sxsw film 2011 - the award winner

i have only been able to make it to a handful of films this time around, but i was lucky enough to get into robbie pickering's natural selection (2011) on friday night and was pleased to find that it lived up to expectations.

pickering's film won both the audience and jury grand prize in the narrative feature competition, in addition to best editing, score, screenplay and breakthrough performance awards for its two leads, rachael harris and matt o'leary. i can't say how deserving it was, as i didn't see any of the other films in the narrative feature competition, but i can say i enjoyed it a great deal. it tells the story of linda white, barren, devout christian, suburban texas housewife. after over two decades of marriage, she discovers that her husband abe has been surreptitiously donating to a sperm bank for almost the entire time. this comes to her attention because abe has a stroke one day, mid-donation. in the hospital, she takes his slurred, fevered, potentially final ramblings to be a request for reunion/reconciliation with the seed he parted company with so many years ago. she manages to dig up information for one long lost son, raymond, from a list of what looks like dozens, maybe hundreds, of wildly scattered offspring, and heads to tampa to bring him back. from there, it becomes a road movie that (mostly) manages to avoid the conventions of the genre. the oddball chemistry of the two leads combined with a script that's mindful of the comedy that comes from navigating our own personal minefields makes for a satisfying end result.

rachael harris was the real revelation here. i knew her from some of her television/internet comedy work, so i was familiar with how sharp and funny she is. i was not aware, however, of what a fine dramatic actress she is. she was playing a woman whose life had essentially been suspended in amber since she was sixteen. the march of time was never going to bring the thing she wanted most, a child. she was already moving forward on willpower, filling that void with duty, and now betrayal by her husband had cut her completely adrift. she is facing a monumental loneliness and harris conveys every little nuance of it. with only her puffy jacket to protect her, she ventures out into the dangerous and unfamiliar world. this is a film about rebirth, in no uncertain terms. both raymond's emergence from a lawnmower bag womb in the opening credits and her escape from her suburban texas shell are the beginnings of new lives, in more ways than one. she faces this challenge with a mixture of good cheer, naiveté and dogged determination that makes it nearly impossible for the viewer to do anything but hope she gets everything she wants. what makes it interesting is that we get to go alongside her as she is truly discovering exactly what that is, for herself, for the first time. if you know me, you know my general opinion about most coming of age stories, but i don't think i have ever seen such an effective one that's actually about a middle-aged woman. she is so plainly beautiful and wide-eyed that sometimes it almost hurts. there is a moment or two that stretches the suspension of your disbelief to its limit and the questions that go unanswered leave a few gaps in the narrative, but her pluck, growth and new-found self-reliance are worth your investment. it's not a perfect film and it resides squarely in "indie with heart" territory, but this character (based on pickering's mother) and her story are unique enough to avoid most of the clichés and harris' performance is fantastic. it's a wonderful effort from pickering, especially for a debut feature.

aside from the films i have already written about, the only other things i managed to catch during the festival were a couple of midnight movies, both full of recycled genre elements, neither of which was particularly notable. the first was adrián garcía bogliano's cold sweat (2010). of the two midnight offerings i caught, this was the far better film. a pair of kids stumble into the hands of a pair of killers who are the remnants of a group of revolutionary political activists whose ideological battles have dwindled in scope to the point that they are now focused on eradicating foolish kids, lured via the internet, with a twenty-five year old case of explosives. the best thing this film had going for it was the argentinian spin bogliano put on this particular set of horror tropes. from the political nature of the back story to the fact that the scantily clad damsel in distress actually has some hips on her, it makes for an interesting experience when you filter a lifetime of watching horror films through another cultural perspective. the nitroglycerin as weapon of choice was also a nice touch. none of that was enough, however, to raise it above average. the second midnight offering was james wan's aptly titled insidious (2010).

ok, to be fair, it's not just a rip-off of poltergeist (1982). it blatantly steals from dozens of other superior movies as well. the twins from the shining (1980) are in it, all grown up and apparently suicide girls, to name just one. almost everything about this movie was laughable. the "demon" in the climactic confrontation looks more like he's getting ready to go to burning man than take your soul. it's about as scary as an aerosmith video. the titles were interesting. that's about the best thing i can say about this derivative, anemic piece of tripe. don't waste your time. go see ti west's film instead.

and, as a parting shot, here is one of joe nicolosi's bumpers from the festival. kind of clever.

p.s. sxsw, in general, was a bad scene this year. the dfa 1979 and screeching weasel nonsense was just the tip of an ugly iceberg. stay home.

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