Sometimes, a location stops being a setting and starts being a character. You see this happen to New York City in the films of Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, and you see it happen to Los Angeles in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Altman, to give you just two examples. The nature of those cities can be seen and (metaphorically) smelled and felt in every frame of movies like Manhattan and Magnolia, Short Cuts and Taxi Driver. After watching a "New York movie" or an "L.A. Movie," audiences can actually feel like they've been to those cities.
So what does an "Austin movie" feel like?
Attending the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas gives you a great chance to see the city's quickly growing independent film community in action and learn how they view their home. To view the locally produced films at this year's SXSW is to see an uneven but fascinating portrait of a city that isn't sure what it wants to be…but that's, like, totally fine man.
Austin Is a City of Dreamers
In Emily Hagins' Grow Up, Tony Phillips, the title character is a high school senior with a deep love of Halloween, trick-or-treating every year despite being on the verge of adulthood. There are a thousand reasons for the character of Tony Phillips to be excruciating, but the combination of Tony Vespe's performance and Hagins' gentle, good-natured script makes him less of a manchild-to-be and more of hopeful dreamer, a guy who's immature not because he's malicious or lazy, but because being normal is just so boring. This thread runs throughout the other Austin films, like the Christmas-obsessed neighborhood in When Angels Sing or the subjects of the documentary Rewind This!, many of whom have an obsession with a long-dead technology.
Austin Is a City of Losers
Sure, the films mentioned above celebrate the general weirdness of the city and its citizens, but when does weird get too weird? When does it get unpleasant or even dangerous? Scott Weidermeyer, the main character in Zero Charisma, is essentially the "mirror universe" version of Tony Phillips. Like Tony, he has his head in the clouds, immersing himself in a fantasy world through his tabletop RPG group. Unlike Tony, he's mean and vindictive, a guy who actively chose to not grow up and lives a lonely, arrested existence. The portrait of Austin citizens is equally scathing in Loves Her Gun, which slowly reveals that its various quirky, fun characters are severely damaged goods.
Austin Is a City of Escape
Statistics don't lie: Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States, with countless (mostly young) people flocking there every year. For many people in the real world, it's become a place to go to get started, to leave your mark, to escape. Loves Her Gun opens with the protagonist suffering a trauma in New York City and fleeing to Austin, where a quick trip to clear her head quickly transforms into her embedding herself in the city. Although that's the only film that uses the common exodus-to-Austin as a plot point, the idea of escape permeates through several others. In When Angels Sing, Austin is where the main character moves to put distance between himself and his family (and a troubled past). You can also take the idea of escape less literally and look at Rewind This!, which showcases a city filled with strange events and strange people with strange hobbies, all of them aiming to get away from reality for a moment.
Austin Is a City of Sentiment
Austin is a city with a reputation for being laid back and generally polite (by major city standards, of course), so it's no surprise that many of the films made their showcase an optimistic outlook. This is mostly evident in When Angels Sing, which takes the quirks of the city, coats them in sugar and suggests that the weird dreamers of Austin represent a guide for how to be a good husband and father. Grow Up, Tony Phillips is a little more restrained, but it's ultimately a feel-good story about being true to yourself, proclaiming that you can grow up without betraying yourself. Hell, Rewind This! is one of the more sentimental movies, with its subjects remembering the VHS revolution through a thick haze of nostalgia. Of course, the exceptions prove the rule: Zero Charisma and Loves Her Gun are bleak and blackhearted in their anti-sentimentality.
Austin Is a Home and a Prison for Everyone
Everyone is welcome in Austin. Tony Phillips is welcome. Scott Weidermeyer is welcome. Allie from Loves Her Gun is welcome. But Tony needs to grow up, Scott needs a more healthy and stable environment, and Allie needs a solution to her problems that isn't "move to Austin." It's easy to get into Austin, but it's also easy to get trapped there. Everyone welcomes you with open arms, but sometimes the best thing to do is to get the hell out. It's all a bunch of sentimental, daydreaming losers down here.
Do these films present a coherent portrait of Austin? Nah, not really. But Annie Hall and Mean Streets don't paint a coherent portrait of New York when placed side by side, either. The young Austin film scene is still evolving and the city itself is still showing growing pains -- a consistent picture isn't in the cards quite yet.
But in its own little way, that's kind of perfect. Austin is a liberal city in a conservative state, with a population that seems split between blue-collar workers and hipsters. It's fighting to keep itself "weird" while steadily marching toward a bigger, more uniform future. It's a city that defined itself through bizarre, niche-specific shops and hole-in-the-wall coffee joints that only the cool people know about, but then you hear surprisingly little protest as the old gets bulldozed for the new (and by new, I mean condos and parking garages). The mixed messages of the SXSW Austin movies -- their contradictory themes and their at-odds characters -- aren't a random jumble. In their own way, they paint a picture of city that's changing and doesn't know what to do with itself. One foot is stepping into a new age while the other has dug itself deep in the past.
All of these films are about, in one way or another, change. And maybe that's what defines the Austin movie: the resistance or the support of something new and scary. It's a hard city to nail down and its cinema is looking to follow suit.