SXSW Day 6 – Grading the Grand Jury Winners

As anyone who’s read my awards coverage in the past is all too familiar with, I don’t put a whole lot of faith in groups to actually pick the best film of a given year, decade or even festival. We all have our own opinions about film, and usually you’re happy if the Oscars, Globes, or whomever just don’t pick a bad movie to represent the year’s best.

Maybe the Academy could learn a thing or two from the good people at SXSW. They absolutely got one right when they chose Short Term 12 as the best of the fest (narrative category).

Tuesday night’s SXSW Film Awards led to back-to-back Grand Jury winners’ screenings Wednesday morning. My mind was a blank slate heading into Short Term 12. Not only had I read next to nothing about the indie making its world premiere at SXSW days prior, but what little I did discover had been pushed out of my head by the frustrating documentary I saw that morning (more on that in a bit).

I love seeing movies this way. If I had the willpower, I’d never watch another trailer until after I’d seen the film. It certainly worked to the advantage of Short Term 12, a film focusing on a particularly diverse, enraging group of staff and kids at a foster care facility.

Brie Larson — who appeared in three films at SXSW — stars and awes as Grace, a depressed supervisor with her own set of undisclosed issues. Grace truly cares for each one of these kids, and her interest in them seems to override her other passions, including secret boyfriend and fellow staff member Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). Both seem eager to help and enthusiastic about the work they’re doing, but Grace is the quiet type. She’s open with the kids, but closed off to everyone else.

The role requires Larson to be introspective for most of the movie. We get to see a few private moments the other characters don’t, but Larson is still charged with the difficult task of depicting a woman slowly losing her emotional armor. Each scene seems to peel away another part, and Larson adjusts incredibly well as the movie progresses. It’s a notable performance from a young actress clearly capable of many, many more.

Her supporting players certainly don’t let her down. Gallagher is given his fair share of weighty scenes, and he matches his co-star with choice moments of vigor. The duo establish an authentic back-and-forth helped by a smart, concise script. The kids, meanwhile, are on a whole other level. Countless movies have been hampered or ruined by unconvincing child actors. Not here. In every speaking part there is an actor I’m already eager to see again.

If I had to pick a single standout, it would be Keith Hernandez as Marcus, a soon-to-be 18 year old who’s getting forced out on his own for the first time. In a heartbreaking scene, Marcus volunteers to rap some of his new lyrics to Marcus. Not only is the lengthy performance an impressive, powerful one take, but it’s also a pretty damn good song.

Kaitlyn Dever delivers a turn of equal note. Dever has already made a name for herself in television, appearing in Last Man Standing and Justified. Hopefully her hot streak comtinues. She’s already a force to be reckoned with — what’s going to happen when she’s 25? 35?

The same could be said for the relatively young director and writer Destin Cretton. After only his second feature, he’s got an entry at Sundance (for the short film that inspired this feature) and a win at SXSW. His style was seamless. Nothing felt overalls showy, and he let his talented cast live in each scene. Like many great directors, he stayed out of the way of the story but still provided powerful imagery.

All this adds up to the best film I’ve seen at SXSW, and that’s no easy feat. Prince Avalanche, Mud, and The Spectacular Now all knocked me on my butt. They’re great, deserving films that hopefully find an audience as sizable as of their attributes. But if there’s one film I’ll be backing after SXSW shuts its doors, it will be Short Term 12.

William and the Windmill

It certainly won’t be William and the Windmill. As is to be expected, the earlier documentary winner’s show at the beautiful Zach Theater was a little less crowded than that for the narrative feature victor.

I can’t say I’m too upset more people didn’t show up. Director Ben Nabors’ take on William Kamkwamba’s project and subsequent journey is half-cocked in every sense. It shows how Kamkwamba was “discovered” at a TED talk after discussing his self-educated process of building windmills and then supported by Tom Rielly, TED’s Director of Partnerships. Rielly promised to invest seven years with William and help him and his community improve. This lead to a book, a subsequent tour, educational opportunities, and two movies.

Herein lies my central issue with the doc, but not the film’s central theme. Kamkwamba simply wanted to help his family, friends, and home town by any means necessary. This lead to Rielly and co. projecting their ideals of success onto William and leading him further and further into Western culture. Yes, obviously much of what’s done is helpful. Money and volunteers are infused into Kamkwamba’s hometown, and Kamkwamba himself gets opportunities otherwise unavailable to him.

Whether or not he’s happy seems secondary. There are many excruciating scenes where we watch Kamkwamba struggle with his ostentatious surroundings. He can barely swim in a pool. He’s never been in an elevator. The worst, though, is when Rielly and one of his friends treat Kamkwamba like a fool. The filmmakers go to great lengths to show how smart Kamkwamba is via interviews and examples, but all of that is undermined when Rielly tells him how to handle drinking alcohol in college and his friend asks Kamkwamba, “I know you’re perfectly capable of putting your clothes away, but do you want us to do it?”

At one point, Rielly says “I’m proud of [William] for manifesting the him I knew he could be.” This was when I realized what William and the Windmill could have been with a more focused, Herzog-ian director at the helm. It could’ve been about how individual aid, while welcome, can go to far. Instead it just barely touches on it. There’s a line between helping someone and pushing an ideology upon them, and Rielly comes dangerously close.

Or does he? I really can only speculate because the filmmakers don’t give us any other voice besides Rielly. Kamkwamba won’t. He’s indebted and grateful, even when his last line of the film is that he’s lost control of his own life. Kamkwamba and Rielly attended the premiere together, and Rielly is an executive producer on the film. He’s clearly as involved with the movie as Kamkwamba.

I don’t want to tarnish the name of anyone. Rielly could be a living saint for all I know, but the events in this maddeningly incomplete film demand more from those making it. It’s incredibly frustrating to see journalistic responsibility ignored by a filmmaker covering the wrong aspects of a story.

The audience Wednesday morning echoed these sentiments. There were multiple questions for Mr. Nabor regarding Rielly’s motivations and the nature of he and Kamkwamba’s relationship. They were met with anger by one vocal audience member who saw nothing wrong with what Rielly had done for Kamkwamba. If the film was actually designed to inspire these kind of debates, it would have been great. As is, it’s only moderately interesting at its best. At worst, it’s a missed opportunity.