By Gerald Peary
I saw a handful of fiction films which were well directed, capably acted, and offered meaningful stories.
Every attendee of the South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW) creates his/her own path to follow, whether it’s a geek & nerd diet of Seth Rogen smutty humor and zombie midnight movies or a PC week of socially meaningful documentaries. As for me, I skip the horror stuff and arrested comedies, eat my spinach with some good-for-me docs, but also venture into an area where, in recent years, there’s often little payoff: American independent narratives. These seem to have lost their way, buried by Netflix streaming and cable TV opportunities for enterprising young directors. Where is today’s Jarmusch or Tarantino, or the post-mumblecore maestros?
With the exception of Yen Tan’s stirring AIDs drama, 1985, I gave up on indie narrative films at the 2018 SXSW, walking out of a half-dozen in the middle in despair. Happily, 2019 SXSW was something else, and I saw a handful of fiction films which were well directed, capably acted, and offered meaningful stories. Not quite a Renaissance yet but a signal of hope that American indies are alive and kicking, and credit to Janet Pierson and her SXSW staff for finding them.
A cool year at SXSW is when it features a film beloved by everyone which, despite its obvious crowd-pleasing merits, somehow got away from the programmers at Sundance. In 2013 it was Short Term 12, which introduced most of us to Captain Marvel star, Brie Larson. In 2019, it was Saint Frances, a brash, funny, very savvy feminist comedy, a kind of Amy Schumer-style picture which works far better than anything Schumer has put on screen. The first-time Chicago-based director of this totally woman-centered film is a talented man, Alex Thompson. His partner in life, Kelly O’Sullivan, is both the astute screenwriter and the charismatic, smart-blonde screwball star.
It’s about a slacker woman in her 30s who takes a job as a nanny for a mixed-race lesbian couple with a spry, cocky young daughter. In the most deft, nimble way, Saint Frances offers a winning story while getting behind a laundry list of important feminist issues, including postpartum depression and the efficacy of women dating younger men. There’s more discussion of women’s periods and tampons than in any picture in my memory, plus more actual menstrual flow, including an on-screen bloody bed after a night of intercourse. Even more meaningful, considering the history of cop-out abortion scenes in so many Hollywood movies, Saint Frances’s determined heroine, Bridget, goes for one and gets it, without any regret. You might need to go back to Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) for something so gutsy.
For two seasons, Annabelle Attanasio was among the featured cast of the CBS courtroom drama, Bull. She left the comforts of TV network employment for the chancy alternative, at age 25, of writing and directing a feature film, Mickey and the Bear, a SXSW premiere. It’s a poignant, harrowing tale of Mickey, a teenage girl (an excellent Camila Morrone), with lots of promise who is weighed down and limited by her constant caring for her drug-addicted veteran dad. We feel the pain of Mickey’s primal love for her father (a moody, striking performance by James Badge Dale) even as she screams inside for escape. Attanasio orchestrates an effectively ambiguous ending, an homage, I believe, to Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.
Perhaps more than any major film festival in the world, SXSW skews young, with many of the films curated with bright twenty-somethings in mind as the audience. There’s nothing wrong with that, creating a future film culture. Still, it’s refreshing to be offered a film such as South Mountain, in which the main characters are all interestingly middle-aged. Watching this smart, beautifully written, effortlessly directed film from Hilary Brougher, head of Columbia University’s film department, I couldn’t help but wonder if it reads as too transgressive and too 1960s sexually adventurous for today’s up-tight PCers. Here are characters in their 40s and 50s who show their bodies without shame, women who sleep with guys far far younger, a husband who has a child with another woman and everyone is somewhat civilized about it. All of this is maybe OK for a French movie, but an American one? I for one applaud director Brougher for her boldness and bravery.
Finally, I want to note a narrative film which stands out because, rare at any American film festival, it’s so formally arresting. It’s hard to find a correlative — Guy Maddin? Early Werner Herzog? — for the studied look of Rick Alverson’s intentionally self-conscious and slow-moving The Mountain. It’s the story of a comatose-acting young man (Tye Sheridan, adrift from his X-Men movies) who takes to the road in the 1950s as the assistant to a door-to-door-salesman-like doctor (Jeff Goldblum) whose specialty is peddling lobotomies. Need them or not. In a circuitous way, the story leads to a reckoning with a crazy man with a daughter who could use a brain operation. The lunatic pop is played by French actor, Denis Arcand (Beau Travail), who, great as he is, runs away with the film with too many speeches and too much unbridled seeming–improvisation. But kudos to filmmaker Alverson for turning Eisenhower’s placid America into an eerie, Germanic gothic nightmare.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. He is currently at work co-directing with Amy Geller a feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West.