Bright Lights Film Journal

Familiar Faces: Some Notes on the 2017 SxSW Film Festival

Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky. Photo courtesy of SxSW Film Festival

Though moving a bit more stiffly in Lucky, Harry Dean is still moving, and that, the film says, is a beautiful thing.

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SxSW wrapped up this past weekend after nine packed days, concluding its twentieth year of programming. Originally a music festival, SxSW has grown to include film and interactive media, with several more sub-categories (government, food, comedy), resulting in an annual conference that is staggering in scale. This year, rain and cool temperatures tested the tenacity of the hundreds of thousands of attendees that lined up in Austin to listen, watch, learn, network, party, and celebrity-watch.

Terrance Malick’s Song to Song. Photo courtesy of SxSW Film Festival

With 125 features and a healthy dose of shorts, music videos, and television, SxSW Film has become a massive festival in its own right. What follows is a look at just a few of the films that made a splash at the 2017 SxSW film fest.

This year, the festival kicked off with Terrence Malick’s experimental drama Song to Song. The marquee film was poised to be a festival favorite, but instead was met with a collective sigh of disappointment. Set and shot in Austin, Song to Song follows several characters in the music industry and their fraught romantic relationships. The film features an impressive cast (Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett), with cameos from the likes of Patti Smith, Val Kilmer, and Iggy Pop, but fails to deliver on almost every level. In some ways, the casting of so many trendy A-list stars doubles down on Malick’s self-indulgence, as their glamorous images only highlight the film’s lack of substance. Their talent goes unused in this script, which reduces these capable actors to stereotypes of self-absorbed millennials. Crowd surfing at music festivals, clowning around at opulent parties, behaving obnoxiously while on vacation in Mexico – the plot reads like a Wikipedia entry for wealthy, white youth culture.

Like most Malick films, voice-overs dominate Song to Song, but while that approach worked in his past efforts (think of Sissy Spacek’s eerie, naïve narration in Badlands), it comes up short in his latest movie, as the words come off as shallow and pretentious. Malick is, of course, known for an abstract style that privileges images over action and interiority/memory over dialogue. But this latest work, more montage than narrative, plods forward at a tedious pace, leaving the impression of an extended edited sequence from an MTV reality show. The film features a huge number of locations in Austin and is beautifully, even stunningly, shot. But even here, Malick misses the mark: rather than capturing the hip central Texas capital city in all of its gritty glory (BBQ joints, dive bars, 1960s-era diners), the cinematography focuses on generic opulent homes with gorgeous lawns and pools, missing the opportunity, like the storyline, to offer something worth sinking our teeth into.

In contrast to Song to Song, many of the successful films this year marked a return to established Hollywood genres and stars, finding traction in familiar patterns and well-known, mature faces.

One of them, The Ballad of Lefty Brown, plays something like a love letter to the westerns of John Ford, Howard Hawks, and John Wayne. Building on classic formulas of the genre, Jared Moshe’s western takes a stock character – the geriatric, trusty sidekick – and propels him to full hero/main character status. Bill Pullman plays Lefty with an endearing charm and hapless demeanor that is part Walter Brennan, part Andy Devine, and all Bill Pullman, with the sweetness and nonchalance we have come to expect from him. The tension between legend and fact that lies at the heart of the western genre is dealt a new card here as fact beats out legend this time, in the form of an unlikely over-the-hill hero.

After the murder of his partner of 30 years, a recently elected Montana senator (Peter Fonda), the grizzled, 65-year-old Lefty sets out for revenge, and, in the process, is unjustly accused of killing his friend. Along the way he uncovers a treacherous political conspiracy and proves his dogged loyalty. Solid performances by Kathy Baker, Tommy Flanagan, and Jim Caviezel anchor the film; all seem at home in the late-19th-century Montana setting. Flanagan, in particular, with his piercing eyes, scarred face, and simmering interior, shines as the alcoholic marshal who cannot shake his tragic past. While the movie makes liberal use of the conventions of the genre, both in story and in style, The Ballad of Lefty Brown represents a winning contribution to the western.

