Friday, February 25, 2011

The State of Indie

Wait, no, not THAT Indy! I'm talking about independent cinema. (Thanks to ses for the joke)

What is independent film? It is a kind of movie that is made outside of a major studio, which provides an opportunity for unique films to be made. Since Robert Redford's Sundance Festival and Soderberg's Sex, Lies and Videotape, indie films have been a force to be reckoned with, with some obtaining bigger budgets and big name stars. Indie films are simply a part of the cinema landscape now, with films like Reservoir Dogs, The Big Lebowski and Requiem for a Dream being just a few examples of independent cinema gone viral.

Just as mainstream cinema seems to be going more for the successful visual and the clever staging (like Inception and Black Swan) and even psychological drama seems to be psych-lite, independent film is focusing more on character. I want to give three examples of indie films to get an idea of where successful independent film is heading:

Please Give

This film is about a couple who has a successful business reselling retro furniture they obtain from estates. They see themselves at times as vultures, waiting for people to die off, and not more so than with their neighbor, a 91 year old who is renting a space they lease, but when she dies they expect to use her space to expand their own. Their success in this makes Kate (Cathrine Keener) neurotically guilty and want to hand out fives or twenties to people on the street. It also makes their marriage seem more like a business partnership rather than a intimate relationship.

This is a good character-driven story, and it opens up some ideas about guilt and wealth that are rarely seen in cinema. Unfortunately, the characters that the film focuses on are generally unlikable or so filled with their own self-focus that it is hard to appreciate them. The plot follows the characters well, making real people out of the sometimes eccentric personalities, but in the end, for me, these people are simply not the kind of people I want to spend time with.


Speaking of unlikeable characters, the title character played by Ben Stiller is immensely unlikeable. He is socially crippled, finding the wrong thing to say almost every time. I wrote a review of this film in a previous blog, so I'm not going to go in detail here. It is just enough to say that this, too, is strongly character driven. Stiller gives an amazing performance, and the plot never missteps by making a character say or do something out of what seems natural for them. But do we really want to know these people better? Greenberg is purposely unlikeable, and the only reason he is in any kind of relationship with Florence is because she is so used to acting for others, not really even knowing what she wants. But who wants to spend time with such extreme characters, who are not really likable, but simply pathetic?

The Kids Are All Right

This film is about a lesbian couple who had children through a sperm donor 18 years previous. Now the children want to meet their absent biological father. So they contact him, which causes the family's tenuous existence to topple.

This film is an example of the best of what independent film can be. Again, this is a character-led drama/comedy and there isn't a single misstep with character. At times one of the mothers, Nic is simply angry and controlling and the other mother, Jules has an affair, both of which could make these characters seem flat or unlikeable. However, the characters are so carefully written and played that we still feel connected to these people, even though they have made decisions we don't like.

We recognize these characters, not just in an abstract sense of "I know people like that", but we recognize aspects of their lives as being similar to our own. This isn't just "lesbian couple" or "organic farmer" or "children of lesbian couple" as if they were labeled in a zoo. These are people who in some ways are just like us. The emotional reactions are real for us. If we were in similar circumstances, we would react the same. The awkwardness of the first dinner with them all and the desperation to make it all right in the second dinner together is so perfect. We can feel the tension and appreciate the attempts to make relationship.

I would really like to see more films like The Kids Are All Right. Character-driven drama is important in film and we need to see well made ones-- as all three of these films are examples of-- but also we want to resonate. And to be able to resonate with characters that are so different, socially, than ourselves, is a real success.

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