Coming from a drab Canadian winter, Austin is hard to beat in the bloom of springtime when the South By Southwest Festival takes over the Texas capital with a vibrant kaleidoscope of music, film, educational, cultural, interactive events, screenings, performances, encounters and conversations. The cinematic program, celebrating a 25th year, offered more than 250 feature and short films, many by female and first-time filmmakers, selected from over 8,000 submissions.
The best festival experiences are the discoveries and serendipitous special moments. One happened because at Sundance I had missed seeing the strange western tale Damsel by the Austin-based directing duo of brothers David and Nathan Zellner. Catching it among 18 “festival favourites” at SXSW led to an impromptu post-screening chat with Richard Linklater, Austin’s greatest contribution to world cinema, who the day before had engaged French master Olivier Assayas in an hour-long conversation before a packed house at the vast convention centre. (Listen to an audio recording at: https://schedule.sxsw.com/2018/events/PP99193.) As for Damsel, its tragi-comic play on the western genre won’t please everyone, but gets strong performances from David Zellner as an accidental alcoholic preacher, Robert Pattinson as a doomed lovelorn soldier, and Mia Wasikowska as the distressed heroine who needs no saving.
The next day, after interviewing the directors of several excellent documentaries (more in next week’s column), I had a public exchange with another Austinite, actor-director-author Ethan Hawke, having already seen his work in First Reformed (my top film of 2017) and the Sundance gem Blaze, which were SXSW presentations.
Given hours-long lineups, I didn’t bother with SXSW’s biggest “headliners”: the premieres of John Krasinski’s horror thriller A Quiet Place and Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi pop-culture epic Ready Player One on the opening weekend; Wes Anderson’s whimsical stop-motion Isle of Dogs on the closing weekend. Besides, the extra publicity is hardly needed for such multiplex wide releases.
Let me highlight instead a festival favourite that was my top SXSW selection, bar none. Since premiering in the Cannes festival’s directors’ fortnight in 2017, The Rider has earned multiple awards, including being nominated for best feature at the Independent Spirit Awards. It’s a contemporary Midwestern story of compelling documentary-like realism focused on the talents and hurts of actual young cowboys on the rodeo circuit who play versions of themselves in a dramatized narrative that explores this world of wounded masculinity. Even more amazing is that it is written and directed by a young Chinese-American woman, Chloé Zhao, who speaks about her intensive low-budget multi-tasking process in a cover feature interview, “Rodeo Dream,” with another independent filmmaker, James Ponsoldt, in the spring 2018 issue of Filmmaker Magazine.
Zhao met The Rider’s principal character, Brady Jandreau, following her acclaimed previous feature, Songs My Brother Taught Me. Jandreau is a Lakota Sioux cowboy from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He later suffered a traumatic brain injury during a rodeo event that is a key element of the story. Brady has exceptional skills as a rodeo rider and horse trainer, but is warned that another injury could result in permanent disability or death. His best friend, Lane Scott, a champion bullrider, has been left a paraplegic in a rehabilitation facility, the scene of several moving scenes.
Brady has to confront being robbed of the one thing he is best at. He has a fraught relationship with his father and loses a cherished horse that must be put down. With limited education and job prospects, what is left of his riding dreams? Jandreau gives an exceptional, deeply affecting performance immersed in the plain-spoken naturalism of cowboy culture and set amid the striking landscapes of the plains.
Director Lynn Shelton co-wrote the script with another director, Jay Duplass, in the lead role of Chris, returning to his hometown of Granite Falls in Washington State after serving a 20-year prison term after being caught up as a bystander to a murder. Chris has developed a crush on a former high school teacher, Carol (Edie Falco), who worked tirelessly for his release as part of a campaign to end mandatory minimum sentences. She is caught in a stale marriage, and raising a rebellious teenage daughter. Both are looking for something more beyond family pressures and the burdens of the past. What works in this Netflix production are the understated performances and close observations that ring true.
Writer-director Bart Layton tells the stranger-than-fiction true story of four male students at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, who in 2004 conspired to steal a priceless copy of James Audubon’s Birds of America from its library. The ringleader, Warren, claims (dubiously) to have gone to Amsterdam to meet with black-market buyers. The recreation of events, backed by a terrific soundtrack, leads up to an abortive attempt with the foursome disguised as old men. An audacious second try, after overcoming an unlucky librarian, nets them seven-year prison terms. Interspersed with the dramatizations are interviews with the actual perpetrators as to their questionable motivations and post-release lives.
Iconic octogenarian Canadian thespian Christopher Plummer is a delight in the latest from writer-director Shana Feste. He plays Jack Jaconi, an incorrigible pot-grower and dealer who, after getting kicked out of an old folks home, inveigles his exasperated daughter Laura (Vera Farmiga) to take him on a road trip. Laura is also a single mom to misfit teenager Henry (Lewis MacDougall), whom Jack enlists to help unload the stash in the trunk. Among the customers is her ex-husband. There’s a good cause involved — getting Henry into private school. Never mind the improbables, it’s a thoroughly entertaining ride.
