Conversations at the South by Southwest film festival tend to focus on what's next: Is Foursquare the new Twitter? Is bacon the new pomegranate? Is SXSW the new Sundance?
That last question, of course, is a loaded one, as it somehow presumes that Sundance is finished with being Sundance. While SXSW has not established itself as a market in the traditional sense, it has become something of a think thank for alternative/emerging models of distribution. Mostly what Austin offers is extremely enthusiastic audiences, as witnessed by the raucous, roof-raising screenings here of Sam Raimi's "Drag Me to Hell" and Jody Hill's "Observe and Report."
Austin has an unusual alchemy of both small town and big city and a particularly lively film culture /community that fields audiences for even the obscure and the outre. (The more out-there, perhaps, all the better.) As at any worthwhile festival, there is simply too much going on to take it all in -- I, for one, wish I had seen more of the documentary programming -- and one person's must-see is another person's "What's that?"
"Beeswax," the third feature from writer-director Andrew Bujalski, is a major statement spoken softly. Bujalski has described the film as a "legal thriller" and, in his own wittily understated way, that's actually not far off, as one half of a pair of twins nervously awaits what she assumes is an impending lawsuit from her absentee business partner. There are no car chases, but there is the confusion, anxiety and mixed feelings that is the stuff of life soldiering forward, as the free-spiritedness of young adulthood takes root in something more grounded -- growing up, they used to call it.
The meaning of the title remains enigmatic, but its intimations of nature and stickiness would seem to point to an exploration of the things that hold us together, bonding us to our families and friends. The film, perhaps due to its puff-of-smoke subtlety, has garnered a more mixed critical response than Bujalski's previous films. In the opinion of this writer, "Beeswax" secures Bujalski as one of the finest, most deftly talented filmmakers currently working in America.
Screened amid much fanfare for its simultaneous release on video-on-demand, "Alexander the Last" is certainly the most fully realized film yet made by filmmaker Joe Swanberg. The story of a young aspiring actress, her musician husband, her acting partner and her sister, the film features undoubtedly the single most accomplished piece of filmmaking in the ever-expanding Swanberg oeuvre -- a sequence that intercuts the actress rehearsing a make-out scene with her unrequited crush with scenes of her sister actually romancing the same guy -- while also including some of his most scattershot and self-indulgent work. The guy just can't help himself.
Bujalski and Swanberg have both risen to prominence through their ongoing affiliation with SXSW and the frequently ecstatic press both have garnered out of their Austin screenings, and they have grown to be somewhat the dueling dual stars of the inter-connected American micro-indie scene. It is entirely coincidence that both filmmakers feature sisters as the focal point of their new films, but it makes the point of comparison inescapable, while also highlighting their increasingly divergent paths.
As well, in the question-and-answer sessions following their respective screenings at the same theater on Saturday, Bujalski noted that his films have gotten more expensive since he turned 30, as now his cast and crew would like to sleep in beds and eat something other than pizza, while Swanberg and his collaborators gleefully noted they all slept in sleeping bags in the same rented apartment where much of the action in "Alexander" is set.
Dia Sokol, who has produced projects for both Swanberg and Bujalski, made her own feature debut as director and co-writer with "Sorry, Thanks," co-written and produced by Lauren Veloski. The film is a sidelong charmer, starring Wiley Wiggins and Kenya Mile as two people in San Francisco's Mission District engaging in an extended flirtation even as there are others in their romantic lives. The film ends on something of a cleverly executed sucker-punch, placing its emotional climax with what had seemed a secondary character and the unexpected turn makes the moment resonate as all the more true and genuine.
In part because the film festival offshoot of the venerable SXSW music festival was started the same year as an interactive festival and trade show, there has always been a strong current of next-generation thinking alongside the usual festival screenings, parties and goings on at SXSW. This year in particular, the conversations from the business side of independent filmmaking focused on the continued struggle to connect audiences with movies in a way that is financially viable for both filmmakers and distributors alike. In perhaps the truest sign of the times, nearly everything was judged by how much it was being remarked upon on Twitter.
Energetic, forward-thinking and sparked with enthusiasm, as a sign that film culture is still vital, still capable of starting the kinds of conversations that then spin off onto ever-broadening media platforms, this year's SXSW film festival seemed like a bright beacon against a darkening sky.