Following an opening night that showcased the many categories competing and screening at this year’s Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF), one thing became gradually apparent as the program rolled out at the Angelika Theater Center and Magnolia Theater over past weekend – Texas’s own film industry is thriving.
Though Texas shot films are allotted their own competing category, a wealth of Texan films popped up in the Documentary and Narrative competing categories. Arguably the biggest entry in this year’s fest was “The Dry Land,” from Texas-born filmmaker Ryan Piers Williams, competing as part of the Narrative lineup. Having recently premiered in January at Sundance, Williams screened his feature debut alongside his starry cast (America Ferrera, Jason Ritter, William Valderrama and newcomer Ryan O’Nan) to two packed screenings over the weekend. Despite the film’s high profile here, William’s film is an intimate, small-scale character study of a man returning to his family in El Paso, following a stint with the Army in Iraq. Williams keeps the story focused on the soldier’s self-destructive state of mind, and leaves politics out of his picture, resulting in a frank depiction of what many soldiers face after returning home.
Another Texas-based gem, albeit a comedy, Robert Byington’s “Harmony and Me” (in the Texas Competition) is characterized by a similar understated aesthetic. The potentially self-indulgent tale of a guy unable to cope with a recent breakup and his insensitive friends and family, gains enormous laughs from Byington’s ability to wring out observational humor amidst the strangest of circumstances. Bolstered by a mumblecore approach that lends vitality to the acerbic script, Byington’s freewheeling comedy plays like if Noah Baumbach decided to direct a film originally conceived for the Farrelly Brothers. That’s a compliment.
Other Texas made features, including Clay Liford’s “Earthling” and Neil Truglio’s “We Are the Sea” (making its world premiere) generated excitement among locals for their homegrown talent, but it was the sunny state’s docs that caused the biggest stir. At the Dallas premiere of Mark Landsman’s thrilling documentary “Thunder Soul,” the packed house stood to their feet cheering and clapping as the credits rolled, and for good reason. The film chronicles Houston’s inner city Kashmere High School Stage Band, a funk powerhouse group, as they reunite 30 years after disbanding. Prior to breaking up, the band broke grounds as an all-black high school group and toured their music worldwide. Directed with infectious energy and mad love for his subjects, Landsman weaves together a dynamic tale, as foot stomping as it is moving. The reunited band was on hand at the film’s Dallas premiere, and later played an all-night set at DIFF’s Reel FX Centerpiece Party.
Telling a similarly rousing musical tale, Peter Rosen’s documentary “A Surprise in Texas” made its world premiere to a sold out crown at DIFF. Shot during the 2009 Val Cliburn International Piano Competition in Ft. Worth, Rosen documents world class competing pianists as they battle it out for one of the most prestigious prizes in the piano world.
It was a particularly strong lineup for documentaries. Sundance shocker “The Red Chapel,” from Danish journalist Mads Brugger offered DIFF audiences a horrifying and at times grimly funny peek into North Korea. Meanwhile those going into “Bear Nation” expecting a doc in the vein of “Grizzly Man” were in for a surprise. In the doc (executively produced by Kevin Smith, who makes an appearance late in the film) director Malcolm Ingram traverses the globe to uncover the gay bear subculture – essentially overweight (or obscenely muscular) men with an affinity for body and facial hair.
Out of the six documentary shorts to screen, Amy Grappell’s “Quadrangle” left an indelible impression. Presented in split screen, the 20-minute doc follows a divorced couple as they reminisce over their involvement in a foursome with another married couple, who were once close friends of theirs. Their reason for sharing spouses? It was the '70s and they were young. But as the film progresses, a tale of intense jealousy and heartache seeps out, making for a fascinating doc of a marriage gone awry.
On the other end of the spectrum, akin to Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIFF) popular Midnight Madness series, DIFF’s Midnight Special lineup offered an international array of macabre films. Most notable was an Australian entry, Sean Byrne’s “The Loved Ones.” A gruesome tale involving incest, a power drill and rabid cannibals, Byrne has delivered a film sure to garner a devoted cult following in the U.S., if it picks up distribution. Another film looking for a U.S. buyer, Eli Craig’s raucous “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil,” drew comparisons from the audience to “Shaun of the Dead,” despite being made in Canada.
Of the out of competition Centerpiece Screenings, Derrick Borte’s “The Joneses” (which had its world premiere at last year’s TIFF) was a standout. A wry comedy that pokes fun at our consumerist culture, the film succeeds as timely populist entertainment. One of its stars, Amber Heard (“Pineapple Express”) was present at the screening to pick up the Dallas Rising Star Award.
The Dallas International Film Festival runs until April 18. For more on the festival, check out their website.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Nigel M. Smith is currently working with indieWIRE in New York while pursuing a Master’s degree in Arts Journalism at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communication. In June, he will be covering the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC for the The Post and Courier.