March 21, 2012

SXSW 2012: Critic's Notebook #3

by Steve Dollar

Sun Don't Shine

Inspired by a recurring nightmare, the lovers-on-the-lam psychodrama Sun Don't Shine has the vivid evanescence of a fever dream. The movie opens with a gasp and a shout, as Kate Lyn Sheil's face, lensed in extreme close-up, snaps back across the screen against a bright blue sky. Before you can process anything, the camera shoves into a wrestling match between Sheil's volatile, hyper-aware Crystal and Leo (Kentucker Audley), who's trying to shake her into settling down as the mud flies. Something is happening here and you don't know what it is, but whatever it is you can feel the emotional torrents spilling over like the South Florida heat, flaring in every dancing grain of the Super 16mm stock.

Written and directed by Amy Seimetz, a prolific actor in dozens of indies who was a no-budge MVP before no-budge was cool, the film was a standout at this year's South by Southwest film festival, an edition that felt more soft-spoken and less buzzy than 2011's cricket-chomping Bellflower version. Sun Don't Shine Evoking Terrence Malick's Badlands as a Suncoast eruption of l'amour fou—that glockenspiel chime on the soundtrack an affectionate homage—the story is as much an experience of sensation and memory as forward action, suspended in small observances as the actors' voices float over the breeze as their car races south. The atmospheric style snaps into visceral engagement as the couple negotiates their situation, which becomes apparent soon enough, and the audience begins to sort out their place in a cinematic cosmos of getaway episodes (from They Live By Night through Pierrot le Fou to Kelly Reichardt's early, Everglades-set River of Grass).

The performances hold the frame, faces looming big as the sun. Audley, often seen as a jittery hemmer and haw-er in his own freewheeling films, bottles up his neurotic tendencies as a handsome, if suggestible handyman—Kentucker Studly?—who wants to do right by a vexing woman who's seen too much trouble. Sheil, studied so intently that the blush in her skin becomes a key element of the cinematographic palette, goes full tilt even when she's brooding, the rising up and rising down of her passions palpably attenuated in every pore. Seimetz's consuming interest in the actor's moment strips away much of the conventional narrative framework, the dramatic flux a function of a push-pull tension between the leads that feels as closely monitored as blood pressure.


Life on the margins was a lingering theme at SXSW 2012. In the documentary Tchoupitoulas, brothers Bill and Turner Ross continue their exploration of American cities begun in 45365, heading downriver from Ohio to New Orleans. There, over the course of nine months, they shot nightly rambles through the French Quarter and Faubourg-Marigny, often in the company of three young African-American boys from Algiers, where the brothers had a house. The plunge into the city's legendary lower depths has all the nocturnal lyricism you could imagine and then some, spliced together as a seamless journey in which every doorway conceals its own fantastic novel. The concept falls together with the narration of the kids (brothers William, Kentrell and Bryan), who riff on what they see and engage—from pretty ladies in varying states of undress, flashing their wares under flickering neon to street evangelists with bullhorns, beseeching the booze-soaked tourists to come to Jesus. The filmmakers celebrate a vision of things that seem as if they could hardly exist anymore, and yet continue to abide. If you've never heard a dressing room full of (transvestite?) burlesque performers harmonize on the Mardi Gras anthem "Iko Iko," then Tchoupitoulas will simultaneously expose and cure your cultural deficiency.


Documentarians Brian M. Cassidy and Melissa Shatzky root their debut fiction feature Francine in as strong a sense of place: the Hudson River Valley, a lush upstate locale that nonetheless has its own fringe. It's where the title character, played by Melissa Leo, has returned to live after being released from prison. With minimal dialogue and an often static frame that divulges sparing details, the film tells most of its story through Francine's rudimentary activities in a failed attempt to reconnect with the outside world. Rather than deal with people, Francine hoards cats and dogs, collected as she passes through a series of short-lived jobs (at pet shops, horse stables and veterinary clinics, natch) and sexual encounters. The directors' judicious minimalism, thoughtful compositions and use of non-professional performers (aside from their Oscar-winning star) creates a kind of abstract realism punctuated with perfect moments: as when the largely silent Leo emerges from her shack to witness a metal band playing in an open field, a crowd of fans dancing in eccentric, zombie-like tremors. If only for a moment, Francine fits right in.

The Imposter

The cultural outsider becomes the center of attention in The Imposter, a jaw-dropping true story that should have won more attention at Sundance this year but felt just right for SXSW. Set in small-town Texas, the documentary outlines the case of Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old French-Algerian convict who in 1997 impersonated a missing boy who would have been 17 at the time. Despite bearing almost no resemblance, he was warmly embraced by a family that had him "brought home" from Spain, where Bourdin haphazardly concocted a scheme that never should have gotten past the Spanish officials, who also took him for a teenage runaway—not a scam artist. Bart Layton's film introduces more and more twists, using the mix of re-enactments and first-person accounts, as well as the mystery novel structure, patented by Errol Morris. Even though the episode was long ago covered by network news outlets and magazines, and was even fictionalized in last year's film The Chameleon, this is one saga that's not really over until its over—and even then, you can't be sure.

Gimme the Loot

Best indie flashback: Even though it's set in contemporary Manhattan, Gimme the Loot—which won the Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature—has the run-and-gun mobility and funky vibe of a 1980s downtown comedy, evoking in various ways a kinship with the likes of Susan Seidelman, Jonathan Demme, Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch. Its story, which more immediately calls to mind something like Raising Victor Vargas, follows a pair of teenage graffiti artists from the Bronx, Malcolm and Sophia (played by newcomers Tysheeb Hickson and Tashiana R. Washington) over the course of 48 hours of misadventures as they plot a daring escapade. Alive to the visual poetry of the city streets and the energetic flow of adolescent enthusiasm, director Adam Leon captures the essence of the city.

The Source

Best beards: The Source, a well-told history of Los Angeles cult The Source Family and its founder, Jim Baker—aka Father Yod—who turned a health food restaurant on the Sunset Strip into a would-be cultural revolution as he led a clan of 200 on a quest for utopia in the Hollywood Hills. And, also happened to take on many of his comely followers as brides while recording some 65 albums of visionary psychedelic rock as the Ya Ho Wha 13.

Best high concept: The Home Alone-meets-Rambo scenario of The Aggression Scale.


Best neglected genre: The indie ensemble comedy, as realized with often giddy eloquence in Bob Byington's Somebody Up There Likes Me and Jonathan Lisecki's Gayby.

Worst word-of-mouth: Iron Sky, the Nazis-on-the-moon spoof starring Udo Kier.

Most disturbing trend: The "man-gina," demonstrated by characters in The Comedy and King Kelly, and thankfully away from the camera by Ron Perlman's cigar-chomping transsexual in frankie go boom.

Movies I really hate myself for missing: Pavilion, Los Chidos, Starlet, The Sheik and I, ¡Vivan Las Antipodas!

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Posted by ahillis at March 21, 2012 1:15 PM