The Sheik and I
The steady rain that blessed the opening weekend of this year’s South By Southwest put a damper on a festival where long lines build buzz for even the most micro of indies. But at least the weather gave people waiting plenty to talk about, both this year and, presumably, next (“Were you here The Year It Rained?”). Inside references are the coin of the realm in Austin, and those who run the festival, are even more committed to growth through devaluation than the Federal Reserve: the bumper trailers that played before each feature dramatized “How Not to Be Lame at SXSW,” with wink-nudge vignettes of outsiders chasing “authentic” Austin barbecue and behaving presumptuously at post-screening Q&As. And indeed, following the world premiere of Caveh Zahedi’s The Sheik and I, technical difficulties had moderator Andrew Bujalski ferrying a single microphone back and forth between the filmmaker and het-up audience members telling Zahedi that he was insulting Arab culture, exploiting his cast, and bringing down a fatwa on his family.
When The Sheik and I screens again, footage from the Q&A (shot by Zahedi’s crew) will probably be incorporated into the film; the compulsive candor common to all of Zahedi’s films manifests itself here in ways both silly and harsh. Commissioned by the Sharjah Biennial to make a “subversive” film, Zahedi traveled with his wife, toddler son, and crew to the United Arab Emirates and began to film, and film the making of, a kidnapping story inspired by his reflexive paranoia as an American visitor to a Muslim country. The director as imperialist, Zahedi shows himself cajoling guest workers into enacting caricatures of life in a theocracy, drawing his half-baked scenarios from earnest conversations, while the government’s hip, excruciatingly polite arts bureaucrats are clearly uncomfortable about having to take his requests to the powers-that-be. When the Sharjah Biennial rejects the finished piece and threatens to take action (as Zahedi informs us in voiceover) The Sheik and I is cleared for exhibition only after an American lawyer reaches an agreement with the Sheik’s camp, guaranteeing that there will be no repercussions, legal or otherwise, against anyone who appears in the film. At the Q&A, Zahedi wasn’t hit with any charge he hadn’t already leveled against himself in the film (an earlier cut was apparently even more candid about the marital discord wrought by the trip). The Sheik and I is a fascinating exploration of deference to authority, and the roles and obligations of art and religion in that regard; it’s also a scrupulous, almost quixotic inquiry into the filmmaker’s fitness for such a task.
Gimme the Loot
The winner of this year’s narrative Spotlight competition was writer-director Adam Leon’s debut feature, Gimme the Loot, about two teenage Bronx taggers trying to hustle up cash for a big graffiti job. Though shot digitally, the picture has an egg-on-the-sidewalk graininess to it, reminiscent of summer-in-the-city movies past. A certain anachronism pervades: a mocked-up public- access video clip, glimpses of latchkey preppies, and a Wild Style–esque loft party make for a heady, nostalgic vision of New York for the supremely likeable newcomers Ty Hickson and Tashiana Washington to roll and claw through, respectively. Leon perceptively suggests that what’s a materialist fantasy for Malcolm (Hickson) is a struggle for agency for Sofia (Washington); he also makes open-ended observations about class difference in Manhattan’s compressed environment.
Sun Don't Shine
Two more familiar SXSW faces starred in another sun-saturated two-hander. In Sun Don’t Shine, the first feature directed by ubiquitous shoestring-budget actress Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil and Kentucker Audley play two young people on the run, with a gun in the glove box and telltale noises coming from the trunk. Complete with dreamily contrapuntal voiceover from the lead actress, it’s an Everglades-set Badlands deconstruction—like Kelly Reichardt’s River of Grass, but hot where Reichardt is cool. The film opens with a low-angle close-up of Sheil mid primal scream, eyes upturned; throughout, she’s raw, needy, manipulative (the oblique backstory recalls James M. Cain), and desperate to be convinced. Sheil, who appeared in three other films at this year’s festival, is so on that Audley gets laughs whenever he attempts to sidestep her poutily insistent romantic role-playing games (the crime story they’ve found themselves living within may be one itself).
