Sisters carries more than a few echoes of Sayles' great and twisty 1995 Texas noir Lone Star, which charted the overlapping lives of the residents in a small Texas town, any one of whom might have been responsible for a long-ago unsolved murder. This time, the setting is L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, where a middle-aged, widowed parole officer (LisGay Hamilton) searches for her missing son -- last seen helping to smuggle illegal Chinese immigrants north from Tijuana into the U.S. -- with help from an estranged childhood friend (Yolonda Ross) and a retired San Diego cop (Edward James Olmos). At times, the plot veers dangerously close to Cagney and Lacey Go to Mexico, but most of the time Sayles gives us vibrant, complex characters inhabited by actors who burrow deep -- a reminder of how scarce classical, involving human drama is at the movies nowadays.
The outré side of local filmmaking was on full display in Bryan Poyser's fitfully amusing The Bounceback, a ribald rom-com set against the world of "air sex" competitions (whose participants bump and grind against imaginary partners) -- and a movie that seems unlikely to ever again find quite as enthusiastic an audience as the hometown crowd that greeted its first screening in the 1,200-seat Paramount Theater. Meanwhile, a more lyrical and melancholic Lone Star mood permeated director Yen Tan's Pit Stop, a parallel portrait of the lives of two gay men on the rebound from failed relationships in a small rural town. It's a movie of considered silences and deliberate pacing, superbly acted and surprising in its cumulative power.
The festival's standout narrative feature, however, arrived in the form of Short Term 12, a powerfully affecting drama from writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton, whose debut feature, the soulful indie-rock drama I Am Not a Hipster, was one of the highlights of last year's Sundance. Here, Cretton's setting is a group home for emotionally and psychologically troubled teenagers, as seen through the eyes of the counselors, who are barely grown-ups themselves. They include the aptly-named Grace (Brie Larson), a calming force at the center of this storm, but considerably less assured in her personal life, which includes a live-in relationship with her fellow counselor, Mason (The Newsroom's John Gallagher Jr.). Like Hipster, this is a small, intimately realized film, void of the self-righteous sanctimony and bathos of many an institutional melodrama, closer in tone to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Like Sayles, Cretton is particularly good with actors, and the film marks a breakthrough of sorts for the incandescent Larson, who's had scene-stealing supporting roles in a number of bigger films (including Rampart and 21 Jump Street) but here takes center stage as a fragile young woman sailing the rapids from post-adolescence into adulthood.
Elsewhere, SXSW 2013 was distinguished by a number of outstanding nonfiction features, including director Penny Lane's playful found-footage assembly Our Nixon, which screens this week locally as the closing night of MOMA and Lincoln Center's New Directors Festival, and Milius, Zak Knutson and Joey Figueroa's loving portrait of legendary Hollywood screenwriter, raconteur and self-styled man's man John Milius, which makes a compelling case for the Apocalypse Now screenwriter as one of the industry's greatest storytellers -- on- and off-screen; and Downloaded, an exhaustively researched and impressively assembled report on l'affaire Napster by director Alex Winter. That Winter began his career as an actor -- specifically as Bill S. Preston Esq. to Keanu Reeves' Ted Theodore Logan in a much-loved 1980s time-travel adventure -- seemed largely lost on the SXSW audience. Onstage following the screening, when Napster co-founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker made a joke about taunting their director with air-guitar riffs, audible incomprehension filled the room, leaving old man Winter (now all of 47) once again outside of his own time.
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