SXSW Film: Ok, That’s a Wrap

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03/22/2011 3:32 PM |

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This’ll be the last post rounding up films seen at this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival. Thanks for reading along.

Greenpoint’s Kate Lyn Sheil, costar of Green, again plays a naturally recessive woman driven to extremes by a boyfriend who plows past her insecurities in Joe Swanberg’s Silver Bullets; Sheil has a genius for acutely, silently registering what the people around her want from her.

Silver Bullets comes out of Swanberg’s sudden, already prolific blue period—here, he casts himself as a filmmaker whose encroaching middle age is triggering self-doubt about his very Swanberg-esque films; he also demonstrates his ambivalence stylistically, with unprecedented directorial flourishes: red lighting on his stoic face as he swigs beer or watches old outtakes on his laptop, and very on-beat string-section punctuation; there’s also a late turn into subjectivity that feels far less literal. (I applaud the effort to break out, though if he’s going to be more daring in shaping his film diary entries visually, then it’s really finally time he learned how to light a scene.)

In a parallel storyline, the filmmaker’s girlfriend, played by Sheil, is cast in a werewolf movie whose director, played by DIY horror maven and SXSW fixture Ti West, more apologetically questions the extent and purpose of his artistry—he has all these “pretentious” ambitions he’ll never speak out loud, he confesses to his leading lady, now souring on her boyfriend’s lo-fi ambitions as he casts her best friend in his umpteenth sexually explicit autobiographical microindie. Swanberg, who blockily interpolates expressions of dissatisfaction from David Foster Wallace and The Seagull, questions the use of his films by examining the toll they exact on Sheil—a somewhat presumptuous strategy, really, but her performance justifies it.

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Azazel Jacobs, director of the fine, dryly depressive The GoodTimesKid and Momma’s Man, scales up a bit, into more familiar indie quirk territory with Terri, from a screenplay by Patrick Dewiit. It’s about the relationship between an obese 9th grade midget and the assistant principal who takes an interest, as flawed indie movie educators do, in this good-hearted kid from a difficult home (Creed from The Office is the creepingly senile uncle with whom he lives), who’s taken to wearing pajamas to school.

John C. Reilly plays the assistant principal with his customary unself-conscious doofiness, perfect for a principal/mentor, but the real find is Jacob Wysocki, who receives the first end-title credit in his first feature-film role. He’s got a great sardonic, mature voice and wonderfully uncoordinated body.

Jacobs, for his part, does most of his work at the margins of the story—it’s a slightly more conventional film than his priors, especially as misfit kids get drunk for the first time with each other, but Jacobs does well to imbue strange, singular minor details with significance, like the way he pans across a desk along with the Milk Dud Reilly rolls towards Wysocki.

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The only full screening I attended while SXSW Music was going on was the fourth and final screening of Robbie Pickering’s Natural Selection, which won the Best Feature, Best Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Music awards—and two of the three “Breakthrough Performance” citations—in the narrative competition. (Roger Ebert, New York’s Logan Hill and the Sundance Institute’s Michelle Satter were the jury.) It’s, I suppose, a reasonable crowd-pleaser: a devout woman tracks down the miscreant offspring of her chronic sperm-donor husband, and the two play off each other in a snappy-sentimental road trip and across a couple of well-engineered, not-unpredictable plot twists.

Stars Rachael Harris and Matt O’Leary indeed deliver strong, self-aware performances, but the star is first-time writer director Robbie Pickering (an NYU grad). Partly because of his relatable script, mixing a gloss on nature vs. nurture with a middle-aged middle-American woman’s delayed awakening and jokes about sex and God; and partly because of his natural, performative ease at the Q&A after. Here, he brings his nice-looking Christian mother on stage and talks about how she inspired the film, then launches into well-dramatized stories of the film’s casting, tells jokes about the fake Christian porno-within-the-film (“the other line, which we cut, was ‘This is the spray the Lord hath made’”), and does schtick with his mother (“cover your ears for this part, Mom” “Don’t worry, Mom, none of the sex stuff was autobiographical. I’m still a virgin.”).