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SXSW 2010: The Runaways, Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, Tiny Furniture, & More

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SXSW 2010: <em>The Runaways</em>, <em>Nobody Knows About Persian Cats</em>, <em>Tiny Furniture</em>, & More

The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi). Like Jodie Foster, Dakota Fanning has been the real deal from the time she was a kid, giving mediocre stuff like The Cat in the Hat and Man on Fire a jolt of emotional authenticity. In The Runaways, she does something even more impressive: bringing Kristen Stewart back from the dead. Stewart gives the best performance of her career as Joan Jett, head of the groundbreaking ’70s all-girl rock band for which the movie is named, opposite Fanning, who plays the band’s rebellious 15-year-old lead singer—and Jett’s sometime lover—Cherie Currie.

Based on Currie’s autobiography, helmed by music video director Floria Sigismondi (this is her first feature), and closely supervised by Currie and Jett, who executive produced the picture, The Runaways captures the naïvete, excitement, and raw energy of a pair of young women (the rest of the group remains way in the background) as they get a taste of la vida loca.

The film announces its female-centric point of view in the first scene, as a big glop of menstrual blood from Currie’s first period hits the ground before our eyes. That unblinkingly realistic tone is maintained throughout, giving the girls the respect they deserve, but didn’t always get at the time.

Nobody Knows About Persian Cats (Bahman Ghobadi). If you think it was hard being a female rocker in America in the ’70s, try being a musician of pretty much any sort in contemporary Iran. That’s the message of Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, the latest movie from the great Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi.

Ghobadi’s earlier films, A Time for Drunken Horses, Turtles Can Fly, and Marooned in Iraq, are documentary-style features (he likes to cast nonprofessional actors as themselves or people like themselves, telling stories that are, as a title at the start of Persian Cats informs us, “based on real events, locations, and people”) about the struggles of rural Kurds in the Kurdish territory that overlaps Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. His latest is a radical departure, giving us a vivacious, thoroughly contemporary tour of the underground music scene in Tehran.

Two young musicians, Negar and Ashkan, are trying to get to London to perform. Getting the gig was the easy part. Now they have to piece together a band to replace musicians who have fled the country getting black market visas or passports for everyone and buying one of the musicians out of his obligation to serve in the army. It’s all very dangerous, very expensive, and very precarious, and they never know who they can trust.

The two put their faith in a hyperactive fixer named Nader, who becomes their—and our—guide through beautiful old streets and into secret rehearsal and performance spaces as Negar and Ashkan audition a wide variety of musicians. Some of the music sounds so innocuous it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that it’s banned, but many songs have overtly political lyrics. As we see these gentle souls forced into becoming outlaws, songs urging people to get past “the fences around your mind” or bemoaning the way the system treats people like “trash” take on deeper meaning. So does the plaintive tune Negar sings at the end, a list of things the singer wants. They’re all simple, basic pleasures, but by then you know how unattainable they are for her.

Tiny FurnitureTiny Furniture (Lena Dunham). Winner of the best narrative feature award at this year’s SXSW, Tiny Furniture is a wittily written, beautifully photographed, deftly acted tale of a 23-year-old young woman adrift in what she calls “a post-graduate delirium.” After graduating college and getting dumped by her boyfriend, Aura (played by writer-director Lena Dunham) tries to take refuge in her family’s airy Tribeca loft, along with her aloof artist mother and disdainful teenage sister. Everyone’s always judging everyone else and nobody shows much mercy in this emotionally honest slice of life.

Dunham gives a remarkably vanity-free performance as an average-looking woman who’s capable of looking pretty but comes off as dumpy most of the time. Kindhearted and friendly but a little low on self-esteem, Aura keeps getting into masochistic relationships with narcissistic, entitled people who don’t give a damn about her.

Her family sometimes seems the most callous of all, but the relationships between Aura and her mother and sister—played by Dunham’s own mother and sister—turn out to be refreshingly realistic and complex. The movie covers a lot of ground in its deceptively meandering way, including the petty humiliations of low-wage work, the dubious benefits of being famous on YouTube, and the rapidly shifting loyalties of early-20s friendships (Jemima Kirke and Merritt Wever are excellent as Aura’s childhood and college best friends, respectively).

For more about this smart and likeable coming-of-age comedy, check out David Carr’s informative piece in Friday’s New York Times about Dunham and how she got the movie made.

Harry Brown (Daniel Barber). It’s not as if Clint Eastwood has a monopoly on aging vigilantes, or Michael Caine couldn’t give him a run for his money. But not in this vehicle, which never gets out of first gear.

You know you’re in trouble when a movie starts with a pair of young thugs getting high in an underpass and terrorizing a young mother as she pushes her baby in a stroller, but even that melodrama pales next to the drug-and-sex lair our Harry (Caine) uncovers when he decides to clean the bad element out of his housing project. The scene he encounters is so over the top it plays like a parody, and the lame wannabe taglines he lobs at his prey don’t help.

Emily Mortimer is wildly miscast as the cop who sees truths the system can’t handle, staring like a scared rabbit playing dead whenever she comes face to face with the criminals she’s supposed to be containing. The lugubriously slow pace, labored metaphors (a half-finished chess game? Really?) and dutiful foreshadowing are annoying. So is the grit-glamorizing, green-tinted cinematography. (This is the kind of movie that lovingly frames two men just so in a dirty bathroom mirror, lingering on the decay.)

What really lost me was Harry’s lack of street smarts. You’d never catch Clint getting falling-down drunk in a bar and flashing a bunch of cash, especially if he knew one of the neighborhood thugs was in there. But then, Harry Brown doesn’t belong in the same league as geezer-revenge movies like Unforgiven or Gran Torino. Shoot, it even makes Blood Work look good.

South by Southwest (SXSW) ran from March 12 to March 20.