining an emotional throughline, McKay’s film is a small-scale relief to the kind of overcomplicated storytelling dominating mainstream movies.