Those who found Room 237 a bit too reliant on the ramblings of its narrator subjects will only find more ammunition with director Rodney Ascher’s latest documentary, The Nightmare, which trades verbose movie nerds for lifelong victims of sleep paralysis. On the surface, this still-unsolved phenomenon—in which sleepers find themselves unable to move or make noise as shadow phantoms approach them—is a fascinating topic, and apparently a more common issue than many might assume, but his subjects are, frankly, not eccentric or engaging enough to warrant the carte blanche granted to them.
Slotted into midnight showings at the festival with the transparent intentions of sending viewers home with the same nocturnal tremors as the featured participants, Ascher’s film seems frustratingly content with merely alarming the audience with shock cuts and surface-level boogie monsters, most of which look roughly the same from speaker to speaker. That’s the point, of course, as it turns out that the relative homogeneity of paralysis experience is part of what makes it so unsettling and worth pondering; one subject intriguingly calls it “Jungian,” suggesting an intellectual path that, as with most of the curiosities that hover around its edges, Ascher’s film refuses to explore. But on a basic cinematic level, The Nightmare exhausts whatever built-in intrigue it has by at least the third or fourth more or less identical retelling, and the remains become just a fog of tacky CGI tricks and ugly haunted-house lighting.
Equally in thrall to the spontaneous energy of its on-screen subjects, but in an entirely different register, is Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck’s God Bless the Child, a minimalist sibling portrait-slash-home movie about a group of five youngsters (Machoian’s children) whose depressive mother leaves home (Machoian’s California house) for an unspecified amount of time in the second shot of the film. With 13-year-old sister Harper at the helm of four wild bundles of boyish energy, it’s natural to expect all hell to break loose, but it’s part of the film’s quietly anticlimactic strategy that it never does. Over the course of a single day, the kids enact a pre-teen dream of no-parents-no-rules playfulness, engaging in all manner of horseplay—holding impromptu boxing matches, getting lost in nearby corn fields, slathering Belgian waffles with butter, singing hilarious jingles in the shower—until early evening rolls around and mom’s whereabouts turn from a matter of semi-apathetic curiosity to one of genuine concern.
The involvement of producer Laura Heberton (I Used to Be Darker, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely) and a shout-out to Matt Porterfield in the credits give an idea of the larger cinematic family and aesthetic lineage at work here. But, notwithstanding their intuition for knowing a Kodak moment when they see it (as much as it sounds like a pejorative, God Bless The Child’s best moments play like great clips from America’s Funniest Home Videos), Machoian and Ojeda-Beck lack the directorial finesse of some of their contemporaries in the field of so-called “raw naturalism.” The camerawork is tediously single-minded: Shots are almost always at medium height, bobbing around sloppily, and frequently a hair out of focus, which is to say nothing of the seemingly arbitrary framing (replete, no less, with re-framing) of any given scene. A general tendency toward underexposure casts a somber mood over the day and makes the interior of the house look appropriately unloved even during the most euphoric childish highs, but one wonders what’s by design and how much, frankly, is a result of being spontaneously impelled to photographically capture one’s children no matter the aesthetic value of the result.
An infinitely more image-conscious movie is Olivia Wyatt’s Sailing a Sinking Sea, which uses a plethora of cameras and visual textures (8mm, consumer-grade video, high-definition digital) to give memorializing representation to the Moken people of coastal Thailand and Myanmar, a nomadic community fast approaching extinction. Free entirely of talking heads or easy concessions to audience comprehension, this loving impressionistic tribute is, no doubt, an outlier here at SXSW among all the character-based narrative films and informative documentaries; in fact, it even feels like an outlier in contemporary cinema, springing as it does from the 1930s ethnographic cinema of Robert Flaherty as well as the later visions of Jean Rouch in the ’60s and Robert Gardner (who’s cited in the credits) in the ’70s and ’80s.
Formally, the distinct addition to Wyatt’s own riff on the subgenre is the extensive use of underwater cameras to emphasize the Mokens’ aquatic wisdom. Indeed, if there’s a reservation to be had about this pleasant hour-long immersion, it’s that Wyatt is maybe too indulgent on the underwater look at the risk of fetishizing and ultimately generalizing her subjects’ magnetic attachment to the sea (to play devil’s advocate, one could imagine a similar-looking film being made on recreational divers in California). Alas, if Sailing a Sinking Sea ends up being the world’s final testament to the Mokens, there’s little more that can be asked of the cinematic medium.
SXSW runs from March 13—22.