The keyed-up performances in Sun Don’t Shine set its vivid motel-country travelogue apart, but the typical SXSW narrative feature is grounded in regional and subcultural specifics and invariably concerns characters trying to rouse themselves from paralyzing diffidence. In Sean Baker’s Starlet, Dree Hemingway (looking like an American Apparel version of her mother Mariel) plays adult-film novice Jane, stricken with a severe case of Lost in Translation underwear ennui amidst San Fernando Valley bungalow sprawl rendered in widescreen and white light bouncing off unpainted walls. If the logline—aspiring porn star forms unlikely friendship with surly widow—sounds forced, that’s not lost on Baker, who plays Jane’s cultivation of Sadie (Besedka Johnson) with the strained machinations of a porno setup. The symmetry of their listlessness, barely kept at bay by Jane with weed and Xbox and by Sadie with bingo and early-bird specials, is surprisingly compelling.
Another tale of a noncommittal protagonist energized by an outsized supporting character (also bearing a secret sadness), Martha Stephens’s Pilgrim Song follows a laid-off music teacher who abandons girlfriend and bong for a summer hiking trip, and falls in with a trailer-park dad who’s starved for company. Pilgrim’s progress is meandering, and it’s disappointing to see Stephens’s co-writer, Karrie Crouse, playing the kind of passive left-behind woman that unimaginative male filmmakers often chastise their actor-surrogates for neglecting. But, as in her 2010 film Passenger Pigeons, Stephens fills the lonely spaces with Appalachian mood music, in this case bluegrass and VFW-hall metal. And she proves attuned to varieties of experience both classically rapturous (bathing in waterfalls) and mundane (sampling bourbon at a local distillery).
Dave Boyle’s Daylight Savings marked the continued romantic misadventures of singer-songwriter Goh Nakamura, playing an especially fumbling version of himself as he previously did in Boyle’s 2011 Surrogate Valentine. It’s a lightly comic study in indecision, set among the West Coast’s steep-hilled cities and roadside attractions. A recurrent shot is Goh contemplating, but not answering, his ringing cellphone. In sometime musician Rick Alverson’s The Comedy, Adult Swim’s Tim Heidecker plays a North Brooklyn hipster determined to preempt everybody’s worst preconceptions of him by topping them (he and his friends, among them Heidecker’s partner Eric Wareheim and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, wave money at cabbies and fart around in a church). The signature shot here is Heidecker, eyes shielded by Ray-Bans, gazing searchingly at the East River.
Splitting the difference between the wispy Daylight and the lacerating Comedy is Bob Byington’s deadpan Somebody Up There Likes Me, whose milieu might as well be SXSW, given the cast filled out with Austinites, indie actors, and festival-veteran filmmakers. Leads Keith Poulson and Nick Offerman live through 35 years of their characters’ lives, love neither wisely nor well, and then die, without visibly aging, suggesting a sort of time-flies anxiety to which Byington’s unsentimental humor responds in kind (“Marry the next girl you see, it makes no difference”). The flippant nihilism is so pervasive that characters can barely remember each other’s names—to the point that it seems as if Byington, like Zahedi, is trying to stay one step ahead of any conceivable criticism. Which seems a fact of life at this most intimate of festivals.
Top 10 SXSW
1. The Sheik and I Caveh Zahedi, U.S.
2. Compliance Craig Zobel, U.S.
3. Gimme the Loot Adam Leon, U.S.
4. Black Pond Will Sharpe & Tom Kingsley, U.K.
5. Somebody Up There Likes Me Bob Byington, U.S.
6. Sun Don’t Shine Amy Seimetz, U.S.
7. The Comedy Rick Alverson, U.S.
8. Nature Calls Todd Rohal, U.S.
9. Pilgrim Song Martha Stephens, U.S.
10. Starlet Sean Baker, U.S.