Brothers David and Nathan Zellner are American originals, makers of willfully oddball films. They will be premiering their second feature, "Kid-Thing," at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday as part of its NEXT section. The duo have become quite a fixture on the U.S. festival circuit, with a series of shorts including the recent, outrageous "Sasquatch Birth Journal 2." Their previous feature, 2008's "Goliath," was about a man whose loss of control in his life is snapped into focus when his cat goes missing.
"Kid-Thing" is about a 10-year-old girl (Sydney Aguirre) largely left to her own devices. An outsider less by choice than circumstance, she marauds around the playground, makes prank calls and wanders the woods on her own. There she finds a woman stuck at the bottom of a well. Unsure of what to do, she doesn't tell anyone, but keeps returning to check on and care for her discovery.
Considering their short films are marked by an off-beat humor and eccentric worldview, the Zellners' two feature films each have an unexpected emotional core, a surprise seriousness. Which brings up the question: How do they know what makes for a short and what makes for a feature?
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"When we first come up with an idea for something, we can't force it into a certain time length or anything," David Zellner said by the phone from their home base in Austin, Texas, shortly before the start of the festival. "The idea dictates."
"Sometimes ideas are big and sometimes they're small," added Nathan, also on the line. "I think we have enough of them that if we're waiting on one of the bigger ones to progress, we can dip in and do a small one."
"Kid-Thing" captures the point-of-view of a young child whose eyes are opening for the first time to the world at large. Some things are silly, some scary, and it's all new.
"We really wanted it to be from that perspective, as opposed to a nostalgic look back from an adult," said David Zellner. "We wanted it to be very much in the now, with the beauty and the horror of everything that goes on at that age. One thing I like about childhood: Kids are like scientists and explorers; everything is new to them and they are constantly testing boundaries.
"They don't have any experience to apply to something," he added. "They come in from a fresh perspective, an outsider's perspective that an adult might not have. But they also have a kind of screwy kid-logic in how they deal with problems."
They cast Aguirre, the daughter of a childhood friend, after having worked with her on a music video they directed. Hoping to capture the same qualities of native toughness and innocent willfulness as in Linda Manz's seminal performances in Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven" and Dennis Hopper's "Out of the Blue," the Zellners said they were surprised by how Aguirre assuredly responded to situations.
"I don't think we had to manipulate her at all," said Nathan Zellner. "It was a lot of mature conversations about what the character was going through and what the scene was about. She got it as if she was a seasoned actress who had done it before."
"At one point she busted us for trying to dumb things down to her a little," said David. "We were trying to explain the language of why you shoot things in a close-up and she looked at us like we were total morons."
As the story of "Kid-Thing" progresses, and the girl goes back to the well time and again, the film takes on the tone of a parable, something perhaps not quite totally real as small flourishes begin to depart from strict reality. So, which is it?
"We'd like for people to decide on their own," said David. "We definitely wanted to combine those qualities that are like a really earnest, naturalistic coming-of-age story with some qualities of a fable and keep the line kind of blurred which is which."
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-- Mark Olsen
Photo: Sydney Aguirre in "Kid-Thing." Credit: Sundance Film Festival