Welcome to our second day of SXSW coverage (catch up on it all here).
Not too surprisingly, my super ambitious plan to help run a music showcase and hop over to a screening or three on day two of SXSW did not pan out. That’s okay, though, because in my experience festivals are more enjoyable when you just let them happen to you rather than sticking to an ironclad schedule. I could have snuck away from the local music showcase Ovrld threw, but the truth is I was having too much fun to run around trying to make it to screenings of films that might not be as enjoyable as the Ovrld party.
Stuffed with ten bands stretched across two stages, the Ovrld showcase at Swan Dive was at least as ambitious as my plans for the day, but the multi-stage set-up and the lack of much nearby competition made it feel a lot more relaxed. Local showcases during SXSW can be depressing, as the dearth of high profile buzzy national acts and celebrities reduces the rubberneck turn out. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case at the Ovrld show, where a receptive crowd turned out and plenty of onlookers funneled in thanks to Swan Dive’s placement right in the heart of downtown. The atmosphere was exceptionally friendly and it was a nice change of pace to see the bands all sticking around for each other’s sets and talking over their SXSW plans with one another. Austin unfortunately has a reputation for distracted, talkative crowds and during SXSW that is usually amplified, but with the beautiful weather and excellent sound, that didn’t seem to be much of an issue. I’m obviously biased but I felt the line-up, which included indie acts like Messages and Ghostbunny squaring off against punk groups like Basketball Shorts and Those Howlings, was more organically curated than most of what you see at SXSW—these bands obviously fit together, there were no ill-fitting crossovers or curveballs.
Spending half your day at a big music show also means drinking lots of beer, and that may or may not have had an influence on how many screenings I made it to. Still, I did see two of the most highly anticipated SXSW films, and they couldn’t have been more at odds with each other. Kicking off my second night of films was Fresno, an ensemble comedy about two down-on-their-luck sisters played by Natasha Lyonne and Judy Greer, and ending it was Lost River, Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut.
Fresno initially caught my eye because of the reunion of director Jamie Babbit and Natasha Lyonne, who had previously come together for the cult classic comedy But I’m a Cheerleader. Lyonne fans who started following her career before Orange is the New Black will remember that quirky film as a kind of spiritual successor to Lyonne’s breakthrough work Slums of Beverly Hills, only run through a Douglas Sirk stylistic filter and set in a camp devoted to “curing” queer identity rather than a grimy LA. Cheerleader was way ahead of its time, and after it flopped, Babbit mostly refocused on tv directing, helming memorable episodes of everything from Gilmore Girls to United States of Tara with occasional detours for indie films. Fresno seemed like a possible second chance for Babbit, or at least that’s what its impeccable cast indicated.
Featuring a dizzying amount of comedic talent in small roles, including Ron Livingston as the therapist who was supposed to be curing Greer’s character of sex addiction but instead seems to be encouraging it as well as Fred Armisen as the proprietor of a pet cemetery, Fresno certainly doesn’t lack star power. Unfortunately, the film’s go-nowhere plot significantly hampers its comedy and stifles what should have been a Babbit-Lyonne comeback.
The good news is that Lyonne and Greer have great chemistry as sisters, and their lovably confrontational relationship is on par with Skeleton Twins for realistic portrayals of sibling behavior in modern comedy. Less believable is the chemistry between Lyonne and Aubrey Plaza, a gym instructor who is desperately failing at courting Lyonne’s lesbian hotel maid, a subplot that eats up a ridiculous amount of screentime for little to no payoff. That said, the gym instructor subplot pales in comparison to the main narrative of the film, where the two sisters get stuck hauling around the dead body of a sleazy former Olympic medal winner like some kind of sex comedy Weekend at Bernie’s.
I’m not sure why Babbit felt the need to force this plot into the film; the strained relationship between the two sisters, stemming from the way they coped with their parents’ death, is a sound backbone and the film would have been better served with an increased focus on that. It’s almost as though Babbit didn’t trust the appeal of the main characters enough and felt that a gimmicky plot would pad those characters out. Had the film let Lyonne and Greer stretch their characters out by revealing more of the paradoxically odd and mundane nature of their jobs as well as their home town, Fresno would have been a lot more appealing.
