Three small indie films, America and feeling alive

If you’re like me you don’t darken the doors of a cineplex much these days, choosing to watch the latest movies via DVD player or digital streaming.  Also like me you might prefer films that are, in the words of marketing experts, more niche than mainstream. Translation: films that consider 100,000 viewings a considerable feat.

It is to those films — or at least a few examples — that I turn today.

Let me start out by saying this post is not so much about my refined tastes as a lover of film as much about a few movies I want to recommend. Because I want as many people to watch these films as possible I feel I need to come clean about about my film preferences. They are commodious, ranking me somewhere between an everyman and an art-house aficionado. Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Bergman’s The Seventh Seal are two of my all-time favorites.  I also love Real Genius, not exactly Val Kilmer’s finest work. So while I am a cineaste — yes I JUST used that word — I’m all about movies of varying types of artistic quality, insight and technical prowess. In other words, give me Iron Man, Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead over artistic jewels that try too hard. Give me Dodgeball, Zoolander and The Anchorman — hell, CaddyshackBack to School or The Hangover— over The Last Emperor or Howard’s End. (O.K., yes, I loved City of God and In the Bedroom, and I’m still a bit embittered 15 years after the fact that Forrest Gump beat out Pulp Fiction for the Best Picture Oscar. But I’ve watched The Bourne Ultimatum like 20 times and still secretly love it when Jason Bourne jumps through that window from the roof of a nearby building.)

Point is, I am not a film snob.

So when I say you need to watch the movies I’m about to recommend it’s not coming from some esoteric appreciation for style or technical creativity. It’s about the storytelling, and how these stories made me feel, which is sad, quiet but also strangely wiser and connected to the world around me. In other words, alive.

Which is why you need to get to know Kelly Reichardt. She has directed two small films back-to-back, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, in recent years. The films are studies in languorous storytelling reminiscent of Wem Wenders’  best movies — Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire without the supernatural theme of course. Maybe a better comparison is to Victor Núñez’s Ruby in Paradise, a small movie few saw back in the early 1990s.

Anyway Reichhardt’s two films have captured something, maybe a moment in time in 21st-century America when the American dream seems to be unraveling for more and more people and help sometimes is hard to find.

The first of the two, Old Joy, observes the death gasps of an old friendship set in the backdrop of increasing national unemployment and a growing class of American impoverished. Two friends set out on a weekend backpacking trip in the Pacific Northwest, one married and seemingly comfortable, the other a lost soul of sorts, the kind of body pierced, tattooed kid you’d see in Santa Fe, N.M., or San Francisco or, for that matter, in any large American city where the funk quotient is high. I won’t spoil anything. But the movie is striking in its intensity.

The second of the two, Wendy and Lucy, is, in my opinion, even more powerful than Old Joy. It follows a young woman and her dog as they set out for Alaska. Her car breaks down in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, and one thing leads to another and before you know it you’re watching a case study in how terrifying it is to be alone in America in the 21st century. Without the safety net of family or friends and a ragged sense of community dulling our most altruistic instincts, life indeed is hard for a stranger who wanders into town. There are no knights in shining armor, or happy endings, in Kelly Reichardt’s films. But there are enough moments of kindness and gentleness to remind us that all is not lost with us Americans, and that decent people remain among us, willing to help in small, easy-to-miss ways despite their own struggles.

Humble Pie is a vastly different type of film by an entirely different filmmaker. But small-town life is once again on display, this time from an insider who just happens to be an outsider. Humble Pie is the brainchild of Hubbel Palmer, a Utah-based actor and filmmaker. It’s a small film. But it’s a good film. It certainly resonated with me.

The movie follows Tracy Orbison, a small town grocery clerk with a penchant for poetry, big acting ambitions and an alarming, if not hilarious, incompetence when it comes to driving.

Tracy is naive enough to stand out as a mark for the more worldly types who surround him and who are more than willing to exploit the genuinely friendly thespian wannabe. But Tracy’s got enough gumption and fortitude to keep on dreaming.

The movies sound like downers. But they felt real to me. And they are worth watching. I hope you do.


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