French filmmaker Mélanie Laurent pulls off this gritty downbeat thriller based on the Nic Pizzolatto novel about an ailing hitman, Ray Cody (Ben Foster), who escapes a deadly New Orleans criminal setup with an abused young woman, Raquel (Elle Fanning, also excellent), who has turned to prostitution. Raquel rescues her little “sister,” Tiffany, by force and the three flee to a motel on the Texas coast, with terrible consequences to follow as surely as the next storm off the Gulf. It’s harrowing and grim, except for the memory of one brief playful moment of sunny calm at the seashore.
The grand jury award winner, developed from an acclaimed Sundance short film by writer-director Jim Cummings, stars himself as a neurotic policeman, Jim Arnaud, who goes off the deep end after delivering the nuttiest funeral oration ever for his dear mom (shot in Austin in a single take). Another freak-out later, Jim loses custody of his daughter and his job in a series of tragi-comic sketches. Cummings’ exaggerated portrait of a fractured soul in the throes of a nervous breakdown certainly grabs the spotlight; however, a sober ending involving his ex-wife feels false and tacked-on.
Winner of an audience award, directed by John Hyams, a struggling small-time bookie, John Zbikowski (Michael Kelly), to whom everyone owes money, narrates his hard-luck story of taking a 12-year-old kid, Brian, under his wing and trying to teach him to pitch after having a one-night stand with his mom. Things get out of hand when John starts taking bets on little league games and tangles with the league manager, a self-satisfied jerk running for city council while carrying on a secret affair with the mom. Game over.
From writer-director Laura Steinel, a brilliant satire on workaholic career woman Kate (Taylor Schilling), who gets stuck with custody of her bullied 12-year-old niece for a week and discovers her inner “freak” (look up the “juggalo” fan subculture).
A Duplass brother production, directed by Suzi Yoonessi, based on the offbeat story of co-writer Charlene deGuzman who also stars as a young Asian-American woman, a “sex and love addict,” who leans on Maddie (Melissa Leo), an older woman in a support group, and finds relief in a musical connection to Maddie’s estranged brother Jim (John Hawkes) while living at their mother’s house.
A.J. Edwards directs this Texas story of Richie, drifting out of foster care into a world fraught with trouble and bad influences until he makes a potentially redemptive connection to Joan (Imogen Poots), grieving the loss of her mother, his landlady who was robbed and killed. (The excellent Tye Sheridan plays Ritchie in a more demanding role than in Ready Player One. Coincidentally, both movies premiered at the same time in adjoining theatres, the Paramount and the Stateside.)
An audience award-winner at Berlin and SXSW, Timur Bekmambetov directs this searing cautionary tale of London-based journalist Amy Whitaker, who creates a Facebook profile posing as a Muslim convert in order to investigate ISIS recruitment of foreign brides for its fighters in Syria.
A Sundance hit, directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada with a hip-hop in the ‘hood vibe, it follows the misadventures of two friends, black parolee Collin (Daveed Diggs) and white wannabe tough guy Miles (Rafael Casal), against a confrontational gentrifying Oakland backdrop. A killer cop angle adds to the contrived mayhem.
On Netflix, winner of audience and “gamechanger” awards, writer-director Olivia Newman tells the story of tough Brooklyn teenage black girl Monique, living in foster homes, who takes to wrestling boys while being used by her deadbeat dad.
Set in the crime-ridden Cape flats area of Cape Town, with a nod to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, a wheel-chair-bound man, Randall, and his girlfriend, in hock to a brutal loan shark and witnesses to murder, are caught in a deadly game of blackmail.
Writer-director Mazen Khaled casts a sensitive and sensuous gaze on a group of young Muslim men constrained by circumstances and conservative culture who seek freeing moments of escape in risky dives from the Beirut sea wall that looks toward Europe.
Shot in black and white by writer-director Yen Tan, a closeted gay man returns home at the height of the AIDS crisis in a touching farewell to family and friends that includes words of comfort to a troubles younger brother about “feeling different.”
Jody Hill directs this satire of a divorced gun-toting great hunter, Buck Ferguson (Josh Brolin), who takes his spoiled young son on an outing to bag a stag with big antlers, accompanied by his goofy unlucky videographer (Danny McBride). Coming to Netflix.
Speaking of goofy, this absurdist Nordic tale has a wannabe Finnish heavy metal band making a lot of noise that includes a notorious crossing into Norway.
Bel Powley, star of the Sundance hit Diary of a Teenage Girl, takes on a wildly different role in this creepy horror fable in which a young girl, “Anna,” held by a “daddy” captor/protector (Brad Dourif), is freed and taken in by a female sheriff (Liv Tyler) until wolfish appetites take over and survival means escaping to the northern lights. Fritz Bohn directs this howler.
Jason Stone helms this sci-fi oddity, set in California, about strange powers that occur when teenager Alex (Stefanie Scott) is touched by a mysterious alien light force and runs away with Sean (Théodore Pellerin, also in the fine Canadian feature Never Steady, Never Still).
This Canadian production, directed by Stephen S. Campanelli with Clint Eastwood as an executive producer, is based on the acclaimed Richard Wagamese novel about a First Nations boy, Saul Indian Horse, who becomes a talented hockey player, surviving residential school abuse, racism and addictions. It premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, but so under the radar it was not included in the official program book. Fortunately, a decent April 13 theatrical release is in the offing. Not to be missed.