One of the most remarkable movies of the festival was Lucky, which stars the inimitable Harry Dean Stanton as an aging atheist who must come to terms with his own mortality. At age 90, Stanton delivers a superb performance in the lead role in a film that pays homage to him and to his life’s work. Written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, who have been friends with Harry Dean for years, and directed by John Carroll Lynch in his directorial debut, Lucky blurs the lines between narrative film and documentary, weaving real biographical details from the actor’s life into the film’s story. Like Harry Dean, Lucky served in the Navy during WWII, speaks Spanish, and loves to sing ballads. Both drink a Bloody Rita at the local bar and see their friends every day. Like Harry Dean, Lucky is equal parts sweet and ornery, and neither has a wife or children to rely on in their old age. Pictures of Harry Dean as a child and as a handsome young man in his naval uniform adorn Lucky’s walls. Fans of the actor will recognize these real biographical details from the well-known lore about the cult-favorite actor in Hollywood and the two documentaries that have been made about him.

Although screenplays that are written expressly for specific stars are not a new phenomenon, Lucky must represent the epitome of this type of sub-genre of film, creating a vehicle for the elderly actor that achieves a touching degree of authenticity. Ultimately, the film is about growing old, the fear of dying, and accepting the fact that we will all be alone when it’s time to pass into the hereafter. The film is unrelenting in showcasing Stanton’s aging body, capturing moments that are funny (thrusting into downward dog each morning in his underwear) and powerfully sad (lying in bed alone, curled in a fetal position). David Lynch, James Darren, Beth Grant, Ed Begley Jr., and Tom Skerritt turn in delightful performances as fellow old-timers who trade barbs and stories with the crotchety Lucky. Ron Livingston, Yvonne Huff, and Hugo Armstrong round out the circle of community members who keep tabs on the old guy.

It was not until Wim Wenders’ magnificent Paris, Texas (1980) that Harry Dean played a leading role in a film. Thirty-seven years later, Lucky marks only his second leading role, despite his acclaimed performance in Wenders’ film. In many ways, Lucky feels almost like a sequel to Paris, Texas, as if we are watching the lonesome and tragic Travis at the end of his life. The two films share similar Southwest locations, while Lucky’s trips to each of his daily destinations (the market, the bar, the diner) recall Travis’ compulsive walking through the desert. Though moving a bit more stiffly in this film, Harry Dean is still moving, and that, the film says, is a beautiful thing.

Other notable premieres at SxSW this year include David Lynch: The Art Life, a compelling doc that details Lynch’s childhood and life as a painter before becoming a filmmaker; Baby Driver, the story of a heist-gone-bad, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), starring Lily James, Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, and Kevin Spacey; and The Light of the Moon, an indie drama that deals with rape and its traumatic aftereffects, which took the audience favorite award for narrative feature. While a bit uneven, A Critically Endangered Species, by first-time directors Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak, offers an offbeat portrait of an aging female poet (Lena Olin) who plans to commit suicide but first must choose a younger poet to inherit her legacy and estate.

Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak’s A Critically Endangered Species. Photo courtesy of SxSW Film Festival

Based on Philipp Meyer’s critically acclaimed novel, the miniseries The Son (April 2017, AMC) premiered its first two episodes at the fest. It promises to be an entertaining American epic depicting the rise and fall of a Texas family over three generations since the 1850s, under the leadership of its ruthless patriarch, Eli McCullough (Pierce Brosnan). The Disaster Artist (James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen), a documentary that chronicles Tommy Wiseau’s making of the cult hit The Room (2003), was greeted with raucous enthusiasm by the SxSW crowd at its premiere at the fest. Though it was presented as a work-in-progress, the film is being hailed as Franco’s best directorial effort thus far.

In what marked another win for the tried and true of Hollywood, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) thrilled SxSWers on opening night, many of whom were seeing the horror sci-fi classic on the big screen for the first time. Scott, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, and Michael Fassbender were on hand to preview the latest chilling installment in the franchise Alien: Covenant, due for release this May.

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The 24th annual SxSW Film Festival ran from March 10 to 18, 2017.