We open on your standard postapocalyptic Americana wasteland – “Day 89,” we’re informed via disclaimer, though Day 89 of what we don’t know … yet. Small town streets are strewn with trash. Busted stop lights lie in the gutter. The inside of a general store looks like its been ransacked several times over. A small group of scavengers gingerly pick over the shelves, with a young boy taking a liking to a toy space shuttle. His sister catches it before it falls to the ground; she shakes her head “no.” So does their father, who removes the batteries. These three, along with another child and a woman, trudge over a bridge, silent and barefoot. Then the boy, who’s palmed the Double AAs and placed them back in, kicks the mini-rocket’s loud siren into life. Dad sprints toward him. Something else gets to the kid first. And whatever that growling, clicking thing was that grabbed the lad, it was clearly angry. And hungry.
“Opening-night film selections should be fun!” exclaimed Janet Pierson, head honcho of the SXSW Film Festival, as she kicked off the event Friday night. And judging from the opening minutes of the fest’s selection, director John Krasinki’s A Quiet Place, that goal was achieved – assuming, of course, that your idea of fun includes hyperventilating, biting your nails to the quick and potentially soiling yourself. A surprisingly solid, formalistically experimental genre piece from a guy who self-admittedly isn’t a die-hard fan of such things, this harrowing tale of survivors negotiating a world overrun by killer aliens revolves around a gimmick of sorts: The cosmic predators track their prey via super-sensitive hearing (“It’s Sound!” screams a New York Post headline). If you want to live, you can’t speak.
Which means the characters played Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Wonderstruck‘s extraordinary deaf actress Millicent Simmonds and newcomer Noah Jupe either sign the majority of their dialogue or communicate solely through expression, gesture, worried looks and the occasional slow dance to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” piped through earbuds. It’s not a silent movie by a long shot, but it does borrow a lot of silent cinema’s language to guide viewers through a series of set pieces designed to jump-scare the fecal matter out of you. You have to rely on the cast’s screen-acting facilities to get you from Oh My God This Is Terrifying Point A to Oh My God This Is Terrifying Point B (we’ll gingerly note that some folks involved here are better at it than others). It also means you get prime Perils-of-Pauline sequences like Blunt’s pregnant woman quietly avoiding a creature in her house after she’s stepped on a nail – oh, and also, she’s going into labor. If you have an aversion to either being buried alive or bitten by a Xenomorph’s cousin, you may want to avoid this.
Krasinski mentioned to the SXSW crowd that he wasn’t interested in making a horror movie, but he liked the idea that an audience would be scared because they cared actually about whether these people made it out alive – and A Quiet Place‘s necessary emphasis on the dynamics between the quartet does put it a notch above your average slash-and-chomp sci-fi horror blockbuster. But he’s clearly boned up on his Hitchcock 101 in terms of sustaining tension and knowing when to release it, and there are some genuinely impressive uses of cutaway shots, close-ups and cross-cutting between cat-and-teeth-gnashing-killer-mouse games embedded into the thrill ride. By the time this domestic take on Alien turns into a last-act riff on Aliens, you see why SXSW chose the movie to start the fest’s engine. It’s extremely well-made for what it is. It’s not perfect. It is fun.
On Saturday night, the festival brought out more studio-sanctioned big guns – seriously, have you seen John Cena’s arms? – for Blockers, the story of three best-friends-forever teen girls determined to lose their virginity on prom night and the respectively paranoid helicopter-parents (Cena, Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz) determined to foil said aforementioned deflowering. If you’ve figured out that the title is a kinder, gentler, shorter version of the term “cock-blockers,” we applaud you; it’s the only remotely family-friendly concession this hard-R–rated comedy makes. And if you’ve seen the trailer, you know that the wrestler-turned-big-screen-comedian gets a beer enema – by far the grossest moment in this gross-out farce and not even in the top 30 funniest moments. Yes, someone does get sprayed with the “butt-chugged” beverage. Did we mention this is a raunchcom?
