South by Southwest is a nine-day cultural smorgasbord that strives to be everything to everybody: a blogger conference with bands, a music industry jamboree that shows movies, and a plain old film festival where, hours in advance, people were already snaked around the block for the red-carpet opening-night premiere of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Don Scardino’s film was an odd start to the 20th anniversary of this festival. Austin icon Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, which played two days later, would’ve been a better selection; unfortunately, like several of the best films at the festival (David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche, Jeff Nichols’s Mud, and Hannah Fidell’s A Teacher), it had already premiered at Sundance.
Despite its slacker-utopia reputation, Austin is a covertly competitive town, and the easy-breezy image of SXSW is a marketing fiction as well. Attendance is high and the theaters are small—even for an accredited journalist, securing entry to screenings is a veritable blood sport. There is no shortage of films, however; with around 130 features showing in 13 venues, the festival has one of the larger program slates in the country. No attendee can possibly catch more than a fraction of the offerings, no matter how many elbows they throw. Scheduling is a crapshoot. Odds are tough, nobody’s offering free advice, and in the end it’s hard not to come away feeling like an unlucky gambler.
This year I broke even; a handful of fresh discoveries justified the whole ordeal. Three of which are narrative features from Texas: Sean H.A. Gallagher’s Good Night, Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews’s Zero Charisma (both shot in Austin), and Chris Eska’s The Retrieval (shot in the south and east of the state).
In Good Night, a chamber drama with an ensemble cast that includes Alex Karpovsky, Johnny Mars, and Todd Berger, Leigh (Adriene Mishler) and her boyfriend Winston (Mars) host a dinner at their suburban home for a group of old college friends. Reuniting after a decade of adulthood, the friends implicitly rank themselves according to status. It seems that owning a luxury car is okay, holding a glamorous job is good, raising kids is better, and having cancer trumps all. Ostensibly a birthday celebration for Leigh, the occasion turns into a pity party (as one character puts it) when Leigh reveals that her leukemia has come out of remission, and that she will not be seeking further treatment. Good Night raises a universal question: “How would my loved ones treat me if they knew I were dying?” Answers are as varied as the spectrum of grief. Some confront Leigh angrily, some avoid her, others make awkward romantic confessions, and everybody uses the occasion as an excuse to smoke cigarettes. At its painful core, Good Night makes a case for assisted suicide, but never treats the subject lightly.
A different moral crisis unfolds in The Retrieval, a Southern Western about bounty hunters during the Civil War. Two former slaves—young, fatherless Will (Ashton Sanders) and his uncle Marcus (Keston John)—are sent north by a mercenary gang to track down Nate (Tishuan Scott), who is accused of being a runaway but is actually a freeman. They do it for the money but also because the white bounty hunters will kill them otherwise. Will and Nate form an alliance, and the boy must decide whether or not to sacrifice his own life to save Nate’s. While The Retrieval shares some themes and settings with Django Unchained, it’s not an action movie. In his director’s statement, Eska calls it an “emotional suspense film,” an apt description for this understated thriller. (Interestingly, this is the Texan-born director’s first feature in English; his 2007 film, August Evening, was Spanish-language, and before that he made a short, Doki-Doki, in Japanese.)
The best of the SXSW comedies was Zero Charisma, a dark satire about the politics of geek culture. The movie opens on the slovenly Scott (Sam Eidson) rocking out to heavy metal on his iPod while cruising the grocery store for snacks, his fingerless gloves dusted with the remnants of cheese puffs. He’s just been fired from a comic-book store under mortifying circumstances, and he now works at the Donut Taco Palace (a real-life Austin fast-food restaurant). His life’s passion is a Dungeons & Dragons–inspired game of his own fastidious design; as “Game Master” (identified thus by a bumper sticker on his car), Scott has been hosting the same “adventure” every Tuesday night for three years, wherein he and three other players go on a quest to vanquish a “Goblin Queen.” When one of the participants suddenly drops out, Scott must find a replacement. He reluctantly settles on Miles, who is not only handsome and sexually active but a star blogger who has interviewed the Wachowskis. This threatening interloper plus the sudden arrival of Scott’s belittling mother from Arizona throws Scott into a spiral of rage and delusion. The key to Zero Charisma’s charm lies in its refusal to glorify its underdog protagonist. Like Terry Zwigoff’s adaptations of Dan Clowes’s graphic novels Ghost World and Art School Confidential, Zero Charisma walks the fine line between incisively accurate observations and laugh-out-loud comedy.
While we’re on the subject of Texas films, Green’s Prince Avalanche deserves mentioning. A remake of the 2011 Icelandic comedy Either Way, set in the late Eighties, it’s a road movie in the most literal sense, shot in the charred landscape of Bastrop State Park, an area 40 miles east of Austin recently devastated by wildfires. Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch play highway workers performing the Sisyphean task of repainting stripes on hundreds of miles of highway. Hirsch, a lazy slob and would-be womanizer, is the younger brother of the girlfriend who’s giving heartsick Rudd the runaround. Rudd is the uptight Bert to Hirsch’s unkempt Ernie, and they comport themselves with sweetly innocent emotional diplomacy. Tender and crude in equal measures, Avalanche is one of Green’s best.
We Always Lie to Strangers
Finally, the cream of the world-premiere crop hailed from Missouri. AJ Schnack and David Wilson’s documentary We Always Lie to Strangers peers into the economic and social struggles and thorny politics behind the rhinestone razzle-dazzle of the Midwest’s largest musical tourist attraction: the small Ozark Mountain town of Branson, which specializes in “old-fashioned, family-friendly” entertainment. Dripping with sequins and soaking in kitsch, Branson plays host to millions of tourists each year, boasting over 50 live-performance theaters and “more seats than Broadway.” The filmmakers are veteran documentary programmers: Schnack is the founder of the Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking, while Wilson co-founded the True/False festival in Columbia, Missouri. In Strangers, they study the backstage lives of families that make up the musical variety-show troupes which occupy different rungs on Branson’s ladder of class and status, from the well-established, conservative Presleys of the Presley Country Jamboree, to the “flaming liberal” Lennons from California, to the messy divorces behind the scenes of the “Magnificent Variety Show” and the riverboat revue “Showstoppers!”
It would’ve been easy to exploit the film’s dozen subjects, but Schnack and Wilson are dedicated to showing their dignity. With its gorgeous landscape interludes and a bewitching a capella score by the band Mountain Man, both of which pull the viewer out of the showbiz hustle and into the natural beauty of the Ozarks, We Always Lie to Strangers casts a quiet spell. For a few hours, at least, I found a tranquil place amid the festival’s cacophony.