Summer is the season for blockbusters, of course, but there also must be a little counter-programming for those of us less inclined to see Fast & Furious 6 or Star Trek Into Darkness. Nearing the end of May I’ve yet to see a summer blockbuster, not because they’re totally unappealing but merely because they’re not that compelling. I already know just what I’ll get from Iron Man 3 or The Great Gatsby, and while I might mildly enjoy those things, I highly doubt they’ll inspire me.
But the indies? Now there’s a mixed bag of a different sort. For those of us blessed with theaters willing to play them, the independent titles being released this summer offer all kinds of diversity. If I have a pretty good idea what I’ll get if I walk into The Hangover III, I had no idea what the hell I was in for with Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. That’s a good thing — for me, at least, if not the majority of the filmgoing public. (They tend to reject surprises.) While I can’t say there’s more than one or two major (potential) summer blockbusters that have caught my eye in 2013, there are a slew of smaller films I’m looking forward to. I guess you could say I’m looking forward to a quiet, moody summer.
Here are the first three.
The Kings Of Summer is that coming-of-age indie comedy that seems to come out of Sundance every year — it plays better there than it does with age. I don’t know why. Maybe next to Sundance’s dourer offerings, a chuckle or two is refreshing. Maybe laughter warms the frozen moviegoers’ hearts. The year I was at Sundance, The Wackness charmed us and took home the Audience Award. I very much enjoyed it at the time, though it was mostly snubbed by critics and failed to make a splash upon its summer release. The Wackness was better than the other features I saw that year, so perhaps it’s just by default. The premise itself is intriguing enough — three teenage boys decide to “run away” to the woods, building their own shelter and catching their own food. This sort of story has been known to venture into Lord Of The Flies territory, but that’s taking the material much more seriously than The Kings Of Summer would like to. It’s a lark.
It’s popular to deride films for being “too Sundance-y,” though I don’t like to. Yes, all the hallmarks are here — the soundtrack, the showy filmmaking, beauty shots of glorious nature, the standard teen girl love interest, and all that coming of age. The story follows Joe, who has recently lost his mother, and whose grieving father (Nick Offerman) isn’t particularly nice. (Luckily he has a cool older sister in Alison Brie, who seems a shade old to have a 15-year-old brother, but whatever.) Joe’s got a BFF in Patrick, whose mother so exasperates him that he literally breaks into hives. (She’s played by Megan Mullally, who has obnoxious down to an art.) There’s also a random kid who literally pops up out of nowhere, and somehow comes along on their adventures, inexplicably. His name is Biaggio, and that’s all we ever really learn about him. Except that he might be gay. Or just have cystic fibrosis.
The three boys take off to the woods, and here’s where we get our first indication that The Kings Of Summer‘s relationship with reality is tenuous at best. The boys think they can build a house on a random plot of land and live there, no questions asked, and we’re like, Yeah, right — can’t wait to see them learn that it isn’t that easy! But they don’t learn that, because in this film, it actually is that easy. Strangely, the film decides to montage its way through those first few days, and lo and behold, and awesome and not-leaky home is built, the kind of place the Swiss Family Robinson would envy. How did three high school freshman accomplish this? Well, with an upbeat indie song playing, you can do anything! (Or so independent cinema would have you believe.)
If you’re waiting for Into The Wild-level realism of man versus the elements to enter the picture, you’re watching the wrong movie. The Kings Of Summer never takes the stakes very seriously, though a snake does briefly cause some havoc. It’s not convincing that the boys could make it in the woods with such ease, and it’s not convincing that their parents and the police wouldn’t find them. It’s a half-baked idea, and instead of running with the consequences of what might actually happen here, the film throws in a rather cliche love triangle to cause friction. (If the movie has a thesis, it might — men are perfectly fine on their own amongst each other until a female comes along and fucks it all up. It’s like Adam and Eve all over again.) This isn’t a painful turn of events, but it does fall short of where a stronger story might have gone with this material. This, along with just about everything else in the movie, feels awfully first draft-y.
