Most recently, I was able to catch these two amazing movies and both really made an impact on me. Each film is really a great example of how expansive and wide independent cinema has become because one (Short Term 12) comes from an up and coming director working with mostly unknown actors and the other (Frances Ha) comes from an established auteur with some young successful NY talent. Without going into a black hole and ranting incoherently about every thought I have on these two movies, I will note a few things that stood out about each.
Short Term 12
To say this film is a tearjerker wouldn't be doing it justice enough. It's easy for a movie with this type of subject matter to fall into the cliches that many Oscar-baiting projects lean on. But perhaps it's because the fresh talent of director Destin Daniel Cretton and performances of Brie Larson and company that bring sincerity to a very tight script. The look of the film is characteristic of today's independent filmmaking - shallow focus, handheld shots intercut with the occasional stylish maneuver. I typically refer to this cinematography and editing in conversation as the "Vimeo look" which is not a knock at all. In this case, I like it even more as it creates a pseudo-documentary tone that sets an intense intimacy with both the youth center and the kids in it. The writing and acting is where the movie shines. Our protagonist, Grace (Brie Larson), is a heartwarming character who helps others, but also deals with her own complications that truly reveal her emotional storyline. And that is where the script is amazing. It adds layers to each character in the movie and brings them to a vulnerable place where they can then display raw feelings, whether happy or dark, in a genuine way. The film manages to break down a multitude of characters like this and the audience can't help but connect. So in one scene, the rhythm can quickly go from a dark moment to a comedic joke. Admittedly, I may have teared up once or twice. I am not ashamed. The actors truly bring a realness and it's unbelievable that they don't have more notoriety. With all that said, it's no surprise it was this year's SXSW Grand Jury and Audience winner. Please see it if you get a chance.
"Sometimes it's good to do what you're supposed to do when you're supposed to do it." It really feels as though that happened with director/writer Noah Baumbach and writer/actor Greta Gerwig. Baumbach is an established auteur in independent cinema with classics such as The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and Greenberg along with collaborations with Wes Anderson. Gerwig is newer to the scene but nonetheless has had complementary roles in notable movies and is considered to be on the verge niche stardom. Thus, this duo could have managed to get financing for a comfortable production budget but chose to keep this project close. The movie is in a filmic black and white which adds a nostalgia for the offbeat humor that nods to the early works of Woody Allen. However, the setting and vernacular is very much contemporary New York through the eyes of twenty somethings. The character of Frances is portrayed as an offbeat individual struggling with growing up or finding someone other than her distanced best friend to understand her. She also has a hard time making it as a dancer and her character often uses the world as a stage. From comical running to strangely timed headstands, Frances is never one to hide her emotions and does so with both words and actions, making the film very much a slapstick comedy in one regard. Beyond that, the writing touches upon social class, which adds a very interesting layer to the script. With New York being very expensive, yet dense, Frances represents the middle class chasing after a dream but often mingles and socializes with wealthier artists or kids with financial stability. This premise leads to some quick-witted, comedic conversations about the struggle of the twenty something in New York which will undoubtedly draw comparisons to the HBO series, Girls. However, Frances's journey has a clear start and finish and is as unique as her character. If you didn't get to see it this summer, it will luckily be a Criterion release in November. Get it.
Sidenote: As a production nerd, I was astonished to find out that the entire movie was shot on a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR camera, a very low budget piece of equipment that is barely a step above a consumer product. Amazing, especially for that rich silvery black and white film look that could fool anyone. For more about it, check out cinematographer Sam Levy's insights on how he shot Frances Ha here.