SXSW Film 2009: Don't Use the M-Word

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Ry Russo-Young's You Wont Miss Me (spelled without the apostrophe) isn't the only film from this group of filmmakers to focus on the interactions of women, but it's one of the few made by a female filmmaker. I'm not usually one to rely on simple gender explanations for why films are the way they are — and even Swanberg and Bujalski draw on the experiences of their female collaborators — but there are moments in You Wont Miss Me that feel a bit more lived, a bit more worn, than similar confrontations in the films of Russo-Young's male peers. The portrait of somewhat unstable Shelly, played by Stella Schnabel, is particularly vivid during a sequence in a hotel room that fully captures the rubbing-raw of nerves that sometimes happens when acquaintances spend time in close quarters. Russo-Young also works in competing styles — personal voice-overs, captured conversations, acting auditions, and varied film stocks — that feel ambitious even if they don't always hit the right pitch. (I'm a fan of Azazel Jacobs' first film, Nobody Needs to Know, which has many of the same elements and achieves similarly mixed results, but, somehow, Jacobs' film feels more in tune with its character.) Outside of the scene in the hotel, much of You Wont Miss Me feels self-consciously acted rather than observed and fails to create the illusion of spontaneity that Bujalski and Swanberg seem to conjure with ease. But Russo-Young has shown tremendous growth from her first feature, Orphans, and she's grasping at something that seems to be unique in American film.

Dia Sokol's Sorry, Thanks is such an assured debut that it easily fits alongside Swanberg's films, which it resembles. And not just alongside his first feature but right there with a few of the later ones. Sokol's experience may have come from producing, but she has leapt into the directing pool several strokes ahead of where we could reasonably expect. She gets excellent performances from her actors, and although the story itself mines the familiar, Woody Allen-esque territory that Swanberg exploits time and again, it may be the right (i.e. comfortable) place for this particular filmmaker to begin. Co-written with Lauren Veloski, it's primarily the story of Kira (Kenya Miles) and her not-quite-boyfriends, particularly Max (Wiley Wiggins of Waking Life) who has a definite girlfriend of his own. Shot on San Francisco's hilly streets, the film occasionally recalls last year's Medicine for Melancholy, the indie film about an African-American man and woman living in relatively white San Francisco; Kira disgustedly tells a friend that someone at work mistook her for the other black girl in the office. Throughout the film Kira flirts with Max, who's a bit of a slug, a role defined almost solely by wisecracking lethargy, and his vacuous character drags the film down a fair bit, as does the cross-cutting among the ensemble cast with no real arc to give the threads momentum. Nevertheless, Kira seems to be on a path, even if it's aimless, and while the moment is a long time coming, the final scenes effectively and decisively puncture Max's sweetness with silently twisting daggers. Overall, it's a wonderful debut, and I'm eager to see Sokol build on her obvious skills.

I don't know what the trick is to putting actors at ease or the secret to getting footage that looks, sounds, and feels real, but first-time filmmaker David Lowery hasn't quite captured it in St. Nick. The performances are distractingly stilted across the board. But this film about two young children, a boy and a girl — siblings again — who live alone in an empty, dilapidated house, is a promising debut anyway, because Lowery, more than any of the other filmmakers mentioned here, shows a love of film grammar, cinematic beauty, and deep sound design. His foley highlights the dangerous thunks of heavy objects, his compositions have a neat, rustic glow, and his frequent use of dolly, zoom, and shallow focus, while somewhat chaotic, are welcome additions to the tool chest of filmmakers known more for their casual, handheld verité. I look forward to seeing his techniques guided by a stronger strategy and woven better with the story, but his interest in the mysteries of cinema and life certainly make him one to watch.

[NOTE: Here's more of Paste's coverage of SXSW. And you can get my hasty, ill-considered, immediate reactions to films and events on Twitter.]

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