The Return of John Sayles and Other Observations from SXSW


They say everything’s bigger in Texas — a sentiment that apparently extends to wait lines for airport taxis, the noise level of hotel air conditioners and, in the case of Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival, that much sought, unquantifiable thing called “buzz.” Zeitgeist value isn’t the only thing that’s big about SXSW. The Austin Convention Center, which serves as festival ground zero, seems scaled for the Olympics; the credential pick-up area alone occupies a massive arena that resembles those containment wards where survivors are herded in apocalyptic disaster movies. Which is an apt reflection of how one often feels at the end of a festival, but a rather ominous way of kicking things off.

Aesthetic concerns aside, SXSW (or “South By,” as it has been christened by those with a penchant for abbreviation) certainly merits its girth. Steadily over the course of the past two decades, this once cultish, regional event, gazed upon quizzically by old-media gatekeepers, has evolved into something that even Vanity Fair can no longer ignore. (I know: I ended up on sharing a microphone with their wide-eyed correspondent on a SXSW radio show produced by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, another moth drawn to the flame.)

You can argue over whether this means SXSW has inched its way toward mainstream respectability, or whether the mainstream has slowly been made over in SXSW’s image, where so-called “geek” culture and high culture have been placed on a level playing field from the start, and where the holy union of Silicon Valley and Hollywood was first foretold. (The festival, which began in 1987 as a music-only event, has included dedicated film and multimedia components since 1994.)

When I first came to Austin in 2009, as a juror for the narrative feature competition, film still felt very much like SXSW’s redheaded stepchild, with a handful of high-profile premieres (that year, the Jody Hill mall-cop comedy Observe and Report and a special work-in-progress screening of Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell) screening alongside many well-intentioned Sundance also-rans. But just in the few years since, the festival has noticeably stepped up its game, featuring the world premieres of Bridesmaids, The Cabin in the Woods, the Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated, Adam Leon’s Gimme the Loot and, perhaps most notably, Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture.

It was also here, legend tells, that the dreaded “M-word” — “mumblecore” — was coined to describe a certain brand of micro-budget American indie generally concerned with the ennui of post-collegiate white hipsters living off (or still with) mom and dad. And just like Sundance, which has taken its share of knocks for incubating certain plague-like strains of indie filmmaking (see: snarky self-empowerment comedies starring Steve Carell, Steve Coogan, or Steve Zhan; the entire career of Lynn “Humpday” Shelton), SXSW too has now been around long enough to incur similar charges of aiding and abetting. No generalization holds true across the board, of course, but suffice it to say that if the movie you’re watching is called Big Ass Spider or begins with a scene of a single guy in his late 20s masturbating, you’re probably in Austin.

No single filmmaker has been more closely associated with SXSW in recent years than Joe Swanberg, the prolific mumblecore savant who directed a dozen DIY features before his 30th birthday, collectively responsible for introducing Greta Gerwig to the world and for inspiring Kael-vs.-Sarris-esque trench warfare among young film bloggers (culminating in a much-ballyhooed 2012 boxing match between Swanberg and Badass Digest critic Devin Faraci at another Austin film festival, Fantastic Fest). Now all of 31, Swanberg was back at SXSW this year to premiere Drinking Buddies, a romantic comedy starring “it” girls Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick, which I missed during my five days at the festival, but which was well-liked by almost everyone I spoke to and generally seen as one small step for Swanberg towards serious indie credibility and one giant leap away from the contours of his own naval.

One SXSW generalization that definitely holds true: the festival is very, very young, from the average age of the filmmakers to the audience to the staff. At the world premiere of the Neil Labute-scripted Some Girls, the programmer introducing the screening noted that Labute had first come to SXSW in 1997 with In the Company of Men, a movie made “before my time.” When it was announced that Labute was unable to attend the screening, I wondered if he had really been waylaid by snow in New York (the official excuse), or perhaps been carted off by SXSW minions to participate in the fiery ritual of Carrousel.

Only when I saw another indie eminence grise, John Sayles, at the premiere of his latest, Go For Sisters, did I once again rest easy. Speaking onstage before his screening, Sayles noted that Sisters, a kidnapping drama of sorts set along the California-Mexico border, was made for less than $1 million and on a tighter schedule (17 days) than his landmark debut features, Return of the Secaucus 7, in 1980. And age notwithstanding, Sayles made for a perfect addition to the SXSW program: Secaucus 7 was nothing if not mumblecore avant la lettre, and in his work over the subsequent decades he has remained the very embodiment of the independent spirit, continuing to make his panoramic social dramas by any means possible, unaffected by the fickle demands of the marketplace.

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.