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The kids ain't all right at South By Southwest 2012

The 2012 SXSW Film Festival opened with the world premiere of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, a film that outwardly appears like a new spin on the classic teenage slasher movie but is ultimately about — and I supposed this is a little bit of a SPOILER, if a film’s themes can be spoiled — movies and their audiences: why they’re made, why they’re watched, and the lengths filmmakers go to please their viewers, even if their viewers are bloodthirsty bastards. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS’ central metaphor, brilliantly developed by director/co-writer Drew Goddard and producer/co-writer Joss Whedon over the course of a film that is funny, scary, and very smart, is specifically about horror movies. But it applies equally well to films of all genres, and particularly to the sort of stuff that premieres at film festivals, where directors often spend years of their lives and every dollar they have for the opportunity to present their vision of the world to an audience.

That was certainly the case with Matthew Lillard, the actor who rose to prominence in the late ’90s and early ’00s as the wacky sidekick in films like SCREAM and SCOOBY-DOO, and recently reemerged on the indie film scene with a mature performance in Alexander Payne’s THE DESCENDANTS. He came to Austin, Texas to premiere his directorial debut, FAT KID RULES THE WORLD, based on a young adult novel by KL Going. Introducing the film before its third SXSW screening, Lillard explained that he’d been trying to make this film for nine years — ever since he’d been hired to narrate the book on tape version of FAT KID RULES THE WORLD, and burst into tears as he recognized himself in its story of a suicidal, overweight teen who connects with a punk rocker. Lillard worked the crowd with self-deprecating humor — vowing to talk smack about Freddie Prinze Jr. during the post-screening Q&A — but his movie is no joke; it’s a legitimately crowd-pleasing high school story that’s funny and warm in equal measure.

Jacob Wysocki, last seen as the titular hero of Azazel Jacobs’ TERRI stars as the titular hero of Lillard’s film, a heavyset outsider named Troy who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Marcus (Matt O’Leary), whose image of rock godhood disguises the harsh truth of his life: he’s really just a smooth-talking junkie. The screenplay by Michael M.B. Galvin and Peter Speakman does an admirably job of refusing the easy urge to sugarcoat and stereotype: Marcus projects cool, but Lillard shows us his intense flaws; Troy’s father (the wonderful Billy Campbell) is a strict ex-Marine, but his discipline comes from a place of love, not frustration, with his troubled son. The scenes between the Troy’s straight-laced father and his new punk rock buddies are hilarious and the bond formed between the two outcasts grows into something genuinely moving. I don’t know if Lillard wants to continue directing, or if he simply had to tell this one story. But if he does, I’ll be watching. I’m not surprised in the slightest that the film took home an Audience Award in SXSW’s Narrative Spotlight section.

Lillard’s teenagers are troubled but at least they’re likable. The same cannot be said of the loathsome subjects of Andrew Neel’s KING KELLY. The film itself isn’t loathsome, though; far from it — Neel has created a fascinating portrait of modern, self-obsessed teens. Like CABIN IN THE WOODS, KING KELLY manages to live into a genre even as it comments upon it — in this case, the found footage movie. Kelly (MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE’s Louisa Krause) is a superstar in her own mind, and on her own cell phone. She makes money collecting tips from a porno video chat site where her fans — including a loyal viewer nicknamed Poo Bare — pay her to watch her masturbate on camera. Over the course of one very eventful Independence Day, Kelly ex’s boyfriend takes her car (along with the stash of illegal drugs she was hiding in the trunk) and Kelly and her best friend Jordan (Libby Woodbridge) venture to Staten Island to get it back. Kelly and Jordan’s entire quest is filmed on their phone cameras — and Neel did, in fact, shoot KING KELLY on iPhones and another $200 cheapo camera. The results are acidic satire of the highest order: funny, disturbing, and very smart about the way in which digital video has empowered teenagers to indulge their every narcissistic fantasy. The film’s finale, in which Kelly gives one last, defiant monologue to the camera while surrounded by fast food and garbage, is spellbinding. No one has picked up KING KELLY for distribution as of this writing, but someone really should. The edgy material about teen sexuality and drug abuse will make it a tough sell, but I could see the film finding a small but passionate audience, especially on VOD, where fans could enthusiastically tweet and Facebook about the experience as they watch the film, just like the characters onscreen.

Young people lost in the modern world is a popular theme at most South by Southwests, and that was certainly true again this year. It popped up in FAT KID RULES THE WORLD and KING KELLY — not to mention THE CABIN IN THE WOODS — and it was also treated in more subdued fashion in a small but effective character study called IN OUR NATURE. Zach Gilford from Friday Night Lights stars as Seth, who heads out of Brooklyn with his girlfriend Andie (Jena Malone) for a relaxing vacation at his family’s upstate cabin. But Seth doesn’t anticipate his father Gil (Mad Men‘s John Slattery) showing up at the cabin as well, with his own girlfriend Vicky (Gabrielle Union). Father and son clearly don’t like one another, and neither wants to share the enormous house, but after a series of awkward encounters, they both decide to stay for the weekend. Over a series of meals and hikes, kayaking adventures and marijuana cigarettes, the four characters grow closer in interesting ways. Both Gilford and Slattery build on their established TV personas in effective ways: Slattery as a workaholic and anti-family man, Gilford as the bottled-up, neglected son. The film’s short on style — with its single location and limited cast, it feels like a play barely blown up for the big screen — but long on good writing and better performances. No distributor yet here, either, but with that cast, someone will surely snatch this one up soon.

At her introduction for the premiere of IN OUR NATURE, Janet Pierson, the head of the SXSW Film Festival, joked that IN OUR NATURE represented one of many films that were submitted to this year’s festival about characters wandering around in the woods. Which, of course, was also true of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. The film played like gangbusters with the South By crowd, which isn’t a surprise: it’s exactly the sort of literate genre deconstruction that savvy Austin audiences adore. How will it play to a broader crowd? It will be interesting to see. The film contains its fair share of shocking moments, but it’s sly where most modern horror films are blunt, and winks at the viewer when most modern horror glares at you from behind a whirring chainsaw. The best thing I can say about the film without spoiling anything is that it has the courage of its convictions. It hints at a secret lying beneath the surface of this seemingly innocent cabin nestled near the end of a mountain road, and when it unveils that secret, it goes for it with the throttle wide open. Goddard and Whedon introduce a premise and follow it all the way through to its natural, craziest conclusion. The results are exhilarating and exhausting; by the end you feel like you’ve been put through a ringer and hung out to drip dry. Sort of like how you feel after 6 days at South by Southwest.