All this week, Paste catches you up on the films of SXSW. Today, writer David Roark reports on three narrative films he caught there.
Safety Not Guaranteed
There are many films to still be seen here at SxSW, but it will be difficult for any to better Safety Not Guaranteed, which already won over audiences at Sundance. The film, director Colin Trevorrow’s first narrative feature, does the unlikely for any art medium in that it successfully rides the line between fantasy and reality, as well as comedy and drama, mishmashing genres into a pleasing culmination of distinct elements. Written by Derek Connolly, the story centers on three magazine employees—two misfit interns, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arno (Karan Soni), and their sleazy boss, Jeff (Jake Johnson)—who make their way to Oceanview, Washington, to get to the bottom of a newspaper ad that reads, “WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed.” Interestingly, the ad proves real—and from the mind of Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), a jean-jacket-wearing grocery store clerk who either has a real time machine or is completely crazy. As Darius goes undercover to turn a story, the film settles into hilarious and heartfelt bliss, touching on ideas of love, trust and belief. Duplass brings it all out together in a performance that epitomizes just that.
If nothing else, Pavilion makes for a visual spectacle. With striking shots of differing scale and focus and various people and places, the film comes to the screen beautifully with a real sense of place. Though an American, director Tim Sutton takes a note from French filmmakers like Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas in terms of style. Instead of telling a linear story, he merely observes characters while they go about their daily lives. This approach gives the film a realistic and thoughtful presence as we watch three boys experience the joys and pains of youth, swimming in the middle of a lake in New York or riding BMX bikes up and down drainage ditches in the heat of Arizona. But even though the unconventionality creates striking visuals and a nostalgic tone, it doesn’t entirely work. Without a true narrative to drive it, Pavilion needs a lead character to take on that role—a lead character we can follow and see grow. Sutton, though, chooses to focus on three different boys, which limits the depth of any single character, and he doesn’t connect them emotionally. They come and go from each other’s lives, and that’s it. The result is an exchange of substance for style, but that doesn’t mean there’s not meaning within the colorful imagery.
The Taiwan Oyster
Set on Taiwan’s majestic east coast, The Taiwan Oyster could be a dream—a dream that feels almost real, but still surreal enough to confirm you’re sleeping. There’s a melancholic gloom about it, and the scenery looks almost too mystical to be true. The narrative moves strangely from place to place, forming a rite of passage for strangers in a foreign land. These strangers are Simon (Billy Harvey) and Daron (Jeff Palmiotti), American twenty-somethings who teach kindergarten in Taiwan and, in their time off, drink heavily to fill a void of purpose in their lives. When a fellow “countryman” dies in an accident, the two best friends, indifferent toward their future, set off to give him a proper burial, and their lovely new friend, Nikita (Leonora Moore), joins them, slowly falling for Simon along the way. Director Mark Jarrett, who wrote the script with his brother Mitchell and Jordan Heimer, paces the story warily and builds an eerie momentum toward the unpredictable finale. Exploring meaning and spirituality, Jarrett entrances us enough visually to look past the supercilious dialogue, but it sometimes becomes too much to bear, as does the bleak concept that fills the vision—a concept that believes in no rock bottom but, instead an unending ocean of unhappiness.