USA (83 mi) 2012 d: David Zellner
David and Nathan Zellner may be the modern era’s answer to the Kuchar brothers, schlock kings of 60’s and 70’s underground films made for next to nothing, where they similarly began making basement movies in their own backyard as kids, where David went on to film school at the University of Texas in Austin before making films that exist “on the fringes of the indie world,” developing a kind of dark, absurdist humor, offbeat murder mysteries featuring wacky characters with weird accents, and a somewhat outsider’s view towards art. Quoting from a John Rosenblatt article from The Texas Observer, The Zellner Brothers Embrace Awkwardness | The Texas Observer:
They got their first film, Flotsam/Jetsam, into Sundance in 2005 after several years of rejection, but that success sparked a remarkable run. There was the absurdist Southern Gothic Redemptitude in 2006, then 2007’s Aftermath on Meadowlark Lane, in which the brothers scream at each other on a country road while dressed as mariachis. Then came their first Sundance feature-length film, Goliath, in 2008, about a man who slowly unravels when his cat disappears. The short triptych Fiddlestixx followed in 2010, a sort of Technicolor Atari tribute to Samuel Beckett and Japanese variety shows starring a gibbon in a diaper. Then, in 2011, Sasquatch Birth Journal 2, which is, ostensibly, the quite literal video birth journal of a sasquatch.
This latest feature is something of a concept film, like something we might expect from the mischievous mind of British novelist Roald Dahl, a unique portrait of loneliness and a curious exploration into the twisted mind of an unsettled child who is largely raising herself. With no backstory, no mother to speak of, and a father Marvin (Nathan Zellner, the director’s brother, who is also the cinematographer, producer, and sound designer) who is continually asleep, passed out from drinking, or preoccupied with his own affairs, 10-year old Annie (Sydney Aguirre) is free to roam the countryside at will as there is literally no one watching over her, where even when she’s at home she’s alone, so she spends every waking hour being bored, pissed off, strangely curious, mad at others, or acting as a tomboy, viewed as a troubled and rebellious child who acts inappropriately. While she is in nearly every shot of the film, not once do we ever see this child smile.
Seen through a child’s eyes, the naturalness of her isolated world recalls the near documentary realism of Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive (1953), which is largely a wordless odyssey of a 12-year old boy’s experience alone at a Coney Island amusement park, but here there is a seamless blend of the internal and external worlds, where much of what’s happening may all be in her imagination, where at her age it’s hard to tell the difference. The interest of this film is in the minutiae, as it’s a minimalist style where nothing much ever happens, but what we do see is tinged by an everpresent sadness enveloping her world. When she attempts to play with other kids at a local playground, she is rejected and taunted as an outsider, which only leaves her more alone. Told in long, lingering takes, she rides her BMX dirt bike through town, often stealing supplies at the local market before wandering down the dirt roads outside of town through the surrounding woods, where she amuses herself by throwing objects at cars moving down the highway, where drivers are baffled to discover it’s only rolled up biscuit dough, or she shoots things with BB guns or paint guns, or rips apart dead tree bark, nonchalantly destroying anything she stumbles across. But strangest of all is when she overhears a distant voice calling for help, a sound that reverberates with sound effects giving it a mysterious air about it, sounds that only grow louder when she approaches what turns out to be a dark hole in the ground with a person trapped below. Not knowing how to react, she runs away, afraid and thoroughly confused by what she experienced.
Back home, her father is usually embroiled in some less than fascinating discussion with his best friend Caleb (director David Zellner) over a few beers, where to the uninformed much of what you hear is completely unintelligible, but in one drunken argument, Marvin is seen chasing after Caleb with firecracker rockets as Caleb makes a hasty escape in his car, still fending off fired rockets. Needless to say, her father’s parental skills leave something to be desired, where he’s not the kind of comforting adult figure children would turn to, but is approached only as a last resort. Instead, she fends for herself, where you have to see it to believe it the way she makes sandwiches in her own unique way, and after stealing a few supplies, she returns to the hole in the ground, this time introducing herself, bringing supplies, and asking who’s down there, wondering if it’s Satan. When asked if she’ll bring help, Annie’s snappy reply is “Why should I?” The voice in the well belongs to Esther, Susan Tyrell, a fixture in the movie business since the early 70’s, appearing in John Huston’s FAT CITY (1972), but Annie can’t tell if she’s good or evil, running away again, not resolving anything, despite the pleading cries for help. In Annie’s world it’s hard to tell how much time passes, as it’s all strung together like the endless duration of summer vacation which seemingly has no beginning and no end in sight. Annie brings a walkie talkie and drops it down the hole (where it makes no sound), but then disappears as quickly as she arrives, not really knowing what to make of this lady down the hole, thinking maybe she’s down there for a reason. While there are occasional middle of the night conversations, none are very pleasant, as Esther is losing her patience with this little girl, and no one else has come by to help, so her voice only grows more desperate. The growing sense of ambiguity about what’s actually going on is a remarkable aspect of the film, as is the unpredictability factor of not knowing how such a volatile child will react, becoming darkly surreal by the end. As it turns out, both the child and the lady in the well are kindred spirits, two isolated souls dead set on escaping the horror and ugliness of their situation. While Annie’s neglect has perhaps heightened her understanding of loneliness, she’s still caught in the throes of her own inescapable logic and imagination.