This year's Austin Film Festival programming was quite enjoyable -- I didn't walk out of a single film, nor feel tempted to nod off. When other festgoers asked me about movies, nearly everything I saw I described as "very nice." I wished some of the films had been more powerful, I wished a couple of the movies had been shorter, and I wished one documentary hadn't used auto-focus on their camerawork. However, I didn't regret my festgoing choices, except maybe for missing a couple of films I hope to see later.
This was a very nice year indeed for AFF, with a combination of "Oscar bait" films that will hit theaters later this year, and indie films without distribution (yet) that I hope we'll see in theaters sometime, but can't be certain. Along with the films I mentioned in my previous dispatch, and The Nice Guys script reading, here are a few more notable selections from AFF 2011.
Although it seemed like many audience members at the Sal screening were there to get a glimpse of James Franco, who directed the film, Sal itself is no vanity project. The feature film, directed by Franco, is a fascinating look at the last day in the life of actor Sal Mineo, who died in 1976 and is probably best known for his role in Rebel Without a Cause.
After a few scenes to establish Mineo's life in 1976, the bulk of the movie focuses on the day the actor died, from bed to errands to a rehearsal for the play in which he had a co-starring role. Mineo was also working on the script for a movie he hoped to direct, McCaffery. Nothing especially eventful happens until the tragic ending, but the combination of Val Lauren's excellent performance and a sneaking sense of voyeurism helps maintain interest.
The camera seems to love Lauren as Mineo, especially in the first part of Sal: close-ups, scenes where he's shirtless, and the opening sequence where he's exercising at the gym. It would be excessive if it were not a movie about an actor, and an actor who contemporary audiences, if they know of him at all, might think -- like myself -- that he was "washed up" by 1976 … which the movie shows us was far from the truth.
Would a movie about the typical day in the life of an actor be at all interesting if it weren't that actor's last day on earth? Perhaps not, but Sal is able to use the premise of Mineo's situation to bring us a low-key character study. Cleverly shot to disguise the movie's low-budget, Sal looks more expensive and feels more eventful than it actually is.
One of the most unexpected surprises of AFF 2011 was Sironia, starring musician Wes Cunningham, who turns out to make a compelling lead actor. He stars as Los Angeles musician Thomas, who finds out as he's older that he's more and more "irrelevant" in the music business. His agent Tucker (Jeremy Sisto) is tempting him to write other people's songs and car commercials to help earn a living. And Thomas's wife Molly (Amy Acker) is expecting. Unable to deal with the SoCal rat race, the couple decides on a whim to move to small-town Sironia, Texas, where Molly's brother lives.
The roles are generally understated, with the exception of Carrie Preston (True Blood), who plays a Texas housewife almost stereotypically. I was especially taken with the relationship between Molly and her brother Chad (Tony Hale). And Jeremy Sisto is delightful as the L.A. music industry version of Mephistopheles. I'd be tempted to move to Waco myself if I could get a gorgeous old house like Thomas and Molly's for $425 a month.
The character-driven movie is buoyed by Wes Cunningham's lovely and appropriate music, both songs and score. Sironia was richly photographed by Jordan Valenti; you would never know this movie had been made on any kind of a budget. It's difficult to believe this is the directorial debut for Brandon Dickerson, who co-wrote the script with Cunningham and Thomas Ward.
"Sironia" is a fictional town; the scenes there were actually shot in Waco, but I suppose if you called a movie "Waco" no one would think it was about musicians. I do think the movie could benefit from a change in title, perhaps using one of the song's titles a la Crazy Heart. In fact, Sironia is a low-budget, celebrity-free cousin to Crazy Heart, and finding a way to appeal to that movie's fans would spell success for this film.
The Bully Project
How many of us had to deal with childhood bullying, and how bad did it become? The children and teenagers profiled in The Bully Project often have to deal with peer abuse on a level that can seem unreal. From simple alienation to verbal harassment to being physically attacked, it is continual and wearing.
Some kids are driven to take their own lives -- the film opens with the Long family, in a small Georgia town, talking about Tyler, continually bullied by schoolmates until his suicide at age 17. An 14-year-old honor student in Mississippi turns the tables on her tormentors by bringing a gun onto a school bus and threatening them; she's interviewed from a juvenile detention facility.
The film's "bad guys" are clear: Schools and police forces that refuse to understand the gravity of the problem and deal with it before the situation turns tragic. Some of the denial is heartbreaking, with comments like "They're just cruel at this age." The Bully Project is ultimately a message documentary -- at the end, audiences are urged to visit the film's website and support a movement to help solve bullying problems.
Sadly, The Bully Project is seriously marred by its camerawork. The cameras seem to have been set to auto-focus, and the focus shifts in and out during scenes in a way that is distracting and even headache-inducing. I don't know if filmmaker Lee Hirsch used hidden cameras that led to these problems, but they are bad enough to distract me from some potentially excellent scenes in the film. Perhaps on a TV screen, the focus difficulties will be less noticeable than on a theater screen.
An Ordinary Family
Mike Akel's feature Chalk, an Office-style comedy about teachers, was a big hit at AFF 2006. Now Akel has returned to the Austin fest with An Ordinary Family a low-key drama about two estranged brothers that premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival this summer.
Seth (Greg Wise), who left Texas for Chicago years before, shows up unexpectedly at his family's annual lakehouse gathering with his new boyfriend, William (Chad Anthony Miller). Seth's brother Thomas (Troy Schremmer), who's a minister, can't wholeheartedly approve his brother's lifestyle, although his wife supports the couple. Other family members, from Seth's mom to Thomas's kids, find different ways to approach the gay couple and their place in the family.
An Ordinary Family tells a simple story very well, with no heroes or villains. Thomas is portrayed not as self-righteous or bigoted, but as a complex character struggling to reconcile his religion with his family relationships. Janelle Schremmer as Mattie, Thomas's wife, really shines in a role where she's lively and smart.
I wish An Ordinary Family had stronger subplots -- at time the story seemed stretched a bit thin with its continual focus on Seth's relationships. Some side storylines about the brother's mom, or their sister and her husband, would have added richness while still keeping the film about its title subject, an ordinary family.