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What Does This Year's SXSW Film Festival Tell Us About Today's American Indies?

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 18, 2013 at 1:8PM

Film festivals tend to invite descriptions in terms of trends, but they're more accurately described in terms of movies. This year's recently concluded edition may have no greater mascot than Scott Weidemeyer. On the surface, the obstinate role playing game master memorably played by Sam Eidson at the center of directors Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews' "Zero Charisma" reeks of clichés: Uncomfortably plus-sized, covered in unkempt hair, and awkwardly committed to making his dogged opinions about his pop culture obsessions the loudest ones in the room, he's an ugly embodiment of geeky indulgences.
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Sam Eidson in "Zero Charisma."

Film festivals tend to invite descriptions in terms of trends, but they're more accurately described in terms of movies. This year's edition may have no greater mascot than Scott Weidemeyer.

Memorably portrayed by Sam Eidson in Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews' "Zero Charisma," he's uncomfortably plus-sized, covered in unkempt hair and awkwardly committed to popularizing his Dungeons and Dragons ripoff. Lurching from one scene to the next as pitiable qualities ooze from his pores, he's hopelessly addicted to his selfish desires.

Scott's endless vanity was the essence of many standouts from this year's SXSW, where the breakout stories are the ones that fly the freak flag higher than the rest. 

READ MORE: The Top Films and Performances of SXSW 2013

The festival was populated by movies that valorized social rejects or provided new context for their marginalized roles. The leading example was the loudest: SXSW marked the U.S. premiere of Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers," a movie that simultaneously celebrates and recoils at hard-partying criminal antics. Korine, whose movies have always romanticized outwardly grotesque images of American pariahs, reached the apex of his career with this persistent montage of excess and the people driven to find it at all costs.

"Spring Breakers."

It's particularly telling that "Spring Breakers" bridged the gap between the insular world of SXSW, a hip crowd that naturally adored the movie, and the rest of the country, which swarmed into theaters when "Spring Breakers" opened last Friday and broke records for weekend specialty grosses. For years, Korine has unleashed unfiltered imagery that only select audiences willingly imbibe, but this time the numbers came up in his favor. Its popularity almost feels like a fluke -- unless one accepts that SXSW has more in common with general audience interests than meets the eye.

Few movies were as lucky as "Spring Breakers" to receive a theatrical release right after the festival, but they deserve attention for similar reasons. Grand jury prize winner "Short Term 12," the second feature from Destin Cretton, follows a group of emotionally disturbed teenagers slowly coming to terms with the world from the sanctuary of a foster home. Without glossing over the turmoil of his cast, Cretton generates sympathy rooted in the legitimacy of their experiences, alongside those of the young couple that work with them. Unlike "Spring Breakers," Cretton's movie doesn't push the language of cinema in jarring directions, but it similarly forces viewers to understand ostracized people without condescending to them.

The buzz surrounding "Short Term 12" may work against it once the movie hits theaters and audiences expect a grander achievement than this unquestionably stirring but familiar, down-to-earth narrative. But by then the hype machine will have worked its magic better than any trick performed by the lackluster SXSW opener "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone": For both studio movies and low-budget indies alike, SXSW provides a means of smuggling less obviously commercial material to a slightly wider audience. 

READ MORE: 'Short Term 12' and 'Drinking Buddies' Lead Indiewire's SXSW 2013 Critics Poll

"We Always Lie To Strangers."

The Sony-produced horror reboot "Evil Dead" hit the festival as a means of setting fan expectations on high, but that same apparatus aids smaller movies. Another midnight movie, the hilarious black comedy/satire "Cheap Thrills," was the only title at the festival to ignite a bidding war among distributors (it eventually sold to Drafthouse Films). Had the movie played at Sundance, such buyer interest may have been hidden by the enthusiasm over more acutely mainstream dramas like the prize-winning "Fruitvale."

At SXSW, the breakout stories are the ones that fly the freak flag higher than the rest.

Even the frustratingly crass and blatantly staged documentary "Unhung Hero," in which comedian Patrick Moote gets dumped by his girlfriend allegedly for having a small penis, then travels the world in search of a cure, gets away with its absurd premise by delivering a legitimate exploration of the penis enlargement industry and mocking the premise of it at the same time. In the vastly superior "12 O'Clock Boys," Baltimore teens ride dirt bikes through the streets in gorgeous shots that translate their dangerous and grimy antics into otherworldly beauty.

Similarly, AJ Schnack and David Wilson's "We Always Lie to Strangers" finds an oddly compelling poetry in the irreverent rituals of singing families in Branson, Missouri. Though at first perceived as the cheesy vessels of the city's massive tourist industry, the subjects of Schnack and Wilson's portrait take on a soulful dimension by routinely explaining the values driving their multigenerational traditions; as with the bikers in "12 O'Clock Boys," who wax poetic about their gravity-defying talents, the singers in "We Always Lie to Strangers" make attractive arguments for committing to behavior perceived as foolish or impractical by the rest of the world.

That defiance, and the curious results it creates, define the essence of this year's SXSW -- and its continuing need to exist in an increasingly saturated marketplace. At SXSW, the crowds and insanity quotient rise each year, with the tech frenzy of SXSW Interactive hogging much of the spotlight not otherwise dominated by the music. But through it all, the film festival continues to showcase movies that struggle against existing norms of mainstream cinema. Sometimes they fail; as usual, the program was populated with its fair share of duds. But the nobility of that mission makes the journey worth taking each time out. Like Scott Weidemeyer in "Zero Charisma," we keep rolling the dice and hope something good comes up that the rest of the world will appreciate.

This article is related to: Reviews, South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival (SXSW), Zero Charisma, Short Term 12, 12 O’Clock Boys, Evil Dead, We Always Lie to Strangers, Cheap Thrills, Unhung Hero