By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 14, 2014 at 11:23AM
While SXSW attracts thousands of people over the course of its nine days, the film industry is always wary about it. Sales agents and distributors are more likely to be found dissecting the business on various panels or enjoying barbecue and tacos than actually making deals for the movies in the lineup. But even if the festival doesn't attract a vibrant marketplace, the program certainly contains a lot of strong movies that are for sale. SXSW is one of a few havens for smaller American indies, which may strike some distributors as less valuable than places like Sundance, where potential commercial hits lurk in every section. Yet by that same token, the movies at SXSW are ideally suited for the more compact nature of emerging distribution models, with their emphasis on niche audiences and revenue streams from the digital marketplace.
At the time of this writing, several of this year's highlights remain without a home. With the roar of the music dying down and crowds receding from the streets, now's an ideal time to consider these options with a sober perspective.
From its remarkable 23-minute opening shot, "Long Distance" switches to a fragmented approach, capturing the conversations between a couple spending one year across the world from each other while attempting to keep their bond intact. The story largely unfolds through pixelated video chats, social media and even Google Maps they use to show off their neighborhoods. They talk and talk, out of obligation and presumed need, but with time they have less to discuss aside from their frustrations over their disconnection. It's a startling confident debut from Spanish director Carlos Marqués-Marcet, who manages to evoke strong emotions with ongoing restraint. With its universally involving plot, "Long Distance" should be able to appeal to anyone.
The initial scenes featuring young couple Bobbie (Kim Shaw) and Jude (David Dastmalchian) in director Colin Schiffli's "Animals" are so precious that it comes as a shock to discover that they're both heroin addicts. Living out of a decrepit car parked near the Chicago Zoo, Bobbie and Jude team up to keep their habit alive, which at first provides them with enough confidence to ignore the downward spiral they're trapped within. By letting the troubles creep in, Schiffli's accomplished first feature — scripted by Dastmalchian — makes their conundrum both accessible and intimately unsettling at once. As an actor, Dastmalchian's star power keeps rising, but "Animals" proves he's a talent to watch in more ways than one.
Much of the odd comedic appeal in Riley Stearns' "Faults" emerges from a pair of carefully orchestrated lead performances: Character actor Leland Orser delivers a fascinatingly offbeat turn as downtrodden author Ansel Roth, an expert in deprogramming brainwashed cult members, while Stearns' wife Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays the young woman he's hired to deprogram. Delivering an icy, cryptic performance that ranks among her best — and exists a world apart from her role as a messy alcoholic in "Smashed" — Winstead's frequently inscrutable expression epitomizes this unique movie's enigmatic appeal. Imagine "Martha Marcy May Marlene" by way of the Coen brothers and you'll start to get the idea, but "Faults" is a truly original dark comedy bound to provoke conversations that last.
Margaret Brown's grand jury prize-winning look at the debilitating impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion on the lives of those at the bottom of the food change impacted by its toxic effects brings the full scale of the disaster into alarming focus. Rather than simply assailing the empty suits at BP with empirical data or righteous activism, "The Great Invisible" takes a slow-burn approach that makes its topic both shockingly real and intimate. More than an exposé of the oil industry, it's a first-rate look at communities struggling for survival in the shadow of indifference.
Director Zachary Wigon's debut focuses on a man engaged in a long-distance relationship and suddenly afraid that his lover may be lying to him; tracking her whereabouts around town, he relies on clues via Facebook, text message and emails, all of which are fluidly woven into this alluring and tenderly enacted narrative. "Short Term 12" star John Gallagher, Jr. expands his range with a quietly involving performance as he snoops around the city unraveling a mystery with personal ramifications, while the typically cryptic Kate Lynn Sheil portrays the curious object of his affection. With its emphasis on the pratfalls of 21st century communication, "The Heart Machine" is a romantic drama of the moment, and a cautionary tale for anyone who turns to the web for love.
Time travel mix-ups have provided ample fodder for a range of comedic material, from "Back to the Future" to "Safety Not Guaranteed." The Australian romcom "The Infinite Man" is part of a rare breed that uses the constant pileup of future and past events to enhance its humor and intelligence at once. Writer-director Hugh Sullivan's first feature — in which a lovesick scientist continually returns to an anniversary event with his girlfriend in attempts to keep things from going sour — initially takes the form of a lightweight comic fantasy that gradually increases its sophistication with a network of dense events littered throughout a tangled chronology. The result is a funny and oddly involving representation of one relationship's ups and downs.