Ryan Gosling, oddly enough, suffers none of Fresno‘s confidence issues in his directorial debut, Lost River. An utterly bizarre, quasi-dystopic film set in the hollowed out husk of Detroit in a perhaps near future, Lost River was introduced by Gosling as a movie that would test the sincerity of Austin’s stated devotion to weirdness, and he wasn’t kidding. Basically plotless, the gist of it is that Christina Hendricks is a mother to a young man and a little boy in a nightmarish Detroit and her entire neighborhood is being consumed by the environment and desperate banks. When a new bank manager arrives and revisits her mortgage, Hendricks’ Billy is forced to work in a theatre of pain while her oldest son Bones runs from a masochistic bully and tries to decipher a fairy tale about a town under water.
Poorly received at Cannes and blasted by critics as a pastiche of stronger directors (one critic awkwardly slammed the film by stating “Ryan Gosling confuses ‘making film’ with ‘assembling Tumblr of David Lynch & Mario Bava gifs’”), Lost River certainly isn’t what one might expect from the en vogue heartthrob. In fairness, those critics aren’t entirely wrong to call out the obviousness of Gosling’s influences—Lost River is essentially Gummo if it were directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, or maybe it’s Drive as directed by Harmony Korine. There are also elements of Davids Cronenberg and Lynch in the film’s body horror and dreaminess, respectively, as well as Holy Motors, with which it shares Eva Mendes in a surreal glamor role.
But the pastiche criticism is a bit confounding since Gosling’s film is no more a rip off than Tarantino’s work is. Gosling unabashedly grabs from myriad influences to form a frequently terrifyingly beautiful whole that is by no means mistakable for any of its source material. There are sequences that look like a lost Terence Malick work until they look like a dystopic Spring Breakers, moments that have the musical grandeur and hyperactivity of top of his game Baz Luhrman that give way to Cronenbergian gore and biotech, every scene feels as though it could be a withheld memory of either a personal or cinematic sort. The harshness of the criticism hurled at Gosling, including boos at Cannes, undoubtedly come from a place of resentment, of a desire to rip apart an actor who has gone from a critical darling to a mainstream obsession repeatedly throughout his career.
That isn’t to say that Lost River is a perfect or even a great film. The opening stretch is torturously self-indulgent, Iain De Caestecker’s performance as lead boy Bones may as well be a “cover” of Ryan Gosling’s role in Drive while Matt Smith literally chews apart the scenery while wearing a coat stolen from Drive and…did I already mention this movie could accurately be described as Drive as directed by Harmony Korine? Just checking.
Glibness aside, Lost River is a bold, assertive directorial debut that attempts to cram in all of Gosling’s influences, obsessions and lessons in one work. That it fails to completely do so is understandable, but the attempt alone would make it notable and Christina Hendricks and Ben Mendelsohn’s performances are commanding enough to smooth out a lot of the rough edges created by Gosling’s overzealousness. The true savior of the film, however, is Benoit Debie, whose prior cinematography credits on Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible and Enter the Void and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers clearly caught Gosling’s eye. Regardless of your thoughts on the quality of the performances and script, Debie’s camerawork is stunning, managing to make Detroit look both completely alien and hauntingly familiar, with bold bursts of bright colors that ensure Lost River stands out from the dreary orange and teal palettes of so many modern films.
Debie’s artful touches might also have inspired some of the Cannes hatred Lost River received, though, since his camerawork is pristine enough to call more attention to Gosling’s weak points as a director—in particular, Gosling shares Malick’s interest in the scenery of his film over his actors, leading to a number of segments where the performances come across as hampered and frozen. The difference is that Malick spent decades building up to that digressive artistry and Gosling has attempted to jump right into it, something that tends to rankle Cannes’ older audiences schooled on respectability and proper due. Lost River may have flopped with Cannes, but in the home of the weird, it got a more sympathetic reception, and I believe that it won’t be too long before it enters the new cult canon.
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.