Blogging SXSW :: Boyhood & Adulthood (And What Lies Between)
Day 3 was a very Texas-centric day. I started out with two meaty features from the Lone Star state, the first being the latest from Richard Linklater. He is a major force in American independent cinema, but especially here in his hometown, where he still serves on the Austin Film Society, he is an important name; so I knew I’d have to get my butt down to the Paramount around 9 AM to queue for "Boyhood". It was well worth it. Despite my faith in Linklater to deliver a quality project, I had some minor doubt that I would be as engaged by this one as I have been by the "Before" series simply because the synopsis sounds quite mundane. Basically, a boy grows up, going through the ordinary American rites of passage, while weathering a considerable does of family conflict along the way.
Of course, the film is much more because Linklater’s glory is in the wit and likability with which he bestows his characters. The most dramatic moments stem from fact that Olivia, the mother (Patricia Arquette) has an unfortunate penchant for choosing alcoholic partners who turn nasty over time. Linklater bypasses the "will they get back together or not" tension when Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) rolls back into town from Alaska. Hawke has said that working on this project was an even more unique experience than collaborating on the "Before" films, which constitute three chapters of a love affair and align the actual years that pass between releases with the time in the fictional narratives.
The focus is really on the maturing youngsters because Linklater succeeded at the challenge of using the same young actors over a twelve year period. His daughter, Lorelei Linklater, and Ellar Coltrane play siblings finding their independence and generally growing up while Dad sleeps around and provides a dose of fun on the weekends and Mom thrusts her energy into getting a couple Psychology degrees.
I felt the same way watching this film in Austin’s Paramount theater that I did watching "Milk" in the Castro Theater in San Francisco; it is the ideal setting -- both enchanting and logical. Whether out of tribute or economic necessity (as he suggested in the Q/A), it is significant that Linklater moves his characters all around Texas without ever crossing its borders (we even glimpse Big Bend, and it’s gorgeous). Oh, and thanks to this film I learned the interesting fact that grade school Texans are required to pledge allegiance to the Texas flag. A local buddy corroborated this.
Someone in the audience joked after the Q/A for "Boyhood" that he was done with the festival, that he couldn’t see any more films after that Linklater triumph, and I felt the same for a moment. Of course, one must carry on, and I continued on to another Texas-made feature by a big TX name -- David Gordon Green’s "Joe". Some of the folks who filled the grand Paramount theater for this one may have been lured by the fact that Nicolas Cage plays the title character (in a script based on a Larry Brown novel), an attention-worthy return to independent film for Cage. However, chances are that most people in the room were aware of Green’s remarkably varied and venerable oeuvre. Seriously. This guy has done everything from silly comedies like "Pineapple Express" to courageously independent and low budget Southern dramas like his debut "George Washington" and last year’s "Prince Avalanche," the former of which earned him numerous accolades.
"Joe" is one of his serious-minded features, although it proved to be much heavier than what I expect from him. This is intense backwoods Americana, to the point that in different hands it could come off as parody or white trash mockery. Imagine a milieu where deer are carved in the kitchen, blood and guts falling on the floor (is this credible?) and alcohol-fuelled brawls in dusty bars and resorting to rifles if fists don’t find resolution are all part of daily existence. This is the world of "Joe," in which the main character hires a transient young boy desperate to join his tree-poisoning brigade for some cash because his Pops is too much of a raging, non-functioning alcoholic to bring home the bacon.
The unfortunate effects of alcoholism on family members comes into play in both "Joe" and "Boyhood," with "Joe" being the more brutal and bleak portrait by far. Perhaps more significantly, violence was a commonality between the four films I saw today, though it was most disconcerting in the middle two films I saw. The domestic violence in "Boyhood" was ugly enough to get the point across but it was not dwelled on or wallowed in, as was the case in "Joe." The violence in "Joe" is central; Joe himself struggles (and fails) to contain his rage and he sure is good at taking a fucker out (including cops). The boy’s father, the most realistic -- seeming derelict I have ever seen on film -- is also a really nasty-tempered guy who doesn’t mind smacking his son to the ground to take his salary or killing a fellow derelict for his bottle of booze. Fisticuffs and a bit of blood are to expected in this realm, but by the end it felt like a cinematic chest-thumping; the prolongation and amplification became an insipid display of virility dubiously justified in an indie drama.
In "Faults" (directed by Riley Stearns), a down and out man (named Ansel Roth) who makes his living deprogramming brainwashed cult members gets himself into a baffling, bloody mess when a pair of concerned parents set on him with determination at his botched presentation, pleading him out of dejected retirement in order to save their daughter. The violence that plays out in a motel room where the deprogramming is set to occur is just one part of the ridiculousness of this film (by a native Austinite Stearns), whose lead character is established as a bilious buffoon from the beginning.
