With the Spirit Award voting deadline this week, I spent the weekend (and Monday) marathoning independent films. Each year the nominations list exposes me to smaller films that managed to fly under my radar and that make me ask, “How did I not know about this film?” This year’s list was no different.
Sure, there’s “Carol,” “Spotlight,” and other higher-profile films with big stars and distributors that have devoted considerable resources to promoting them. Even “Beasts of No Nation” got the full Netflix treatment. But then there are the others—the films with, by, and starring emerging talent—that Film Independent spotlights with its awards.
Let’s look at the Best Screenplay category. That list includes Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer for “Spotlight,” Charlie Kaufman for “Anomalisa,” and Phyllis Nagy for “Carol.” It also includes Donald Margulies for “End of the Tour,” and S. Craig Zahler for the western “Bone Tomahawk.” Admittedly, had it not been for the ballot, I probably wouldn’t have gotten around to “Bone Tomahawk.” (If you’re a Richard Jenkins fan it’s worth your time just for him. He’s also nominated for Best Supporting Male.)
That’s a tough category. But luckily Film Independent offers a Best First Screenplay category, as well. I knew about Jesse Andrews’ “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” because of the well-documented bidding of seven and eight-figure offers at Sundance. I had seen “Room,” written by Emma Donoghue, in a theater (and was devastated, in a good way). I had heard about “The Dairy of a Teenage Girl,” but just like with “Bone Tomahawk,” had it not been for the Spirit Awards ballot, I might not have gotten around to seeing it.
I was completely unfamiliar with "Mediterranea," written by Jonas Carpignano and also up for Best First Feature, and with “The Mend,” written by John Magary, with Story By credits for Russell Harbaugh and Myna Joseph. “The Mend” stars Josh Lucas as a ne’er do well who crashes at his brooding brother’s apartment while he and his live-in girlfriend are on vacation. The return of the brother, alone, creates an interesting dynamic in the apartment that is now also occupied by Lucas’ character’s on-and-off-again girlfriend and her son. It’s an interesting, thoughtful character study that deftly balances drama with humor.
Another film that was new to me is “James White,” up for Best First Feature with nominations for its lead, Christopher Abbott for Best Male Lead and for Cynthia Nixon for Best Supporting Female. Abbott’s White is a struggling 20-something trying to take care of his terminally ill mother, played by Nixon, while trying to find some focus and purpose in his life and while also grappling with the recent death of his estranged father. White is simultaneously trying to salvage his life while also self-sabotaging (and self-medicating). It’s tough subject matter, for sure. I was blown away by the performances. Nixon’s cancer patient is still haunting me, as is the way Abbott portrayed James' emotional spiral.
Another film with tough emotional subject matter is “Meadowland,” which landed Reed Morano a nomination for Best Cinematography. “Meadowland” stars Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson as parents whose young son disappears during a pit stop at a gas station.
There are a few harrowing moments as they frantically race around, yelling out his name. The plot then skips ahead to about a year after his disappearance (presumed abduction) and focuses on how each parent deals with the tragedy and its unsolved nature.
Wilde’s character walks around in a fog until she begins to fixate on a special needs student at the school where she’s a teacher, while Wilson’s character, a beat cop, fixates on the investigation. The story, the performances, and the cinematography—the specific choices made—have really stuck with me. It’s very lean writing and the character study and economical plot is something from which writers can learn.
It’s important that we have an organization like Film Independent that organizes the Spirit Awards to highlight excellence in independent cinema, and to call our attention to films and filmmakers that would otherwise fly under our radar. The Spirit Awards will be televised (with booze and looser language standards) on IFC on Saturday, February 27th at 2:00pm Pacific/5:00pm Eastern.