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Critic's Notebook: How This Year's SXSW Film Festival Illustrated the Best and Worst of American Independent Film

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 18, 2014 at 10:42AM

Here are a few takeaways from one of the most eclectic SXSW film festivals in years.
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"The Heart Machine," an entry from this year's SXSW Film Festival.

10 years ago, when 23-year-old former volunteer Matt Dentler took on the reigns of the SXSW Film Festival, the art and industry of American cinema was in a very different place. Digital filmmaking had yet to become the market standard for microbudgets, hardly anyone relied on video-on-demand platforms to watch new movies, and the internet was rarely a plot device. One of the biggest breakouts of the year was Sundance-winner "Primer," an esoteric time travel movie that barely even made the cut at that festival -- among the only places in the country where any unconventional U.S. movie could receive a major platform.

SXSW's film programming has retained a certain familiarity even as it has grown more eclectic than ever.

Today, SXSW continues under the guidance of Janet Pierson, and remains among the foremost places to discover under-the-radar movies largely made by emerging U.S. filmmakers telling stories decisively rooted in the present. This has been its mandate for a decade: The perception of a so-called "mumblecore" movement largely emerged from the festival's willingness to showcase a community of indie filmmakers exploring contemporary youth experiences with no lofty commercial motives. The stories proliferated; now, we're in a post-mumblecore age, where SXSW simply provides a platform for all kinds of young voices, movements be damned.

READ MORE: The Indiewire 2014 SXSW Bible: Your Guide to All of Our Coverage

Dentler opened the gates to a broader range of microbudget indies just in time to take into account the influx of product: In 2007, his last full year as the festival's producer, the festival received around 3,200 submissions of shorts and features; the latest edition, which wrapped Sunday, received nearly twice as much. As a result, the programming has retained a certain familiarity even as it has grown more eclectic than ever -- representing the best and worst tendencies of American movies made outside the studio realm. Here are a few takeaways from the 2014 festival.

Technology Rules All

SXSW Interactive continues to function as the tech junkie's Mecca, and since it takes place at the same time as the comparatively smaller film portion, it's only natural for the movies to resemble the conversations surrounding them. This year's program featured a number of terrific features that engaged with the way technology has impacted modern communication. Ever since Joe Swanberg's "LOL" broke out at the festival in 2006, movies about the role of online conversations in contemporary relationships have tended to fit well with the festival's brand -- but this year, they practically burst out as a subgenre.

Zachary Wigon's energizingly unpredictable "The Heart Machine" involved the exploits of a curious New Yorker (John Gallagher, Jr.) striving to figure out if the woman with whom he devises an online affair (indie fixture Kate Lyn Sheil) actually lives a lot closer to him than she claims. While Wigon's slow-burn story adopts an engaging cerebral tone, it felt like an allegorical companion piece to the undeniably masterful "10,000 KM" ("Long Distance"), an emotionally sophisticated two-hander focused on essentially the same subject in more believable terms. Spanish director Carlos Marques-Marcet's delicate tale involves a young couple who attempt to remain close through online conversations after one of them moves from from Barcelona to Los Angeles.

More than simply illustrating that European filmmakers have caught the tech bug that began infiltrating American cinema a few years back, "Long Distance" proved that the fragmented devices of text messages, social media and video chats have evolved from being cheeky gimmicks and now signify profound shifts in human behavior. If the role of technology in daily affairs crops up so significantly among next year's selections, SXSW might need to give them a special section.

Documentaries Need a Better Hook

Also in need of a special section: non-traditional documentaries. SXSW can't be blamed for programming well-intentioned portraits of activist intent like "Vessel," which features the exploits of a Dutch physician who travels the world by sea to help women in need of abortion advice in countries with restrictive laws. Similarly, the tech-savvy "Print the Legend," a chronicle of the rising industry for 3D printers, fit right into the scene. But these two disparate works were slotted into a competition that also contained Margaret Brown's "The Great Invisible," a trenchant look at the economic ramifications of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Brown's poetic overview deservedly won the grand jury prize, but there was still a noticeable lack of formalist ambition throughout the section. As a result, it reflected an increasingly outmoded idea of documentary's restrictions rather than the bracingly original alternatives found elsewhere (to be fair, this problem also plagued the recent Sundance lineup).

While SXSW has often provided a healthy showcase for unique documentary snapshots like "Tchoupitoulas" and "12 O'Clock Boys," it may need to kick up its game to offer a more advanced overview of innovative approaches to documentary form. These cinematic possibilities are already receiving focused treatments at festivals like True/False -- which takes place a week ahead of SXSW -- and the upcoming "Art of the Real" showcase at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. SXSW, which has been ahead of the curve in terms of American narrative filmmaking, needs to catch up with the similar shifts taking place in this adjacent space.

If It Sounds Good on Paper, Don't Do It

"Creep."

