South by Southwest 2013 | Drinking Buddies, White Reindeer
Apart from Richard Linklater—who appeared Saturday to present his rapturous Before Midnight—the Austin filmmaking scene may still be best-known as a kind of lab for the loosely defined movement known as mumblecore. But South by Southwest 2013 has done its best to complicate that caricature. With m'core founding member Andrew Bujalski moving into uncharted territory with the video-shot period piece Computer Chess and comrade Joe Swanberg inking deals with professional actors, perhaps it's time to declare an end to the cycle. At SXSW's world-premiere screening of Swanberg's Drinking Buddies, the director was received as a favorite son. The crowd was nearly as large and rowdy as Evil Dead's, even though the filmmaker lives and often shoots in Chicago.
Revolution Brewing plays a starring role in Drinking Buddies, which features Swanberg's highest-profile cast ever. Kate (Olivia Wilde) works at the brewery and is involved with a music producer named Chris (Ron Livingston); her coworker Luke (Jake Johnson) and his girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick), are contemplating marriage. On a weekend retreat, all sides of this love polygon independently contemplate infidelity, though they never say so aloud. Jill and Chris share a kiss they don't divulge to their partners. The movie builds suspense from that one incident, as its perpetually soused protagonists inch closer to confessions and potential regrets.
"Putting dialogue in somebody's mouth has always seemed strange to me," Swanberg told journalists at a post-screening press conference. Even with professional actors, Drinking Buddies, like many of the prolific director's improvised films, is marred by too many scenes in which the stars visibly flail to come up with lines. But the movie doesn't follow the trajectory you might expect. In building a film around missed connections, failed moves and unacknowledged feelings, Drinking Buddies achieves a measure of the emotional honesty Swanberg's trademark noodling is ostensibly meant to achieve.
Even better—and operating in a more eccentric register—is Zach Clark's White Reindeer, which calls on Swanberg to muster all of his icky wholesomeness to play a supporting role. Clark describes his movie as a "sad comedy," which is apt but doesn't begin to get at the strangeness of this particular Christmas story, which uses yuletide cheer as a half-ironic backdrop to its story. With her life upended by a sudden tragedy, real-estate agent Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman) is sent reeling through a depressive pre-holiday gauntlet, which includes compulsive online shopping, coke binges with strippers and a surprise encounter with swingers. Simultaneously hopeful and pitiless—there's a strong sense of Suzanne's loneliness and the uselessness of platitudes—it's a rare Christmas movie whose uplift, such as it is, feels earned.