Clay Liford is a genius. Clay Liford is also the friendliest guy in Texas (perhaps a bit too friendly when he drinks). He's one of the five best directors in the state, he's a perennial festival favorite, and he's about to save filmmaking and maybe also the universe. I knew all of these things about Clay Liford before I even got to the screening of his latest feature, 'Wuss,' because everyone on the SXSW shuttle to the Rollins Theater piped up to tell me how much they love that guy. From the moment I told the lady sitting next to me what movie I was on my way to see, that bus erupted into a fit of hyper excitement as if 'Wuss' were Pee-Wee Herman's secret word.
Thanks to the Lone Star State sidebar here at SXSW, one of the fastest-growing film festivals in the world is able to host the world premiere of a movie like 'Source Code,' stick a fork in the zeitgeist with stuff like 'Sound of My Voice,' and yet still retain a local flavor (think brisket). Mixed about (but not lost) in this cataclysmic mess of movies, music, and brisket are nine films intended to represent the state which provides SXSW its home, and it's refreshing to see that the festival doesn't ghettoize these smaller films because of their comparatively humble origins.
Instead, the Lone Star State selections are tossed right in with the Sundance hits and genre riots, enjoying prime time screenings at some of the festival's largest venues, including the enormous (and enormously uncomfortable) Paramount Theater. It's a rare and rewarding opportunity for both filmmakers and adventurous festival-goers alike, and the four selections I caught seem to suggest that the brightest stars in Texas are only just starting to shine.
'Wuss' -- I learned when Clay Liford's film was finally given the chance to speak for itself -- is a little movie with a big mean streak. The stridently churlish story of a meek, pint-sized high school teacher named Mitch (his friends call him "Little Bitch"), 'Wuss' is a remarkably focused character study, a portrait of a twenty-something who aggressively condemns himself to subservience. Mitch (Nate Rubin, who impressively manages to be simultaneously both sympathetic and contemptible) is an aspiring writer on the precipice of thirty who still lives with his mom. He's quiet and submissive and allows himself to be trampled on by just about every living human with whom he comes into contact, most pathetically the disaffected (and homicidal) students in his class.
'Wuss' is told with a steady hand, and Liford's experience behind the camera is obvious in everything from his precise framing to the confident manner in which he violates genre boundaries. The film opens with a morbid and hilariously droll folk song about 9/11, ends on a note of sweet pathos, and brings everything together in an effort to explore the idea that people "Train people how to treat them."
Liford's gift for working with actors makes for a hugely watchable ensemble cast, and charismatic newcomers like Alicia Anthony (playing a withdrawn student with all the wrong connections) are more than capable of holding their own alongside surprisingly famous faces like Anthony Hale and Alex Karpovsky (who are both splendid but nevertheless confuse the film's pedigree). Even if Liford's script isn't on par with his visual acumen and his contrived plotting eventually begins to fail the talent he assembles in front of his camera, 'Wuss' is nevertheless an arresting indie that deserves to be seen beyond SXSW.
Another film that's engendered a lot of local love is 'My Sucky Teen Romance,' the third feature film by local teen hero Emily Hagins. A labor of love to which a bunch of people from the local blogging community very happily contributed their talents, 'My Sucky Teen Romance' follows best friends Kate (Elaine Hurt) and Allison (Lauren Lee) as they attend a local comic-con where most of the kids are obsessed with vampires, and Paul (Patrick Delgado) has just turned into one. What follows is a cute and contained little romance that matches its amateur movements with the kind of pure, ecstatic spirit that's so often bludgeoned out of studio fare.
'My Sucky Teen Romance' is a knowing satire of the culture 'Twilight' hath wrought, occasionally falling prey to some of the same pratfalls it tries to lampoon, but Hagins has assembled such an eager and committed group of collaborators that the whole thing could coast by on its own contagious sense of self. Filled with fun performances (Tony Vespe -- brother of AintItCoolNews fixture Eric "Quint" Vespe -- steals every scene he's in) and laced with some demonically catchy tunes ("The Kids" by Whoa, Palomino may or may not be the greatest song ever recorded), 'My Sucky Teen Romance' is a testament to how far you can go with a little help from your friends.
Other Lone Star films deployed higher budgets to lesser returns. Aaron Rottinghaus' debut feature 'Apart' muddles a tantalizing and intimate sci-fi premise into a turgid and confused mess of a movie. Ostensibly the true-ish story of two high-schoolers who were psychically linked by a horrible bus accident they endured together as children, 'Apart' is so infuriatingly devoted to its narrative loops and backflips that it completely squanders the tender teen romance at its core. Well-photographed but often mired in a morose palette, 'Apart' is an interminable example of a film with a number of fine ideas and no idea what to do with them. 'High School Musical' star Olesya Rulin is the flick's saving grace, but her slender shoulders can't support the weight of this misfire.
That being said, 'Apart' ultimately resolves itself as a leaden promise that I expect Rottinghaus to eventually fulfill, and -- to the festival's credit -- all but one of the films I saw in the sidebar hinted towards strong future returns. Of the stuff in the line-up that I didn't get an opportunity to check out, 'Otis Under Sky' and 'Inside America' seemed to carry the biggest buzz, and given the fastidious eye with which SXSW has curated this year's fest, choosing between them and the likes of a new Steve James documentary was a much tougher decision than I ever would have thought.