Craig William Macneill's sophomore feature, The Boy, got quite the rise out of a packed house on Sunday night in Austin, and it's easy to see why: The film, a sensationalistic study of a cute-as-a-button only child, Ted (Jared Breeze), growing into a taste for murder at the desert motel he helps maintain with the most clueless dad in film history (David Morse), dredges up traces of beloved horror flicks like The Shining, Carrie, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre en route to its Grand Guignol finale. Even if his talents tip the scales toward overstatement, Macneill has a command for composition and rhythm that belies his skinny résumé, and one can't help but be unnerved by Breeze's relentlessly deer-in-the-headlights performance as the sociopathic Ted. It's the kind of movie reflexively touted for its “bold vision,” a byproduct of a taboo subject tackled without restraint and an aesthetic that privileges the constant splashing of water on the audience's collective mug via razor-blade cuts and booming sound transitions. In its unremitting sense that anything bad could happen at any moment, The Boy manages to ladle even afternoon pool lounging with sinister portent.
Macneill quickly develops a habit of dropping thunderous drones every time Ted waddles stoically into frame, an unneeded editorial intrusion (after all, the voyeuristic, sand-swept visuals are expressive enough) that has the premature effect of turning him into a cartoon and thus diminishing the potential human complexity of his growing fascination with death. For a while, when it still seems as though Macneill's taking his treatment of Ted's psychology without a grain of salt, The Boy's severe tone is grating (a suspicion no doubt fueled by the suggestively emblematic title), but with the coming of a string of convoluted plot points it veers welcomingly into high camp. Rainn Wilson, resembling Zach Galifianakis and inhabiting the actor's emotional spectrum on Between Two Ferns, shows up as an unwitting tenant with a box of his wife's ashes, and Morse, fully tilting his character's mopey sense of denial toward the absurd, has some hammy line readings that—mark these words—might be enough to induct him into the Tim and Eric universe. By the time the film goes out in a blazing inferno of hell-raising loneliness and tops itself off with the best final line-to-credit song combo since Killer Joe, The Boy has reached a point of stupid fun.
If The Boy prides itself on its jolting style, 6 Years aims to subordinate style to the work of its actors—a canny move if you're filmmaker Hannah Fidell, whose prior A Teacher was a galling exercise in directorial over-exertion. For the most part, this new film loses the art-house posturing of its predecessor in favor of unadorned observation of faces and bodies, but Fidell hasn't yet grown out of A Teacher's broad melodrama, schematic narrative patterns, and air of self-seriousness. For proof, just take 6 Years's central idea: High school sweethearts Dan (Ben Rosenfield) and Mel (Taissa Farmiga) run into romantic troubles stemming from discrepancies in life trajectories as they near their titular anniversary, and proceed to deal with trust issues, criminal infractions, and major job decisions (all that's missing in terms of raising stakes is the death of a friend or family member). Frequently during the film one senses the central lovebirds drifting along not according to the inevitable whims of a long-term relationship, but rather to the wheel-spinning hand of their director, whose small-scale goals—viscerally evoking familiar tensions between head and heart—are out of step with the clunkiness of her dramatic execution.
So why does 6 Years remain fitfully moving in spite of its setbacks? The gut points to Farmiga, whose serviceable work in The Bling Ring and American Horror Story couldn't have prepared anyone for the range and vulnerability exhibited here in her embodiment of reckless romantic abandon. While A Teacher star Lindsay Burdge has yet to separate herself from the single-minded modes into which Fidell's scripts pigeonhole her (she shows up again in 6 Years as an excessively flirtatious temptation for Dan), Farmiga elevates her performance far beyond the contrivances of the movie's larger design, such that when she's howling the kinds of things that often end up as scribbles on bathroom walls it feels organically in step with Mel's still-developing emotional maturity. In one standout scene early on, well before Fidell steers the plot into hysterics, Mel asks Dan in bed if something's wrong, and something is. After pregnant pauses, he sheepishly denies it, then starts ravenously kissing her to counter the awkwardness. Anyone's who's ever been in a long-term relationship will recognize the unspoken boomeranging of apprehension, and, hopefully without discrediting the skillfulness of Rosenfield's shaggy portrayal, Farmiga's penetrating eyes and minutely fluctuating soft features lift the moment into something sublime.
Such fleeting communion with authentic human behavior makes 6 Years worth the patience required of sitting through another paean to tormented youth. By the same token, Les Blank's recently rediscovered and soon-to-be-Criterionized A Poem Is a Naked Person from 1974 is made up almost entirely of such sacred moments of diminished artifice. Ostensibly a documentary on folk troubadour Leon Russell, the film in actuality is more of a free-floating portrait of the eccentric neo-Gospel Oklahoman frying pan that is Russell's mini-universe, and as such leans less on hagiography than the simple accumulation of ecstatic sounds and sounds in this milieu.
Those familiar with Blank's malleable approach to documentary production will recognize that energy in its nascent form; after the screening, long-term editing partner Maureen Gosling addressed how Blank was discovering in this second full-length undertaking the intuitive and emotional linkages between otherwise disparate imagery that would mark his body of work. The explanation confirmed a feeling of visceral waves moving across the audience throughout the screening, a collective engagement—not unlike, one might say, a '70s hippie experience—that would blossom occasionally into full-blown applause whenever Russell and his band wrapped up one of the many super-tight performances strewn throughout the film.
And yet, in spite of the potential appeal of the documentary as rock-n'-roll history, A Poem Is a Naked Person is such an exuberantly full-of-life time capsule that its musical interludes feel almost peripheral, or, rather, a mere convulsive reflection of the joy already coursing through even its most mundane passages. Blank captures so many colorful personalities—a charming old couple from Russell's riverside birthplace, stoned fans, feisty fellow musicians, even Willie Nelson—that Russell, despite being a magnetic screen presence with his easygoing sense of confidence, is hardly the central or only draw of the film. A randomly occurring motif that finds groovy onscreen titles reinforcing snippets of conversation speaks to Blank's fundamentally democratized perspective, so fully immersed in his rich atmosphere of Americana and always at the ready to locate bits of lyricism in a vibrant mass of countercultural activity.
SXSW runs from March 13—22.