The Kings Of Summer is not a must-see, nor is it a waste of time. The central trio of performers are mostly appealing, though Nick Robinson is cursed with a few too many “we’re men now!” clunkers. (Has any teenage boy ever really declared himself a man? Out loud? In front of people?) The tone is a little broader than director Jordan Vegt-Roberts seems to think it is — he’s got some panache as a filmmaker to be sure, though that’s not always in service of the story. The crucial first few nights of these boys out on their own are glossed over entirely, and the Biaggio character never makes a lick of sense. I can imagine a grumpy person walking into this movie and leaving much grumpier. I wouldn’t blame them for it.
And yet it’s hard to knock a basic coming-of-age story about some bratty teenage boys down too far, because what’s the point? Yes, it would be nice if everyone had thought a little harder about this story, if it required a mere suspension of disbelief rather than a total powering-off of the brain. It’s a boys-will-be-boys story that’s a little too pleased with itself, as if it were made by actual fifteen-year-old boys. There’s little wisdom or maturity to be found, and you could argue that some of its humor is mildly offensive. Maybe I’m in too forgiving a mood for a movie that seems to equate facial hair as the epitome of masculinity. Sorry! Truth be told, The Kings Of Summer just doesn’t do anything so egregiously terrible that I find much fault with it. You could do worse on a lazy summer’s eve.
On a surface level, Mud begins with almost the same scenario as The Kings Of Summer, yet their similarities are few. Two young boys head out into the woods to seek adventure, and find it — and snakes! And there’s another two-timing teen hussy in the mix, too. Mud is the third feature from Jeff Nichols, the second I’ve seen. His last film was Take Shelter, and it was great enough to make my Top 10 of 2011. (It has only gained importance in my mind even since then, especially in light of the Oklahoma tornado this week.) Despite the presence of bigger stars, Mud feels more like a sophomore effort than Take Shelter did; both have ambiguities, but Take Shelter‘s are more confident in their obscurity. (I believe Nichols wrote Mud before Take Shelter, which could account for that.) They’re very different movies, despite surface similarities. Both deal with a man whose sanity is questionable, and who may or may not become a danger to the innocents around him. Both are distinct slices of Americana with more specificity about out-of-the-way places that we rarely see in movies. Both are concerned with old-fashioned family values, though not in a by-the-book right-wing sort of way. Take Shelter was a movie for adults, through and through; Mud feels more like it was intended for thoughtful young boys, most of whom aren’t likely to see it. It’s a throwback to the ’80s and ’90s, the kind of movie that feels like it should have been made in 1991. (That’s about when Nichols spotted Matthew McConaughey in Dazed & Confused and wrote this part for him.) If it’s a bit of a step down from the masterful Take Shelter, Mud is also refreshing for attempting something we never see anymore. It’s essentially a family film in disguise.
The title character is played by McConaughey, but the film isn’t about him. It’s a coming-of-age story about a fifteen-year-old named Ellis, expertly played by Tye Sheridan (from The Tree Of Life). Ellis’ parents are separating for somewhat ambiguous reasons; at first it seems like his father might be the abusive tyrant cliche we’ve seen so often in such stories, but all principal characters in Mud are more nuanced than that. Ellis spends most of his time with his buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). They hatch a scheme to get a boat out of a treetop before realizing Mud is living there. Mud carries a gun and could certainly use a shower, but otherwise isn’t threatening. (Or if he is, just a little bit.) He’s clearly hiding from someone — or possibly everyone — and early on, spills his deep and true love for a woman named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). We get the sense that whatever’s in store for these two, it isn’t a ride off into the sunset.
The problems between Mud and Juniper are a heightened version of what Ellis’ own parents are going through, and the way he becomes invested in whether or not Juniper and Mud get their happily-ever-after is just his displacement of his feelings about his parents. Ellis has some girl troubles of his own with an “older woman” (a senior at his school) who admires his childish scrappiness. (To an extent.) Mud strikes a curious balance between the lived-in characters and relationships of Ellis’ everyday life (his parents, Neckbone, and this girl) and the newcomers, who seem larger-than-life (Mud, Juniper… and the men they bring along with them).