Two significant ingredients that broke out of the festival world over the past decade came together with unseemly results this year: Found footage horror and Mark Duplass. Five years since "Paranormal Activity" arrived at the Slamdance Film Festival, and nine years after former Austin-based filmmaker Mark Duplass appeared in "The Puffy Chair," SXSW premiered "Creep" -- a found footage horror film produced by the genre's latest maven, Jason Blum, and starring Duplass. While Blum has figured out a crafty formula for churning out low budget horror, and Duplass has honed his ability to act in a wide variety of projects while developing unique, improv-heavy directing efforts with his brother Jay, the combo isn't exactly a perfect match.

Patrick Brice's debut feature co-stars the director, who plays a clueless videographer hired by the eccentric cabin-dweller Josef (Duplass), an oddly charming man allegedly dying from cancer and interested in producing a record of dying days for his unborn son. The usual shaky-cam routine walks an odd line between comedy and horror without sufficiently uniting the two. Aided by jump scares aplenty, "Creep" manages to show a side of goofball Duplass we've never quite seen before, but the meandering, predictable movie barely rises to the challenge of matching his creepy smile with an equally menacing atmosphere. Duplass has the right idea with this latest attempt to diversify his screen presence (he also had a bit part in "Zero Dark Thirty"), but the found footage approach suffers from the same lazy quality afflicting the plot.

Young Men Going Crazy: Yes, Please

"Premature."

But "Creep" still gelled with a trend of recent narratives about young men losing their minds. Some of the entires in this emerging focus are more than welcome. In 2011, "Bellflower" seemed like an anomaly by presenting a vision of hormonal urges gone wild without the aimless, proto-philosophical jabbering that dominated so many portraits of young Americans. Now the "Bellflower" gene has transformed into something of a subgenre: Dan Beers' directorial debut "Premature" rejuvenated the giddy fun of '80s teen sex comedies with its "Porky's"-meets-"Groundhog Day" vibe -- featuring the all-too-hilarious premise of a soul-searching high schooler whose day repeats each time he ejaculates -- while Joel Potrykus' "Buzzard" took a darkly comic look at the process by which a rebellious cubicle worker slowly goes crazy trying to cheat the system.

Riley Stearns' tonally fascinating "Faults" involved an older character trapped in arrested development as he attempts to save a brainwashed woman and inadvertently finds himself brainwashed as well. Collectively, these movies represent a lingering identity crisis facing the image of the young American male in society today: Caught between his crafty, virile assertiveness and trepidation about the future, he's in constant denial about a world moving faster than any of his schemes. These movies are all frequently hilarious, even as they're rooted in a topical plights tinged with melancholia. But it's not just the neurotic men who stood out...

Women Are Receiving the Complicated Treatments They Deserve

One of the hallmarks of Pierson's legacy is the discovery of actress-director-writer Lena Dunham, whose "Creative Nonfiction" premiered at the festival in 2009 before her breakout feature "Tiny Furniture" won the grand jury prize a year later. Dunham's ensuing success became an overnight symbol for newfound assertiveness among young women storytellers. That tradition remained alive as ever at this year's festival, where women directors won the competition sections for both the documentary selections (Margaret Brown, for "The Great Invisible") as well as the narratives (Sarah Violet-Bliss, for co-directing "Fort Tilden"). While "Fort Tilden" featured a frequently grating odyssey involving two superficial, privileged Williamsburg residents over the course of one tiresome day, the movie nevertheless benefited from foregrounding its aspiring hipsters without a single well-defined male character to prop them up.

Leah Meyerhoff's "I Believe in Unicorns."

Even so, the superficial jokiness of "Fort Tilden" barely adds up to more than a bland satirical gesture. Far more sophisticated female protagonists could be found elsewhere: Leah Meyerhoff's "I Believe In Unicorns" explored the transition from adolescence to teen angst through the lens of its troubled young lead (Natalia Dyer), who wastes her days caring for her ill mother and imagining animated beings to rescue her from daily frustrations. Her respite comes in the form of a badass punk rocker (Peter Vack), who's obviously not as safe for her as he initially appears. While ultimately too slight to leave much of a lasting impression, Meyerhoff's debut contains several intimately realized moments that capture the fragile emotional state of its teen anti-hero, whose emerging sense of independence suggests the slim tale could use a sequel.

In fact, it's not a huge leap to imagine the character transforming into the commanding role inhabited by Brooke Bloom in Anja Marquardt's "She's Lost Control," where the actress plays a fiercely individualistic sex surrogate in New York City. An insightful twist on the relationship drama in which the central mystery involves whether its lead can actually experience a real relationship, "She's Lost Control" is riddled with the ambiguities that define her authentic sense of uncertainty about the future. That journey takes on playfully literal manifestations in Lawrence Michel Levine's "Wild Canaries," a breezy New York-set detective story in which the director's wife, Sophia Takal, plays a bored city dweller drawn to investigate a possible murder mystery involving the tenants of her apartment building. Both movies focus on the plights of young women driven to extreme actions by their loneliness, but consciously avoid overplaying their femininity. Indeed, they indicate that such overwrought characterizations have receded into the past -- except, perhaps, in Hollywood.


This article is related to: Festivals, Reviews, Creep, I Believe in Unicorns, Fort Tilden, The Heart Machine, 10,000 KM, Buzzard, Vessel, The Great Invisible, Faults, She's Lost Control, Critic's Notebook, SXSW 2014