By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire March 17, 2010 at 4:27AM
The SXSW jury seemed to be following the buzz on the street as they named two of the fest's biggest conversation pieces as jury prize winners. Leading an impressive lineup of provocative films, Lena Dunham's "Tiny Furniture" took home the award for best narrative feature and Jeff Malmberg's "Marwencol" was awarded the best documentary feature award. Audience awards went to "Brotherhood" (narrative) and "For Once in My Life" (doc).
"Honestly, 'Tiny Furniture' should be intolerable. It's about post-college malaise, which is the type of topic that becomes exponentially harder to relate to as you get distance on it. It's about the added doldrums of figuring out a career when you come from the kind of privileged background where you're not actually required to get one, which is the type of topic that's hard to relate to at all," starts IFC's Allison Willmore. Fresh off a breakup and a graduation, Aura (played by Dunham) moves into her mother's Tribeca loft, and as things play out in the film, Willmore was won over. She continues, "Aura's vulnerability and the often bitingly funny series of humiliations that stem from it make her sympathetic, but she also does some awful things -- screwing over a good friend, stealing her mother's diary, brandishing an off-putting sense of entitlement. It's a disarmingly open performance, and it's not one capped with an obvious comeuppance."
Our own Eric Kohn notes, "'Tiny Furniture' works because the production values maintain a certain precision that transcends the meandering nature of the plot. Dunham and her family engage in emotionally charged confrontations that retain legitimacy because they arise naturally from the circumstances at hand." Commenting on an early cut of the film, Hammer to Nail's Michael Tully glows, "the absurdly young Lena Dunham has made a gargantuan artistic leap forward."
After barely surviving a brutal New York beating, Mark Hogancamp copes with the complications by creating a fantasy world he calls Marwencol. Writing in Moving Pictures Magazine about finding Hogancamp, filmmaker Jeff Malmberg says, "When I first met Mark, he kept coming back to the same frustration - “No one understands.” He said this over and over during my first visit. Not his friends, not his family, and especially not the five teenagers who had attacked him. No one understood the frustration and pain of having your entire life taken away and being left with nothing." In a respectful review on IFC, Stephen Saito notes, "the film itself is a bit rough around the edges as the interviews with Mark's friends and family mostly only illustrate how much of an enigma the man always was. Still, 'Marwencol' is a film that never sits in judgment of its subject, a quality that allows for unforced answers to the usually ineffable questions of how art is created, how it can heal and how artists can reconcile their reality to the one that stands outside their door."
Writing in defense and excitement at her jury's choice, LA Weekly's Karina Longworth praises the film, "'Marwencol' stood out from the competition pack for a number of reasons, but as I noted at the ceremony, for me the most refreshing thing about it was that it seems to fuse several different strands of contemporary non-fiction filmmaking that rarely seem to coexist within the same film. It's a film about social issues (mental disability, alcoholism, sexual identity) that presents itself in an extraordinarily personal way, with Hogencamp's story unfolding so organically that it seems as though the subject is talking directly to the viewer, slowly revealing more of himself as one would with a strander-turned confidante, as they slowly earn our trust. It's both "relevant" and "personal" -- two buzz words that are often bandied about, but Marwencol earns them."
In Joe Leydon's Variety admiring review of the audience award-winning fraternity-pledging-gone-bad "Brotherhood," he says, "First-time feature helmer Will Canon drives his actors on a virtually nonstop full-court press from first scene to final fade-out, only occasionally pausing for a dab of backstory or a burst of black comedy to give the players -- and the audience -- a fleeting breather. Canny marketing could drive this well-crafted indie beyond the fest circuit and into megaplexes." Perhaps presaging the audience win, Canon explained why SXSW audiences might attach to this film in an interview with indieWIRE, "When I think of films and filmmakers that I associate with Austin, I think of guys like Tarantino, Rodriguez, Linklater and those are the guys whose films I grew up watching and who we referenced for 'Brotherhood.'"
When talking to indieWIRE about his audience award-winning doc "For Once in My Life," director Jim Bigham noted his goals for the film, which follows the Spirit of Goodwill band, made up of twenty-eight musicians with physical and mental disabilities as they make their music: "We knew from the beginning that the film might be considered as a depressing, pity-invoking film, about a subject on which most people would rather not dwell. Bottom line: we wanted to make a film that would entertain as it inspired." Judging by SXSW audience reaction, it looks like it worked. On the Sounds Like Screen Spirit blog, Don Simpson writes, '"For Once in My Life' features both heartaches and triumphs; it will cause just as many smiles and laughs as it does tears."
As the week rolls on, Austin is beginning to be taken over by the fest's music component, but extra screenings of most films will still be giving audiences a chance to catch up on the fest's highlights. Take a look at the interviews from competition and Emerging Visions filmmakers here, and, if you're in town, here's our guide to the city and enjoying the fest. Still not sure what to see? Check out indieWIRE editor-in-chief Eugene Hernandez's ten to watch.