A teen sex comedy unapologetically indebted to "Groundhog Day," director Dan Beers' giddy feature embraces the sophomoric tradition of "Porky's"-era horny male humor with a warm, consistently funny attitude, like a scrappier version of "American Pie." The premise alone virtually seals the deal: Smarmy virgin Rob (confident newcomer John Karna) is battling a rotten day with his foul-mouthed buddy (Craig Roberts) and fretting over a college interview with an irreverent recruitment officer (Alan Tudyk), before seeking respite with a fleeting sexual encounter. But that's when "Premature" goes gonzo: Poor Rob discovers that each time he ejaculates, the same day starts from scratch. Even Phil in "Groundhog Day" didn't have to shoulder such an awkward burden. While its reference points are appreciated, however, "Premature" succeeds by repeatedly landing its sophomoric humor and actually managing to say something profound about the concluding moments of teen life. If the energy of eighties comedies has migrated to the microbudget space, then "Premature" should lead the charge.
From the opening minutes of "She's Lost Control," it's clear that Anja Marquardt's portrait of a sex surrogate in New York City will take its subject matter seriously, using a studied manner that gives the material fresh context. With Brooke Bloom's central performance giving the movie its dramatic anchor, "She's Lost Control" — which premiered in Berlin and will next play at the New Directors/New Films series in New York — strikes a fascinating mood between slow-building angst and cold remove not unlike the Joy Division song that provides its title. As single Manhattanite Ronah, Bloom (last year's "Swim Little Fish Swim") initially projects an unsettling degree of confidence about her profession, going through the motions with various clients while Marquardt frames her topic with startling matter-of-factness. With time, however, it becomes evident that this unorthodox way of life can't possibly sustain the settled quality that Ronah brings to it. Bit by bit, the problems add up: Glimmers of her family issues in upstate New York, her concerns about her future, and a client for whom she might be developing feelings all slowly bear down on her, setting the stage for an alarming climax. The cryptic atmosphere yields an alluring look at the intersection of physical and psychological intimacy.
The saga of Louis Sarno has never been a secret. In the 1980s, American writer and musicologist visited the remote Bayaka Pygmy clan in the Central African Republic to record their unique music; with time, he settled among them, married a member of the tribe and started a family. But the true record of his unique tale finally comes together in "Song From the Forest," documentarian Michael Obert's perceptive and utterly gorgeous look at Sarno's life today and his experience returning to his old haunts in New York. Through an elegant juxtaposition of jungle and city life, "Song From the Forest" (which won the top prize at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam) not only shows what drew Sarno to the Bayaka's world, but the impulse that kept him there.
Delicately shot by cinematographer Siri Klug, "Song From the Forest" begins with an abrupt immersion into Sarno's life, where he's surrounded by lush greenery in every direction and the spiritual profundity that the tribe's solitary life has provided him. It doesn't take long to establish why he loves it there, but despite the degree of his integration he remains tied to his earlier roots: a scrappy radio provides him with news from the outside world, and he continues his affinity for classical music, which Obert conveys through a soundtrack that blends the Bayaka's sounds with 16th century renaissance chants. The resulting portrait of Sarno's existence could form a compelling project by itself, but Obert effectively digs deeper to magnify Sarno's distaste for his old home with an appropriate hook: After his adolescent son Samedi grows ill, a bereft Sarno promises that he'll take the child to see the world if he manages to pull through; once he does, Sarno takes Samedi on a trip to New York, where Samedi seems more curious about the allures of urban life than his father ever was. By documenting Sarno's worldview, "Song From the Forest" compellingly foregrounds the ephemeral nature of all culture. Additionally, by demonstrating the intrinsically poetically simple manner of the Bayaka's ways, it merges with his mission.
Struggles of young New Yorkers have provided fodder for countless portraits of urban angst that vainly strive to reach for the tropes of Woody Allen. "Wild Canaries" has all the markings of this formula, but makes some admirable attempts to shake it up by stuffing the usual routine into a detective story. If the "Scooby-Doo" gang grew up and moved into a cramped Manhattan apartment building, they might resemble the oddball characters populating director Lawrence Michael Levine's bubbly murder mystery, in which the ultimate solution to the whodunit scenario matters less than the wily energy its characters bring to uncovering the puzzle. "Wild Canaries" exists somewhere on the spectrum between Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye" and Aaron Katz's "Cold Weather:" Moody protagonists, swept up in the aimless flow of their lives, seek escape from its monotonous rhythms. In spite of the constant activity, there's not a whole lot going on, but it's still a fun place to visit. The movie is simultaneously an endearing New York comedy and a legitimate whodunit, which gives it a broader appeal than meets the eye.