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SXSW 2010: Cyrus, The Thorn in the Heart, & More

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SXSW 2010: <em>Cyrus</em>, <em>The Thorn in the Heart</em>, & More

Cyrus (Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass): I first became aware of filmmaking brothers Jay and Mark Duplass when I saw their feature The Puffy Chair at SXSW ’05. The brothers are SXSW favorites, and though that may be partly because they’re local talent (they went to film school at the University of Texas), it’s not the main reason. Their funny, truthful character studies, which respect all their characters without putting any on a pedestal, fit right into the festival’s laidback yet professional vibe.

In Cyrus, John C. Reilly plays John, a man whose new romance with what appears to be the perfect woman (Marisa Tomei) is threatened by her diabolically passive-aggressive son (Jonah Hill), who wants to keep her all to himself. The three are funny and touching, and the kind-eyed Catherine Keener is wonderfully wry, as always, as John’s ex-wife, who’s patiently weaning him from emotional dependence seven years after their divorce.

Cyrus is their first studio-funded movie, but the brothers were determined not to lose the intimate working style that has served them so well all these years. In a Q&A after the screening, Mark said their rule was to “treat every scene like a nude scene,” allowing only essential personnel on the set in order to avoid crowding it with the extra crew that tend to dampen the creative spirit of multi-million-dollar movies. “As long as your actors come close to outnumbering your crew members, they’re going to feel important,” says the actor-director (he costarred in Humpday, among others.)

Reilly found that on-set intimacy freeing. Every day, he said, the brothers would leave the set together at least once to powwow for 20 or 30 minutes. That kept them in sync, but equally importantly, he said, it also kept the crew off balance, shaking them out of any ruts they might have fallen into. “God bless ’em for taking a professional crew and putting them in this place of discomfort,” he said.

The actor was also drawn to the brothers because of their emphasis on improvisation and authenticity. “I always thought it would be great to do a movie where you go to improvise, but you’re going after an emotional truth. These guys have the cojones to do that,” he said.

Narrative Shorts 1 and 2: Most of the short movies in these two series are the cinematic equivalent of anecdotes, relating an odd incident or capturing a snapshot of a relationship. A few do both, like Pancake Breakfast, an extended riff about a beautiful girl with a lot of male friends and a boyfriend who pretends he’s just pretending to be jealous.

But a well-told anecdote is a beautiful thing, and so are the best of these. Anatinus, a brief, wordless tour of a blighted area just outside Manhattan, packs a surprisingly powerful punchline, while Out of Nowhere, like a dystopian version of Groundhog Day, drops us into a game of cat and mouse that looks like it could last forever.

My favorite shorts were the ones so nuanced they felt like mini features, telling surprisingly complex stories in less than 20 minutes. Equestrian Sexual Response, a beautifully shot, scored, and acted exercise in non-expository storytelling, explores the sexual education of a melancholy 11-year-old girl without coyness or condescension. Televisnu is an inventive fantasy that feels a little like an Indian Alice in Wonderland, in which a shy, sheltered girl who works at a call center gets exposed to a broader world that makes her question some of the assumptions with which she was raised. And Girls Named Pinky is a brisk, satisfying Hitchcockian thriller marinated in dread: You know something bad is going to happen, but you don’t know what.

The Thorn in the Heart (Michel Gondry): Director Michel Gondry forgoes most of the DIY special effects and handcrafted toys he’s known for in this straightforward documentary, a densely textured, delicately observed portrait of Gondry’s aunt Suzette. A retired teacher, she has lived a rich and full life, but she seems to have connected much better with her students than with her own son. There are a few patented Gondry touches, like the suits he gives a bunch of schoolkids to wear so they’ll be invisible on film, or the handmade-looking toy train he keeps following around a track between scenes. But this film is firmly grounded in the pleasures of everyday life, opening with a slow pan down a cozy-looking outdoor table and chairs in a rainstorm and then heading inside to join the Gondry family around a crowded dinner table, where Suzette is soon laughing so hard at her own story that she can barely finish it.

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