Rachael Harris, Matt O'Leary, Jon Gries, John Diehl
The latter half of SXSW is the most intense as thousands upon thousands of music fans descend upon Austin. The film portion of the festival is the only one that runs all nine days, which means we get to see/tolerate interactive geeks the first five days, followed by the grungy music hipsters the last 4 days. We film goers do stare and judge from the long screening lines.
The awards were announced midweek, and the winners left many scratching their heads. Most had neither seen nor heard much about these films (particularly Natural Selection which swept the awards with seven wins).
Roger Ebert was on the jury for Narrative Features, and Lisa Schwarzbaum was on the jury for documentary features. Both are people who know their stuff. So of course, I had to check these movies out. As it seems, the thousands of other South By film attendees did.
I laughed when I saw the winner for documentary feature was Dragonslayer, not the 1981 feature I had the misfortune of seeing at Harry Knowles’ secret screening, this Dragonslayer is about a kid who skateboards in empty swimming pools in Fullerton, California. Definitely different from the mass of other documentaries I’d seen, this one reminded me of The Hills with its scenes of glossy looking reality. Its lack of substance and attempt at a message also seemed it most fitting for MTV. Love you Lisa Schwarzbaum, but this one didn’t do it for me.
In comparison, the day before I had seen two phenomenal docs (albeit from the festival favorites category), Page One: Inside the New York Times (which made me want to whip out a trench coat and pencil and take the journalistic world by storm) and Senna (the heart wrenching story of Ayrton Senna, whom many think was the world’s greatest racing driver). Both are incredible films and seriously hard acts to follow.
The narrative feature winner Natural Selection by first time writer/director Robbie Pickering was quite the surprise. When the programming director introduced the film she asked how many people were there just because it had won. Everyone raised their hand. Glad I wasn’t alone in that. The film’s blurb in the program read “When a dutiful, albeit barren, housewife discovers that her ailing husband has an illegitimate son, she sets out to find the young man and reunite him with her husband before he dies” which wasn’t all that enticing. This is a perfect example of why I hate plot synopses; rarely do they ever actually give you an accurate feel of the film.
Natural Selection is smart and witty (See? Did you get that from the synopsis?) and clever as all get out. Rachael Harris (“the bitchy wife from The Hangover”) is so sweet and funny she makes you empathize with her sheltered housewife character. Oh, and by the way, Natural Selection also won the audience award for narrative feature. Hardly ever, no matter the festival, do the jury and audience awards go to the same film. That’s high praise.
When I first made my SXSW 2011 film schedule, I had planned to see thirty-two films. A friend of mine said, “That’s adorably naive.” It ended up that by around film eight or nine I started to burn out. I ended up seeing a meager (by my lofty standards) seventeen films. But I feel lucky to be able to say that of those seventeen, a mere handful was anything short of immensely enjoyable. It was a very, very good year for film at South By.