Amusingly, Roth’s ineffectual lashing out when his presentation bombs is to hoard the complimentary items from his hotel room, and this extends to everything he can possibly cram into his car, including the dolly used to transport his stack of rejected books. For a moment, this reminded me in the face of all the rather useless swag that SXSW attendees encounter -- my urge to grab tote bags, stickers, and an array of various items simply because they were free. Then, I thought, "oh God, please don’t allow me to have anything in common with this contemptible character!" Perhaps it’s just a breed of black comedy that doesn’t speak to me, but I felt the tone hovered awkwardly between comedy (too much dependent on the vile acts) and drama. The title refers to another kind of fault altogether but I couldn’t help thinking about the faults, the shortcomings, of this rather silly drama.
I was more than redeemed by the evening’s final film, "Wild Canaries". It also happens to be the token LGBT-labeled narrative feature. From the synopsis it’s not obvious where that categorization comes from because the main characters are a bickering hetero- Brooklynites. But there is joyful lesbianism to be found in two of the secondary characters (who develop a thing for each other). To elaborate, Barri and Noah stumble onto a new complication in their already fraught relationship when an old woman in their building that Barri teaches music turns up dead. Barri suspects foul play by a neighbor who Noah gambles with and feels friendly towards. Eventually, evidence piles up that this was no innocent heart attack, as the police have concluded, but first a frantic Barri has to enlist the assistance of their lesbian roommate, Jean, in spying on their neighbors. Meanwhile, Noah is... ahem... working hard with his ex-girlfriend, who is now a devout lesbian, albeit one who still has the hots for high strung-but-charming Noah. Real life couple Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine are dead on in this amateur sleuth comedy that tackles the anxieties of thirty-something hipsters; their silliness as navigate relationship woes and pursue possible bad guys consistently hits the right note.
We’ll Never Have Paris
Another real-life couple collaborated on the other laugh out comedy that I seen in the last two days. In the case of "We’ll Never Have Paris", Simon Helberg and Jocelyn Towne present an embellished version of their own story as a couple confronting the guy’s trepidation about committing to the only girl he has ever been with. Quinn is a tremendous dork but lovably so. He has been loyal to Devon, but suddenly he is falling prey to temptation largely because of the revelation that a sexy co-worker has a not-so-innocent crush on him. His certainty that he wants to marry Devon (he has been carrying around a ring, making lame attempts at proposing) wavers, and when she realizes this, she takes off for Paris to clear her head away from his absurd antics. There she falls in love with a hunky, intellectual violinist. Can Quinn win her back when he shows up on her Parisian doorstep? In the first few scenes I was concerned that Quinn’s extreme form of social awkwardness and dorky humor would be hard to swing with for a full film, but not so at all...I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time. His quips are priceless.
Just as Quinn’s surprise appearance in Paris doesn’t go over as well as he had hoped, when Sergi surprises his longtime girlfriend, Alexandra, by appearing unannounced on the doorstep of her Los Angeles apartment, she doesn’t exactly leap into his arms. "10,000 KM" (alternately titled "Long Distance") is a Spanish film about a Barcelona couple whose happy pursuit of insemination is interrupted when Alexandra is offered an artist residency in the US that would offer a much-needed jumpstart to her photography career.
In a commendable 22-minute opening shot (director Carlos Marques-Marcet discussed it during the Q/A), the couple has sex, Alexandra checks her email and learns of the offer, tells Sergi over coffee and toast, then they argue and negotiate, with Sergi emotionally oscillating. She goes to LA, and the film becomes a document of the effect that distance has on their relationship -- the jokes and reassurances giving way to insecurities and frustrations with the limitations of the technology they use to communicate. They stretch the limits of what can be done via video chat -- dancing, toasting, touring, and angrily destroying things -- but it’s still not enough to maintain their previous intimacy.
I was completely enrapt by this film, largely because of the chemistry between the lead actors -- what a sexy and charming couple they make! During the Q/A I learned that actor David Verdaguer is primarily a comedic actor; while he did strike me as particularly adept at conveying the goofiness of a smitten lover, he was equally compelling when saddened and angered by developments with his lover, whom he senses is slipping away from him. The film happened to strike a personal cord with me because I’m preparing for a probable move away from Austin for school, a dreaded break from someone I feel romantically for, with the anxiety about what will become of our affection for each other. However, even minus the timing and personal resonance, this would surely wind up one of my favorites of the festival. Marques-Marcet just does an amazing job capturing both the giddiness and ease of intimacy in relationships and the tumult of slowly growing apart.