By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 10, 2008 at 12:47PM
While the goofball stoner antics of "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay" and the sheen of the new Kevin Spacey vehicle "21" might help raise the profile of the South by Southwest Film Festival, its soul comes from filmmakers operating out of sheer creative impulses. Many of the entries contain little in the way of mainstream temptations, lacking both star power and strong budgets. The resulting productions frequently come closer than their heftier brethren to constructing authentic human experiences.
Reactions to "21" were fairly mixed, but those who chose to check out "Humbolt County," one of the alternative opening night films, discovered a singularly enjoyable coming-of-age story. The movie, part of the Emerging Visions section, sports two of them: Dual directors Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs, whose insightful, warmly entertaining look at Peter (Jeremy Strong), a young medical student whose harsh father (Peter Bogdonavich) rejects his less-than-perfect professionalism. Lazily following a fleeting paramour to her family in the insular community of marijuana farmers that gives the film its title, Peter initially follows the moral inclinations he gets from his father and tries to leave.
When transportation issues force him to stick around, he gradually comes around, learning to appreciate the settled existence and whimsical philosophies of the tranquil setting. The bittersweet pull of "Humbolt County" owes much to the subtlety of this transition; rather than transforming into an all-out pothead by the finale, Peter gets inside the problem of a lackadaisical existence and emerges with a greater understanding of how to battle it. If the narrative rhythm weren't slightly upset by an unneeded tragedy near the end that distracts from the central thematic development, "Humbolt County" might be a classic--but it's almost there.
Although it retains a sense of smallness to its scope, "Humbolt County" is one of the largest productions at SXSW dealing with being young and confused, second only to "Explicit Ills," which would make a great companion piece on a double bill. The ambitious directorial debut of talented performer Mark Webber ("The Hottest State"), "Explicit Ills" follows a series of interlocking stories (the press notes tell me there are four, but it feels like a lot more) amid the untamed backdrop of urban Philadelphia. Asthmatic seven-year-old Babo (Francisco Burgos) deals with his poverty-riddled mother (Rosario Dawson) while absorbing the neighborhood grime.
Meanwhile, a spacey drug dealer (Lou Taylor Pucci) romances a sheltered art student (Frankie Shaw); a couple tries to stay together while running a grassroots agriculture business; their son (Ross K. Kim-McManus) tries to win a bodybuilding competition. A lot happens from the very beginning of "Explicit Ills," and occasionally it becomes difficult to unite all the disparate threads, but Webber employs a clean, energetic plot with consistent forward motion and a wealth of diverse actors (Paul Dano has a standout role playing a depressed pothead).
Jim Jarmusch produces, but you'll find no patient minimalism here: Webber is always ready to move to the next big development, and he builds to a powerful finish, brimming with fury and conviction. "Explicit Ills" was submitted to the Cannes Film Festival just a couple of days ago, and it would make a great entry in the Directors Fortnight, considering its epic scope.
Whereas "Explicit Ills" creates a massive representation of social concerns, some of the smaller youth-centric SXSW movies get cozy with tangled personal struggles of growing up. "Natural Causes," a Brooklyn-based production directed by brothers Alex and Paul Cannon along with Michael Lerman, boils down to an intensely detailed study of an ill-fated relationship, chronicling both the charm of seduction and the pain of extinguished lust. Its star-crossed leads (real life couple Jerzy Gwiazdowski and Leah Goldstein) commit to each other and gradually lose traction in this generally well-paced, containable account of Romance 101. Beautifully shot and authentically tapped into hipster cadences, "Natural Causes" has the breezy engagement value of a great short story -- until its stunningly dramatic finish, that is, which resonates as the credits roll.
The SXSW companion piece to "Natural Causes" might be "Up With Me," another ultra-low budget take on post-teen breakups and burgeoning adulthood. Directed by Greg Takoudes and starring minority residents of New York's East Harlem, it tracks the difficulties of Brandon (Brandon Thorpe) and Erika (Erika Rivera, who gave birth to her child with Thorpe the day after the festival premiere), whose relationship becomes problematic when Brandon heads upstate for school. His close confidantes think he's betraying them; she's just worried about the long distance relationship. The early sections of "Up With Me," filled with queasy shaky-cam shots and stream-of-consciousness dialogue, make it a tough viewing experience -- later, however, the characters' arcs expand and so does the nature of the production, with strong compositions and a credible trajectory. The filmmakers acknowledge the boundaries of the project, and it works best as a nuanced study of inner-city realism.
Hardly realistic despite its attempts to ape documentary form, the narrative feature "A Necessary Death" tracks the insensitive project of a California film geek intent on tracking a suicidal subject during his last few days. Directed by Daniel Stamm, "A Necessary Death" has a remarkably convincing cast of twentysomething college grads uncertain of their own artistic endeavors. The emerging fake doc genre -- radically distinct from the mockumentaries pioneered by Christopher Guest -- stormed Slamdance this year, and the slow developments of "A Necessary Death" might have lead to it getting buried there. At SXSW, it's an intriguingly unique premise with plenty of thoughtful dialogue on the nature of staying alive. I'm troubled by the incongruity of these sweet, seemingly harmless characters and the vile scheme they concoct, but "A Necessary Death" (which is produced by Brian Udovich, whose previous credits include the Jonathan Levine-directed films "The Wackness" and "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane") immerses you in its originality. The concept and resulting movie are easy to like as they are to deride, but that, one could argue, is the haunting paradox of the human condition.
Get the latest coverage from SXSW in indieWIRE's special section.