Blockers is, in fact, almost every raunchcom you’ve seen in the past few decades, with bits of American Pie and the Judd Apatow oeuvre and Bridesmaids and Bad Moms and Pitch Perfect (first-time director Kay Cannon wrote the screenplay for franchise’s first two films) and dozens of others thrown into a blender. It makes great use of stars’ strengths, especially Barinholtz’s douchebag dad-bro schtick. It will get more work for its trio of young actors – especially Gideon Adlon, who’s inherited her mom Pamela’s raspy voice and crack comic timing. It will make a billion dollars. It’s a testament to young female friendships. It has an instantly classic scene featuring subtitles and the best mutilated male genitals close-up since There’s Something About Mary. It will get John Cena nominated for an Oscar. (We’re kidding: It will make two billion dollars.)
Cannon knows exactly what she’s doing, and exactly how to harness a sort of manic energy and post-Apatovian pathos that bulldozes over any number of stock set-ups. A colleague mentioned that she’d seen numerous big-budget, big-name comedies go over like gangbusters in the Paramount Theater over her years of attending SXSW; halfway through surfing the screening’s constant, roiling waves of laughter, you realize that this superior model of vulgarity-meets-authenticity outrageousness would, and will, play huge in virtually any venue. To call this the XX-chromosome Superbad may seem reductive on the surface, even if Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg weren’t among the film’s many credited producers. But it’s also an eerily accurate encapsulation of how Blockers‘ authentic teen interactions and distinctly feminine sensibility sit side by side with sidesplitting, broad slapstick. “I’m a woman! And I make movies!” Cannon joked when introducing the film. “And I made a comedy! And it’s R-rated!” Let’s hope she keeps making more.
Of course, you don’t necessarily come to SXSW to see the sort of stuff you’ll be seeing at your local multiplex a month or so from now – though these things do stir up a fervor among this particular festival’s attendees, sometimes to the point of inside-the-bubble dizziness. But what this annual Austin get-together, now 25 years strong and 10 years into Pierson’s tenure as film-programming director, is best known for is a particular kind of microbudgeted American independent film, often intimate and always ragged, jagged, rough in an artisanal, homemade way. There’s no need to repeat the term that these movies became saddled with; trust us, you’ve heard it before. It is simply worth noting that the man who many consider the father and the Patient Zero of the movement, Andrew Bujalski, is back this year with a new film. It is not about postcollegiate ennui. It does take place inside a “breastaurant.” Progress can sometimes take the strangest of forms.
Support the Girls lets you spend a day-and-some-change in the life of Lisa (Regina Hall), a harried manager of a post-Hooters “boobs, brews and big screens” joint named Double Whammies. Her motley crew of waitresses, both veterans and new hires, follow the lead of the irrepressibly bubbly Maci (Haley Lu Richardson, irrepressible and bubbly) when they’re on the floor. But Lisa calls the shots and, per the sassy-as-fuck server Danyelle (Shayna McHayle), keeps these women “under her buffalo wings.” Professionally, she’s loved by her tight crew. But her personal life is unraveling, her protective instincts have backfired on her regarding an ex-employee in need of money and her patience is being tested by a thief stuck in the eatery’s ceiling. Plus her boss (James LeGros) is a dick. Meltdown is just one bad shift away.
Forget, for a second, that you’re watching scantily-clad women upsell and suck-up to middle-aged men; what Bujalski has done here is create an oasis of sisterly love in a pit of toxic masculinity. The key word here is not Girls – it’s Support. He’s also given Hall one more chance to prove that there’s no apparent limit to her talent – that weary sigh is deadly – should Girls Trip not have made that apparent; has gifted Richardson with the sort of y’all-come-back-now-ya-hear character that, along with last year’s Columbus, suggests that we have a genuinely great actor who’s just getting started; and, after 2015’s chilly-to-a-fault Results, has crafted a warm movie that pushes the director closer towards a shaggy Jonathan Demme-like humanism, which may be his true sweet spot. (This is easily the most Demme-glazed ensemble movie in ages; it would play beautifully on a double bill with Citizen’s Band.)
It ends with a primal scream therapy session on the top of a strip-mall building, female voices being heard above highway noise. You could not ask for a better image of America right now. Or a better American movie about making the best of a bad stacked-against-you situation.