SXSW Film Festival ’11 | Day One

How often do you see an indie film which demonstrates an understanding of depth of field?

It’s easy to get overwhelmed at SXSW, particularly for a first-timer. There are nine principal film venues in the general area of downtown Austin (mostly within walking distance of each other), with screenings running from approximately 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. the following morning. There are also film panels running throughout the day, with titles like “Your Baby Is Ugly: Evaluating Your Film Honestly” and “New Tools for Filmmakers: Virtually Augmented 3.0 Reality.” Then there are the seemingly nonstop parties which could keep a person so busy they’d never get around to seeing any films—but that wouldn’t be right, would it?
You really do have to pick a lane and I’ve chosen the documentary route, so if my reports seem to skimp on the feature films, I mean no disrespect. It’s just a combination of my personal taste (I love docs) and the strong lineup here. Last year’s winner was Marwencol (directed by Jeff Malmberg), which was also my #1 documentary last year, and the runner-up was War Don Don (directed by Rebecca Richman Cohen), which I can also heartily recommend (something I can’t always do with the awards bestowed by that film society in California).
I’ll start by reporting on two films I was able to see before the festival, thanks to screeners provided by the directors. Take note, ambitious filmmakers: Anything you can do to make it easy for the beleaguered critic will increase the probability that your film will be seen and reported upon. Turkey Bowl, directed by Missouri native Kyle Smith, looks at the relationships among a group of friends in the context of a touch football game which is an annual tradition with them: the prize is a frozen turkey. It takes place in real time, and the point is not the game per se but the way the personalities of the different characters emerge over the course of it. You also gradually discover the baggage some of them are carrying, their relationships with each other, and their general attitudes toward life. Even in a game where the out-of-bounds lines are marked by t-shirts, winning is really important to some people. The start-and-stop nature of American football lends itself to this kind of exploration, and all the characters feel wonderfully natural. Turkey Bowl is a polished effort from first-time director Smith and a pleasant way to spend 63 minutes, which suggests we can enjoy bigger and better things from him in the future.
Max Weissberg is showing a short (8 minutes, 40 seconds), “Room 4 Rent,” which is a segment from his recently-completed feature film Summertime but works on its own, as well. The setup for “Room 4 Rent” is a classic New York City meet-cute situation: Anna (Olivia Horton) is looking for an apartment and Max (H.R. Britton) has one to rent. The process of checking out the apartment (How much are the utilities? Is this a safe neighborhood) and the tenant (Do you have a reliable paycheck?) moves almost imperceptibly into more personal territory as the two characters discover a mutual love for dance. The acting is good and all the technical elements are first-rate. I was particularly impressed by the cinematic quality of this short, above all the excellent camera work by cinematographers XiaoSu Han and Andreas Thalhammer (shooting in digital HD with the Red camera). Think about it: How often do you see an indie film which demonstrates an understanding of depth of field? This one does, and it makes all the difference. | Sarah Boslaugh

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