The SXSW film program gives small indie films better-than-average beginnings.
16 Mar 2011 - 9:56 AM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2014 - 2:57 PM

Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock introduced his new film, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, with a brief valentine to the festival hosting him. Here for the fifth time, he appreciated the fact, he said, that South By Southwest was more about moviegoing and movie appreciation than talking back end points with a sweaty studio exec at a dodgy sushi bar. (I'm paraphrasing.) He didn't name Sundance — where he sold his film — but the inference was clear. That's a working festival; this one's more about high-fiving each other's efforts and getting your beer card punched.

It's not completely true — the odd deal is coming through quietly, as the steady stream of publicist emails reminds me — but a good portion of SXSW's film programming is dedicated to showcasing films that have already been officially launched into the world. The 'Spotlight Premieres' and 'Festival Favourites' categories comprise films asked to bring their bad selves to Austin based on the strength of reputations they have built up working the festival circuit. SXSW has become a prime destination for films on the road to a wide release but looking for an extra hit of attention to goose them on their way.

Two such films are Beginners, a lovely Mike Mills film starring Ewan McGregor as a commitment-phobic man whose father (Christopher Plummer) comes out late in life; and WIN WIN, Tom McCarthy's endearing ensemble piece about a struggling family man (Paul Giamatti) and the dilemma set in motion when he endeavors to make a “winning” decision. Beginners was bought after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last fall; WIN WIN is a Sundance alum on the cusp of a theatrical run. Both tell the kind of small, domestic stories that can get lost on the release schedule if they're not careful.

Beginners, scheduled to begin its release this June, may have a tougher time finding a theatrical audience than WIN WIN, if only because McCarthy's first two films — The Station Agent and The Visitor — have established his reputation for unscary, story-driven, feel-good art house films. At the screening I attended the people around me were buzzing as much, and inevitable comparisons to the indie crossover smash Little Miss Sunshine abound. Mike Mills, on the other hand, directed the less seen, more unconventional Thumbsucker in 2005, and viewers might be less willing to give his slightly off-beat story a chance, despite the deal-sealing presence of Ewan McGregor.

T'was certainly not so Tuesday morning, when the coveted X-press passes to the film's first SXSW showing went faster than you could say Moulin Rouge. I was glad to see it: Beginners is an emotionally compact film filled with personal flourishes (Mills has said the story is loosely based on his own) and well-developed themes. McGregor plays Oliver, a thirtysomething graphic designer whose parents' stilted marriage has clearly cast a pall over his adult love life. When his mother dies and his father (Plummer) announces that he is gay, has always been gay, and intends to live an openly gay life, Oliver is sent reeling.

Eventually inspired by his father's it's-never-too-late gusto, Oliver takes a chance on Anna, a French actress he meets at a party (Melanie Laurent). Both Oliver and Anna have developed strategies to keep people from pushing past the carefully organised impression they make, and Mills charts the mysterious course of attraction and repulsion between two scared, willing people with understated empathy. I'm happy to report that you'll soon be able to see if you agree.

SXSW x Numbers

Movies seen: 10
Tacos eaten: 0, dammit!
Vending machine incidents: 1
“Secret” shows heard about: 3
“Secret” shows too veiled in secrecy to actually attend: 3
Sunburns narrowly averted: 1
Panels attended: 4
Times I've been called “ma'am” and liked it: Maybe 2
Times I've been called “ma'am” and died a little: The rest

Read more of Michelle's SXSW reviews:

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
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