The wildly ambitious New Orleans indie Beasts of the Southern Wild is set to open in Memphis on July 27th. After winning multiple awards at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, it's become the most talked about film of the year, non-Dark Knight Rises division.
We'll have a review of Beasts of the Southern Wild in next week's paper. But in a light movie week — The Dark Knight Rises screened too late for print deadlines, but you can read our review at memphisflyer.com — we're going to set the stage for Beasts by highlighting five other recent Southern indies — with one related bonus pick — that didn't garner the attention Beasts is getting but that deserve to be more widely seen:
George Washington (2000): Filmmaker David Gordon Green's debut fused two rarefied tastes in American cinema: the style of Terrence Malick (arty, widescreen, outdoor cinematography, poetic/philosophical voiceover narration) with the content and perspective of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (the mysterious beauty of childhood idleness via a group of working-class African-American kids). The film-school influences may have been a little too naked, but this was a lyrical, intimate portrait of a group of interconnected kids dealing with a tragic accident in an unnamed, overgrown North Carolina town and one of the most memorable regional indies of the past decade-plus. Screened once locally, at the Indie Memphis Film Festival.
Junebug (2005): This Sundance success story from North Carolina director Phil Morrison — which debuted at the same festival that launched Memphis films Hustle & Flow and Forty Shades of Blue — is one of the better, truer films about the modern South: palpably Southern and yet wary of the Southern clichés. Following a prodigal son and his worldly new wife from Chicago to his family home in rural/suburban Carolina, Morrison sketches the class and familial tensions that divide his characters with wondrous economy and neutrality. And he infuses the story with a contemplative grace that refuses to indulge familiar stereotypes or forced optimism. A Tokyo Story for the American indie scene.
Ruby in Paradise (1993)/Come Early Morning (2006): These two regional films, both starring Ashley Judd as a woman making her own way, are spiritual-not-literal companion pieces. In Victor Nunez's Ruby in Paradise, Judd leaves an abusive relationship in Tennessee to set up a new life in a Florida resort town. In Come Early Morning — the writing/directing debut of Arkansas-bred actress Joey Lauren Adams — Judd plays a loner whose wounds are more self-inflicted. These twin sleepers are further united by an uncommon patience and naturalism, by a refusal to tidily wrap up their romantic plot threads, and by the way the characters locate contentment through work. Come Early Morning — which screened locally only at Indie Memphis — gets extra consideration for a novel but believable depiction of modern Southern church culture.
Shotgun Stories (2007): The debut film of Arkansas-bred filmmaker Jeff Nichols (the younger brother of Memphis musician Ben Nichols, frontman for Lucero) is a new take on the "family feud" concept, tracking two trios of brothers in small-town England, Arkansas, whose common father has just died. Co-produced by George Washington's David Gordon Green, this naturalistic/poetic film also shows the influence of Malick. Michael Shannon — who would really bloom as the lead in Nichols' follow-up, last year's Take Shelter — gives a commanding, brooding, at times menacing performance at the center.
Goodbye Solo (2008): Set in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, this "New South" indie rewrite of the Cannes-winning Iranian film Taste of Cherry paired a charismatic Senegalese immigrant (Souléymane Sy Savané) with an aging white Southerner (Memphian Red West in a career performance) for one of the most moving and compelling on-screen partnerships in recent years. With his film's feel for urban isolation and cultural assimilation, director Ramin Bahrani evokes a more sincere, less mannered Jim Jarmusch and gives a much different but entirely valid portrait of the modern South.