South by Southwest 2012: Starlet, King Kelly
It's worth talking about one of the main challenges—and part of the fun—of South by Southwest, where virtually every title begins as an unknown quantity. That necessitates comparing notes with colleagues and fast rescheduling, but it also lends itself to a degree of overhype when a movie even modestly disarming comes along. I don't understand, for example, what's exciting people about Sean Baker's Starlet, a routine bonding drama in which an L.A. slacker (Dree Hemingway) buys a thermos from an an octogenarian (Besedka Johnson), discovers $10,000 inside it, and then proceeds, out of guilt, to befriend the woman from whom she's stolen. Apart from an unexpectedly graphic interlude depicting the filming of a porno, this is exactly the sort of banal, mutual-lessons-learned drama most wouldn't pay a second thought outside of the festival context.
On the other hand, when something that's swinging for the fences comes along, it stands out even more. After filing this roundup piece, I spoke to the director and stars of King Kelly, and in retrospect would drop my skepticism about the movie being shot entirely on iPhones and Canon ELPHs—mainly by stars Louisa Krause and Libby Woodbridge, who say it helped them get in character. Yes, I know Park Chanwook (Oldboy) already made an iPhone movie. But the gimmick is well-used here, depicting teens whose entire lives are wrapped up in a state of being observed.
In many ways, this is a more tongue-in-cheek exploration of some of the themes Antonio Campos looked at in Afterschool. The title character (Krause) aspires to be a Web-porn superstar but gets into trouble when she has to deal with the off-camera world. (Another character, too, finds that he readily succumbs to the allure of being a YouTube sensation rather than follow what he knows is the right thing to do.) You may or may not buy into the movie's Lee Siegel–like perspective, or accept it on a less grandiose scale; in both the Q&A and our chat, director Andrew Neel linked excessive navel-gazing with the decline of empires. Clearly, King Kelly's portrait of teen narcissism is so outrageous that it can't be taken as literal. The film begins confrontationally—with a lengthy sequence depicting one of Kelly's Web routines—and doesn't loosen its grip from there. Whether you find the movie shocking or exploitative, there's a lot to talk about here. In a festival that's been filled with a lot of pretty good but uninspiring titles, that kind of ambition seems worth celebrating.