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SXSW Review: 'Euphonia' Makes You Hear the World a Different Way

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 14, 2013 at 12:23PM

In the grand tradition of "The Conversation" and "Blow Out" -- but produced with far more modest means -- "euphonia" uses sound to heighten the sense of its characters and audience alike. Danny Madden's microbudget tale of a curious teenager (Will Madden) who grows obsessed with a recording device runs a trim 53 minutes, barely contains any dialogue, and hardly qualifies as a feature-length movie. But the filmmaker's commitment to his cryptic technique makes "euphonia" into an enthralling experience so impressively realized that it may deserve its own category of cinema.
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"euphonia."
"euphonia."

In the grand tradition of "The Conversation" and "Blow Out" -- but produced with far more modest means -- "euphonia" uses sound to heighten the sense of its characters and audience alike. Danny Madden's microbudget tale of a curious teenager (Will Madden) who grows obsessed with a recording device runs a trim 53 minutes, barely contains any dialogue, and hardly qualifies as a feature-length movie. But the filmmaker's commitment to his cryptic technique makes "euphonia" into an enthralling experience so impressively realized that it may deserve its own category of cinema.

In the opening moments, the unnamed lead character wades through an electronics store and discovers a high quality microphone. Within no time, he's addicted to recording everything: Street sounds, nature, and the poetic ramblings of a homeless man face the scrutiny of his new gadget. Madden foregrounds these auditory snapshots through a complex sound mix that sneakily takes over for the diegetic sounds of the character's actual environment. That gradual encroachment quietly sets the stage for a twist around the midpoint that finds the young man scrambling to regain his connection with the world. By this point, viewers will be able to relate.

While light on plot specifics, "euphonia" contains one other central character, a female classmate of the protagonist (Maria Decotis) who serves as his central connection to the material world. Their romance, gorgeously captured by cinematographer Jonathan Silva as the burgeoning couple wanders across a vacant runway before retiring to her room, nicely contrasts the boy's technological obsession with a less daunting physical one. When she she realizes his flagging mental state, "euphonia" sets the stage for a thrilling showdown between the perils of the digital age and the possibilities of returning to a pure state outside of it.

If you give yourself over to the concept, 'euphonia' has no need to answer to the binds of plot.

In the woodsy area where the character constantly retreats from civilization to digitize the natural world, he takes on a menacing dimension, as if he's attempting to suck the lifeblood out of his surroundings. With the stakes frighteningly high, "euphonia" winds up for a closing act and then simply ends -- leaving a greater sense of the potential that Madden establishes for his material than any semblance of their realization.

Yet that's almost enough. Chucking conventional exposition from the very beginning, Madden creates an instantly alluring world defined by the dissonance between subjective experience and the exterior world, a tension that has been exacerbated by the advancements of contemporary technology. The message of the scenario is obvious, but Madden realizes it with such intricacy that it hardly matters. If you give yourself over to the concept, "euphonia" has no need to answer to the binds of plot. Primarily an experimental application of suspense for quasi-science fiction ends, it may be the first movie of sorts to provide the ability to travel inside its main character's perception of noise and stay there for the duration of the running time.

That memorable achievement makes it obvious that Madden has enough material here to keep going with the concept or try his hands at a new one. Evidently talented in the art of otherworldly filmmaking techniques, his achievements here show the capacity for storytelling that simultaneously rejects narrative conventions while amplifying some of its most potent ingredients. Both a gentle love story and horrific descent into the destruction of unfettered consciousness under twenty-first century conditions, "euphonia" invites a form of spectatorial engagement sorely lacking in all but the most audacious avant garde cinema. It's also imbued with an irony that lingers throughout: While ostensibly an indictment of technology, "euphonia" depends on it for its very existence.

Criticwire grade: B

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Too brief for a conventional theatrical release, "euphonia" may continue to reach interested audiences in theaters, but could also benefit from a digital release that could expand its reach. Mainly, though, it sets the stage for whatever the filmmaker does next.