We have lost track of the days Morgan has been at SXSW… it’s all a blur… but you can catch up on it all here.
Rain is more or less a certainty at SXSW. In my experience, it has come at the start of the event, but this year, these last few days of the festival have marked the start of the rain. That makes it that much easier to just say “fuck it” to the music portion and stick to film, but the chaos the rain brings makes even SXSW film a little wonky. The South Lamar Drafthouse in particular has been a mess, even though it’s a freshly renovated Drafthouse and has more volunteers than pretty much anywhere else (maybe that’s the issue?). But before I went and saw Excess Flesh and Uncle John yesterday, I fell prey to my own chaos the day before and didn’t get a writeup in because I spent the whole day drinking during music coverage and then wandered into Welcome to Leith thinking it was the shorts program that would be screening, not a documentary on a white supremacist trying to take over a small North Dakota town.
Welcome to Leith
Centered around the exploits of Craig Cobb, Welcome to Leith is surprisingly aimless given its volatile subject matter. Mostly forgoing traditional interviews except for when it’s necessary to provide background on Cobb, Welcome to Leith instead operates as a cinema verite look at life in Leith during Cobb’s attempted reign.
Cobb and his main crony begin walking the perimeter of their property with assault rifles in tow and disrupt local town meetings, but the biggest obstacle to getting the white supremacists out of Leith is finding a legal way of doing so. A clever attorney makes the case that Cobb is inciting terror and a complex trial begins, but it is hampered by many of the townsfolk refusing to say they were afraid of Cobb. Here the film shifts into a more delicate debate over free speech and the place hate groups have within it. Nichols and Walker gained incredible access to Cobb, catching a number of intimate moments with the man as he defends his actions and explains his own history. Cobb comes from a upper middle class background, a fact that might throw off people expecting to encounter poor white trash; he is well-spoken and engaging and it isn’t surprising that he is able to seduce desperate, angry people to his cause.
Rather than being a finger-pointing, stern, nagging documentary on race and free speech in America, Welcome to Leith is instead equal parts inspiring and depressing. Its aimless, realistic style makes it a true documentary that offers no easy answer or solution—this is merely a profound document of a strange incident that could have happened in any number of small towns, at any number of moments in our history.
Far stranger was the next day’s opening film, Excess Flesh, a super stylized thriller about eating disorders and beauty culture. At the start of the screening, director Patrick Kennelly came out to gleefully state how fortunate it was that we were seeing his film at a Drafthouse and therefore would be eating during it. Usually these pre-film director interactions are harmless or goofy, but Kennelly’s commentary already kind of irritated me because it seemed to fundamentally miss the supposed point of his own film. If it was just meant to be about the grossness of eating, or if that’s an aspect of it we’re meant to grin and nod at, why even have the eating disorder angle? It immediately made what followed seem cheap and mean spirited rather than progressive.
Shot with the neon pastel aesthetics of a Gregg Araki film, Excess Flesh certainly is a disgusting work, made more disgusting by the insertion of glamor and fashion amidst a backdrop of extreme close ups on the unappetizing elements of eating. The plot is about as loose as a thesis film, but the gist is that Jill (Bethany Orr) has a love-hate relationship with her roommate Jennifer (Mary Loveless), an up-and-coming model who goes beyond social butterfly status and is really more of a social wasp. Jennifer is prone to lashing out at Jill, calling out perceived flaws in her body and lifestyle that she defends as “constructive and motivational.”
Orr and Loveless are fearlessly unglamorous in their performances and their chemistry is nearly strong enough to save the film. But a “twist” that is visible from a mile away restricts the plot to the point that the film collapses under its own weight trying to sustain it. Kennelly’s direction is confused, uncertain of what point to make—is this a movie about the apathy friends of victims with eating disorders display? Is it about the impact beauty culture and fashion have on young women? Is it about the way we deal with the trauma of abuse? These are all necessary questions but Kennelly lacks the assurance and confidence to properly answer one let alone all of them. There is a smart, unflinching film lurking somewhere in Excess Flesh and maybe in his next film, Kennelly will be able to provide that. But this isn’t it.
Almost as confused but not as ineffective was Uncle John, the last film I caught last night thanks to Ex Machina filling up insanely fast. Half a thriller about overdue revenge, half a romantic dramedy, Uncle John’s split personality struck me as mostly unnecessary, but the performances managed to make it basically effective. On the thriller side, John (John Ashton) is a lonesome old man who we first meet as he is killing a man named Dutch and disposing of his body. John works as a carpenter in a small Illinois town that has been shaken up by Dutch’s recent decision to go and apologize to people for the horrible wrongs he committed against them in his past before he received a religious vision that “saved” him.
On the romantic side, Ben (Alex Moffat) is John’s nephew but was basically raised by John after his parents died. Dutch had been romantically involved with Ben’s mother DeeDee at some point, and the incident that made John react so violently is connected to that past. But Ben is unaware of all of this, he’s living in Chicago and working as an animator for an ad firm, reeling from the dissolution of a long term relationship, alternately intrigued and frustrated by an interest in his new coworker Kate (Jenna Lyng).
Rookie director Steven Piet gives his actors a tremendous amount of leeway, with many of the scenes having the loose feel of an improvised dramatic exercise, at least in the Ben segments. Moffat performs well in this mode and he has excellent chemistry with Lyng, but the more restrained, rural sequences with John clash with that. Honestly, the portions of the film that focus on John are far more effective, particularly since the rising suspicions over Dutch’s disappearance provide ample tension. Even though we don’t really know John or why he killed Dutch, we root for him because he seems so sad and lonely. Once Dutch’s brother Andy (Ronnie Gene Blevins, who was a standout in last year’s SXSW film Joe as well) starts eying John as Dutch’s killer, that tensions becomes nearly unbearable.
Piet seems to have intended the segmented nature of the film as a method for communicating the life cycle, forcing us to reconcile the fact that Ben’s budding romance with Kate is happening in tandem with John’s revenge against Dutch for an incident that may have something to do with the loss of Ben’s mother. In theory that’s an interesting twist on the thriller genre, but it never quite gels. It doesn’t help that Piet favors long, unnecessary montage sequences (one scene basically functions as an ad for Facebook awkwardly inserted in the middle of the film), but the pairing does provide at least one nerve wracking scene towards the end that almost makes this structure worthwhile.
There is a lot of promise to Piet, though, particularly in the beautiful tranquility of the rural setting and the natural feel of the performances he gets out of his actors. Uncle John is ambitious and intimate at once and Piet’s attempt to do something new with two ancient genres is appreciated.
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.