Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg). I'm a bit wary of a documentary that feels the need to split itself up into chapters. To me, it's typically a sign of a director that doesn't quite know how to unify his material—one of the basic challenges of this genre. You've accumulated a lot of footage, now how do you make it flow? Chapter division seems like a bit of a trick solution to that problem.
The story of Mark Hogancamp, a man who suffered brain damage a few years ago causing the loss of nearly all his memories, doesn't really need to be split up, as most of the material naturally flows. It's engrossing and fascinating to learn how Mark's personal form of therapy—constructing a 1/6th scale WWII-era town in his backyard—eventually turns into an art form, and it can all be told so easily from beginning to present without the disruptive punctuation of title cards.
Now, lest you think I focus entirely too much on chapter divisions, the film does have a larger problem. As told and as edited, the film builds to an emotional climax, winds back down, then starts the process all over again, leaving us with two story peaks. To feel as if you've concluded only to start back up again is taxing and makes the film seem much longer than it actually is.
Brotherhood (Will Canon). The week is still very young, but Brotherhood could be the biggest surprise of the festival so far. The film's description is disagreeable in an Afterschool Special way: a frat house initiation goes dangerously awry and one pledge must do the right thing to save a friend's life. Yet, to my delight, Brotherhood proves to be competent and engaging.
Thrillers aren't typical at SXSW (at least not that I've seen), which may be one reason why so many people in Austin have been pleasantly surprised by this film. It's not that Brotherhood has a fresh take on the “frat thriller” genre, but sometimes it's enough just to see it done well. We've been subjected to too many thrillers and slashers with this same look and feel, made for a whole lot more money, and they just butcher every creative decision. They make it easy to forget that there is merit in this genre.
Sure, the film occasionally spends too much time on single-note shouting matches, and there's a late turn of events that stinks a bit too much of plot manipulation, but they're minor infractions. This movie keeps the energy flowing with several strong performances and entertaining plot turns that manage to feel like a string of unfortunate coincidences instead of, well, plot turns.
South by Southwest (SXSW) runs from March 12 to March 20.