SXSW Film may not loom as large in the public imagination as Sundance or TIFF, but it’s a film festival that grows each year and requires more traveling than its more condensed kin, which is why I always try to start small and pace myself at SXSW. I continued that tradition this year as I clocked out at the day job and hurried downtown to catch just two screenings last night. The two films I saw couldn’t have been more different from each other, but they managed to highlight a lot of what makes SXSW such an appealing film festival. The first, the Andy Samberg-starring tennis mockumentary 7 Days in Hell, is a great example of SXSW’s knack for picking both great comedies and great documentary-format films. The second, Karyn Kusama’s nerve-wracking emotional thriller The Invitation, highlights the festival’s horror pedigree, albeit in an unexpected way.
7 Days in Hell
Screening to a surprisingly packed Topfer theater, 7 Days in Hell might have made more sense grouped with SXSW’s slate of “episodic” premieres, i.e. TV pilots and episode blocks of new shows; instead, it was thrown in the Narrative Feature category despite its running time of less than an hour. Slated for a release under the HBO Sports banner, 7 Days likely got placed with the features because of its star-studded cast, including a murderer’s row of real life tennis titans like Serena Williams and John McEnroe as well as Will Forte, Fred Armisen, Michael Sheen, Karen Gillan and more. Directed by Jake Szymanski in the standard style of a documentary sports featurette, 7 Days delivers on its title by going behind the scenes of the “greatest match in tennis history,” a week-long bout between Samberg’s Aaron Williams (the adopted white brother of the Williams sisters) and Kit Harington’s Charles Poole.
Samberg plays Williams as though he were a lost Ben Stiller character, complete with questionable facial hair and an even more questionable wig, but Samberg’s natural goofball charm keeps the character from being too grating. More surprising is Harington, whose Poole is a kind of idiot savant of tennis, a mama’s boy low on brain power but gifted with an innate tennis ability that his mother has torturously forced him to develop into a career. Samberg and Harington play well with each other, but Harington’s straight man schtick produced deeper laughs, particularly when squared against Michael Sheen’s disturbing pederast tv host.
Framed with talking head segments led by Will Forte as an obsessive Williams biographer, 7 Days in Hell is light but consistently entertaining. Still, its short running time feels longer than it should and the back half of the featurette suffers from some wheel spinning as Szymanski and crew struggle to figure out how to properly end the climactic Wimbledon battle the first half of the short has built to, leading to a finale that is perhaps purposefully anticlimactic, feeling like an abrupt interruption rather than a true ending. Before the screening, Szymanski did say the film was a “work in progress,” so there is a chance the back half’s pacing and plotting issues may end up resolved, but even if they remain in the final version, 7 Days in Hell packs enough laughs to make it worth a watch.
Far more effective in its conclusion was The Invitation, a devastating new thriller from Girlfight director Karyn Kusama. Tightly plotted and even more tightly framed, The Invitation gets exceptional tension out of its minimalist narrative and small cast. The Invitation begins with a scene that initially seems frivolous but ultimately foreshadows quite a bit, as Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) hit a coyote on their way to a dinner party and are forced to put it out of its misery before continuing on their way. The incident puts a dark mood over a trip that already has Will on edge. Rather than a simple dinner party with a small group of friends, Will and Kira have been invited to a gathering orchestrated by Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman), who disappeared from the face of the earth for two years and have just now resurfaced. Worse, the dinner party is at Will and Eden’s old home, where they lost their son in a tragic accident.
Kusama boldly focuses her film on prolonged grief, emphasizing the intense anxiety it causes in Will through abrasive sound design and intentionally awkward performances from the cast. The film is basically seen through Will’s eyes, which results in an unnervingly tense experience. Will is jarred by the seemingly inexplicable happiness of Eden and David and so distrusts them and their story of a spiritual epiphany during travels in Mexico, when they stayed with what Will believes is a cult. Because the viewer is connected to Will, every action that couple takes is suspect, and we focus on it, waiting for the guillotine to drop and unleash the tragedy we know is coming. The longer nothing happens, the more unhinged Will becomes, until his anxiety runs so high you start to wonder if he will be the perpetrator of the events about to unfold.
The confidence and patience Kusama shows in her direction of The Invitation are nothing short of masterful, making the film a spiritual successor to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games duo, though arguably more potent since Kusama presents an emotional frankness unlike anything in Haneke’s oeuvre. The Invitation will feel brutally true to anyone who has ever felt exceptionally alienated and anxious at a social gathering, as well as anyone who has been so traumatized by grief they aren’t sure how to connect with other people anymore. Other horror and thriller works may briefly keep you up at night or accelerate your heart rate but this is a truly traumatizing cinematic experience, one that lingers in your emotions and thoughts afterward, refusing to let go.
Up Next at SXSW
I have to say that I’m also not too sure how those lingering effects of The Invitation are going to impact the rest of my SXSW experience, as today is set to be my most physically and mentally draining day thanks to my stupidly ambitious plan to see three films and pop over to a music showcase I helped organize. One of those planned films, The Residents: Theory of Obscurity, is set to be an investigative thriller of a different sort, exploring the history of music’s most mysterious band. At least everything else on the docket is a comedy.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Denise and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.