Parts of the movie feel quite grounded, while others are cinematic (and a little too convenient). In the climax, Ellis’ family has one very exciting day in a way that doesn’t feel quite believable. There are payoffs here — including one involving Ellis’ neighbor Tom Blankenship, played by Sam Shepard — that are almost ridiculously over-the-top, yet also satisfying on some level. Mud requires the kind of suspension of disbelief that a family movie or action blockbuster typically require, and yet there are nuances here you’d never find in most of those. It’s a movie that feels made for sensitive and thoughtful teenage boys, however many of those still exist out there. Not too many, but I think I would have liked it at that age.
I’m less certain how well my fifteen-year-old self would have enjoyed Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, given my relatively low tolerance for ambiguity at that age. Upstream Color is a deliberately obscure movie, as far as plot goes. I’m sure there’s a certain logic to how things connect in Carruth’s mind, but he isn’t really interested in enlightening the rest of us. It’s much more about moods and feelings than story, which is the kind of thing that can work — as in last year’s inventive Holy Motors, one of my Top 10 of 2012 — or frustrate. Often, both at the same time.
We learn almost nothing about Chris (Amy Seimetz) before we see her kidnapped in a bizarre fashion, and held captive in an even more arresting way. The nightmarish scenario she faces (unaware that she’s facing one at all) is the film’s highlight, in the way that her captor has such a rigid system of events to put her through, seemingly random and yet we sense there’s a certain logic to it, and we are sure that Chris is not the first victim to go through this elaborate process. It’s fascinating to watch, and Carruth paces it just right, giving us just enough to intrigue but never enough to quite understand. It keeps us in a state confusion that almost matches Chris’ own. Were it a short film, it’d be something of a masterpiece.
But as focused as that opening act is, the rest of the film is much less so. Chris’ captor(s) let her go, and she returns to her old life, albeit emotionally scarred and financially drained. Some months later, Chris meets a man on the train (played by the director himself, in a bit of questionable casting) who is drawn to her, despite her coldness. I imagine Carruth wanted this segment of the film, about two broken people finding a certain sense of completion in the other, to be moving, but for some reason, it isn’t. The fractured editing doesn’t ever allow us to settle into this relationship, or feel the safety that Chris and Jeff might (occasionally) feel in each other’s arms. We, the audience, are always on the go, jerked to different times and places and points of view, most of it obscure enough that we only get a seed of an idea of what’s happening. Chris and Jeff’s relationship never exactly feels real; like everything else, it’s dream-like and ethereal. Both Chris and Jeff are such ciphers that it’s hard to get too invested in them; they’re so clearly damaged already, they’re practically a lost cause.
There are a lot of great moments and ideas contained in Upstream Color — and then Carruth adds more, and more, and still more. There’s a long bit with Thorearu’s Walden that feels random and unnecessary, and a weird section where Chris and Jeff seem to be confusing each other’s memories that begins and then is forgotten. Often Chris and Jeff seem to be on the same page about something, but leave the audience completely in the dark. The trouble isn’t that this is all so weird, but rather that there is so little that feels familiar and normal to grab onto and anchor us in Carruth’s weird world.
And then there are the pigs. Oh, my, are there are ever pigs in this movie. So much so that if I had to compare it to any filmmaker’s previous work, I’d call it a version of Babe co-directed by Terrence Malick and David Lynch. The pigs kind of work, in a bizarre way — because I’m reasonably sure you’ve never seen a movie in which a woman is kidnapped and connected to a pig through medical means — just as you’ve never seen a lot of things you’ll see in this movie. I admire much of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, but I can’t say enough of it compelled me enough to want to see it again. It’s a shade too obscure, a shade too pretentious, so filled with brilliant (or at least interesting) ideas but with no sense of when to say when. In this one, it seems the filmmaker’s experience is more important than the audience’s, and since Carruth did just about everything on this movie by himself, I suppose that’s his right.
I’m glad I saw it. I’m glad I saw it instead of Iron Man 3. But I won’t be sorry if I never see it again.