sxsw film 2011 - opening night

well, it's here. sxsw is officially upon us with the opening of the film festival last night. circumstances and schedules limited my opening night festivities to precisely one film, but it certainly was the right one. i eschewed the main event at the paramount, duncan jones' source code (2011), and didn't join the other cult members at the (newly re-opened!) state theater for zal batmanglij's sound of my voice (2011), instead opting for the meditative pleasures to be found in r. alverson's new jerusalem (2011).

on its surface, it's a simple story. sean (colm o'leary) is an irish immigrant, freshly returned from serving his adopted home country on a non-combat tour in afghanistan. head and heart without mooring, he drifts through his workdays, occasionally suffering severe anxiety attacks, alternately looking/not looking for the thing that is going to ground him, that will make him feel settled. ike (will oldham), his co-worker at a nondescript richmond tire shop, wants to help alleviate his rootlessness and, being a devout evangelical christian, sets about trying to help sean find the peace that faith has afforded him. plot is minimal. it's more a series of vignettes where we watch the relationship between these two men develop, ebbing and flowing as sean mulls over the promise of the eternal. the strength of the film is in the nature of the conversation that passes back and forth between the two men. it's when they are sharing themselves this way that the film truly shines, partly because those moments are filled with just as many banal observations and stale jokes as they are subtle revelations. in short, it conveys the actual process of becoming friends. it leaves nothing out and you get the sense that no topic is off limits, as evidenced by sean's willingness to take every one of ike's sometimes awkward questions at face value. it's a lovely irony that we see more than once, the fact that the character with the most conservative values is actually the most brazen. he risks more than anyone by the simple fact that he is willing to be so emotionally honest. love is hardly safe - even platonic, as it is in this case - especially to express to another man in a blue collar environment in a southern town, but buoyed by his faith, he does just that. his compassion for his friend's existential plight even sustains him, to a degree.

and that is really the crux of the matter in this film, the symbiotic nature of friendship, the need the believer has for the non-believer and vice versa. for ike, sean provides an avenue to serve, to employ christlike humility and love. for sean, ike represents the unattainable joy of simple surety. sean was once a self-described pious child, but close observation of a pair of prayer cards given to him in his youth led to the first in a series of epiphanies that undid his faith, chief among them being that you can't trust the man delivering the message. ike does all he can to earn that trust back, even going as far as to humbly wash sean's feet in his kitchen. it's a surprisingly powerful little scene and i am grateful that it isn't overplayed. the scene, much like the rest of the film, is warm and direct and, in parts, oddly funny. ultimately, though, none of it is enough to convince sean to abandon all the other paths of exploration that life offers. it simply is not the answer for him. sean's refusal exposes a crack or two in the veneer of ike's faith, as ike's response is to momentarily use love as a blunt instrument. it's an understandable, all-too human response. it is not easy when someone turns their back on whatever it is that makes the most sense to you. compounding this crisis of faith, ike's father has a stroke, leaving him almost as without mooring as sean was when the film started. sean's role has not changed. he is still the observer, listening patiently and still acting as a repository for ike's ideas about faith and grace but now that ike needs those ideas reflected back to him, it has become more complicated for both men. to do that would be disingenuous, for sean and for the film, so, again, i am grateful that alverson doesn't opt for the easy reconciliation.

one last note. hands are an important motif throughout the film. early on, especially, it seems that there is not a frame that doesn't prominently feature the human hand - approximations of penitence, actual penitence, engaging in transactions, taking medicine, busy with work, caring gestures - and it underscores just how much we rely on them as instruments of communication and industry. it also underscores how much we simply hold each other up, how much work there is to do, both for saints and we secular types, and how vital the work that each does is for the other.

you have two more chances to get a ticket for this in your hands during the festival. it is showing monday, 3.14.11, at 10:45 a.m. at the state theater and again on friday, 3.18.11, at 5 p.m. at the rollins theater. i highly recommend it.


  1. When it gets out into broader release will try to catch this one. It seems to me that this kind of thing Can be done well, but almost never is.

    That it's something you could have this kind of response to is a ringing endorsement.

  2. here's a link to the director's vimeo channel: http://vimeo.com/user414755

    it will at least give you an idea of what he does. intimate, dignified and unhurried without being grave, crisply shot, minor key americana. listening to him at the q & a afterward last night it seemed like he and i share (at least aspects of) a certain humanist/atheistic/agnostic philosophical bent. it was interesting to see a director who didn't feel the need to inject himself into the narrative or make the film ultimately as a vehicle for that viewpoint. it is very kind to its characters in that regard. everyone's frailty and need is equal and no one is judged for the methods they employ to sort it out for themselves. it is an impressive and thoughtful effort.

  3. to clarify, i guess what i meant there was it was not solely a vehicle for that viewpoint. there is no condemnation of anyone's solution, regardless of alverson's personal beliefs.

  4. am with you, that was my understanding from your post. if i land on the other side of that one, it is just barely - and i would prefer a real conversation with real questions and love, to someone talking at me with an agenda.

    that's just bullshit (and i think God agrees with me).

    i find it really interesting, maybe beautiful when people can resist that urge.