SXSW Roundup: Fat Kids, Funeral Kings, Tall Men, and more

The 2012 South By Southwest Film Festival is over, but our memories and hangovers from it will continue for months to come. Here are brief reviews of a half-dozen notable entries from this year's intriguing lineup, all of which are bound to show up in theaters or on DVD sooner or later.

Fat Kid Rules the World

I hope whichever distributor is savvy enough to pick up the irresistibly funny and honest teen comedy Fat Kid Rules the World is also smart enough to market it correctly. They'll want to downplay the fact that it's actor Matthew Lillard's directorial debut -- the man best known as Freddie Prinze Jr.'s pal and the portrayer of Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo movies carries too much baggage -- and emphasize the film's sympathy for misfit kids and affection for punk rock. Based on K.L. Going's 2003 novel, Fat Kid stars Jacob Wysocki (Terri) as Troy Billings, an obese Seattle high-schooler who's rescued from a half-hearted suicide attempt by Marcus (Matt O'Leary), a semi-homeless drug addict and rock guitarist who was expelled from Troy's school and remains a legend in some circles. With his easygoing charm and an addict's gift for quick thinking (i.e., lying), Marcus insinuates himself into Troy's life, to the chagrin of his ex-Marine father (Billy Campbell) and favored younger brother (Dylan Arnold). But the unlikely friendship also helps Troy to find new passions in life as he decides he'd like to be a drummer in Marcus' possibly non-existent band. The scenario sounds cliched, but it's brought to life by authentic characters, solid laughs, and surprisingly honest emotions. This heartfelt, hard-rockin' comedy was the hidden gem of the 2012 South By Southwest Film Festival. Grade: A-

Funeral Kings

Of all the coming-of-age films set among adolescents at Catholic schools, Funeral Kings is one of the most heartfelt and charming, not to mention one of the most realistically vulgar. The potty-mouthed 13- and 14-year-old boys who populate the feature debut of brothers Kevin and Matthew McManus are more interested in cleavage and cigarettes than catechisms, and the natural, unaffected performances by Dylan Hartigan, Alex Maizus, and Jordan Puzzo -- all the same age as their characters, setting this apart from most Hollywood productions -- are endearing, no matter how profane their behavior. Set in a small Rhode Island town, apparently in the present but with an old-fashioned feel (the kids seek glimpses of boobies at the video store, not the Internet), the film is a funny slice-of-life exercise about cynical altar boys Andy and Charlie introducing a new kid into their circle. Not every episode in their adventures is plausible, but most of what befalls them as they scheme to attend a high school party, obtain an R-rated DVD, and steal food from the town's Chinese buffet has a familiar "boys will be boys" ring to it. This is a strong first film from the McManus Brothers. Grade: B+


If Joel and Ethan Coen teamed up with Christopher Guest to make a dark comedy about a murder in a small East Texas town, it might resemble Bernie, written and directed by Richard Linklater and based on a true story. Actually, the Coen/Guest collaboration would probably be more substantive and incisive than Bernie, which offers laughs but stays at the shallow end of the pool as it tells the tale of a beloved mortician named Bernie (Jack Black) who befriends the most hated woman in town, mean old widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Documentary-style testimonials from plain-talking townsfolk add tremendous Texas flavor, and Linklater's affection for them is clear. His affection for Bernie, Marjorie, and district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey, riffing on the slicker lawyers he has played) is less evident, though the outsized characters are fun to laugh at. But Jack Black's refusal (or inability) to fully commit to a character without winking at the audience is a hindrance, as Bernie is supposed to be a sincere oddball but comes across instead as a smarmy huckster. A more authentic leading performance would boost the film, but even as it stands it's irreverent, off-kilter fun. Grade: B

Somebody Up There Likes Me

Bob Byington, one of several oddball filmmakers who call Austin home, has perhaps out-quirked himself with Somebody Up There Likes Me, a whimsically deadpan comedy spanning three decades in the lives of hapless waiter Max (Keith Poulson) and his beloved Lyla (Jess Weixler). Time passes quickly for them, as in a dream -- one minute they're getting married; the next minute they have a young son -- and Byington's decision not to bother adjusting the actors' appearance to reflect their characters' advancing age is just one of many surreal touches. At 76 minutes, SUTLM is barely a feature; as a peculiar series of straight-faced gags designed to baffle and bemuse, it's barely a movie at all. It might not be everyone's cup of tea, but SUTLM -- a mixture of Miranda July's magical realism and Charlie Kaufman's bittersweet absurdity -- benefits from a consistency of vision and a genuinely unusual storytelling approach. Grade: B

REC 3: Genesis

I missed REC 2, which was barely released in the U.S., but those familiar with the quasi-zombie horror franchise report that part 3 has little in common with it. Writer/director Paco Plaza, going solo after co-directing the first two with Jaume Balaguero, dispenses with the "found footage" method after 20 minutes or so, and stages much of the film in broad daylight, setting it at a jubilant wedding reception marred by an outbreak of whatever it is (virus? drug? demon?) that turns people into flesh-eating monsters. These departures make REC 3 different from its predecessors, but they don't diminish its effectiveness as a genre film. As a standalone story, it's solid if predictable -- ancillary characters tend to die immediately after being useful to the main characters -- and it offers some dark laughs, bloody kills, and moderate thrills. Grade: B-

The Tall Man

Pascal Laugier's followup to his notoriously graphic and painful revenge-horror film Martyrs (2008) is The Tall Man, a rather tame mystery with little onscreen violence and no "extreme" content. This shift in tone, while potentially disappointing to Laugier's fans, isn't a problem per se; the fact that it's in the service of a story that's half-baked and stumblingly executed is. Jessica Biel stars as Julia Denning, the only physician in a dying mining town called Cold Rock, Wash., now populated mostly by desperate trailer trash. The community's children have gone missing at an alarming rate in recent years, giving rise to the legend of a supernatural kid-stealing boogeyman known as the Tall Man. Julia becomes intimately involved when her own over-protected child is taken, leading to shocking revelations about the town, etc., etc. Laugier earns points for taking what begins as a derivative story in unexpected directions, but loses at least as many points -- I guess we're on a point system here -- for running out of momentum long before the conclusion. While there's plenty to like about it in hindsight once it's all laid out, and though Laugier maintains a suitably suspenseful atmosphere, it isn't enough to lift this mystery-thriller out of the realm of the mundane. Grade: C