Still from 'Dara Ju'

SXSW Film 2017: Day Four

Mar 14, 2017 By Stephen Mayne
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Festival fatigue has arrived in the shape of a cold. Regular application of caffeine should just about keep it at bay, and if not I guess I’ll have to sleep in the cinema. At least it’s warm and comfortable in there. Not that there was any chance I was going to sleep during my first film today. Like Me sets off like a rocket and holds the pace for a good while. More visual experiment than narrative feature, it follows a confused young woman (Addison Timlin) as she creates a series of escalating videos to draw attention online.

The first involves a fake hold-up of a convenience store in which the burly, bearded clerk ends up wetting himself. It gets further out of hand when she traps a motel owner all too happy to sleep with underage women, and takes him on a dangerous road-trip. Not that this description really gets close to summing up Robert Mockler’s film. He gives everything a creepy fairground feel, and wanders off into crazy diversions with spinning rooms and close-ups of people eating that are artistically off-putting. Unfortunately it drops off badly, descending into tedium well before the end is reached, but some of the imagery is hard to forget.

With the first film out the way, I was outside lining up again to get back into the same screen. I did half wonder if it would be possible to hideaway somewhere in the theater, but it’s probably best to get the occasional dose of fresh air. Occasional proved to be the optimal word as I was soon seated inside waiting for Dara Ju to start. Where the first screening of the day strove too hard to be innovative, the opposite is true of Anthony Onah’s banking thriller.

That’s not to say it isn’t competently told, and by focussing on a black man from a Nigerian family, Onah manages to add a little extra to a sub-genre quickly becoming over-saturated. His hero is Seyi (Aml Ameen), a Harvard graduate caught between his life on Wall Street and family troubles. As the story unfolds, everything begins to collapse around him. He’s popping pills and getting involved in dodgy deals at work, trying to woo a woman he won’t open up to, and is feuding with his sick father, mother and sister.

The family scenes ultimately prove the weakest, because just like Seyi, Onah doesn’t seem as interested in them, getting his kicks out of Wall Street malfeasance instead. Even here it feels like a tamer version of a story we’ve seen many times. What helps to elevate Dara Ju are the additional touches. Seyi, a high-IQ overachiever, still finds elderly women blanking him, and people crossing the street simply because he’s black. It makes an otherwise routine story feel like something more.

I closed my day with a film I had few expectations for. Hot Summer Nights is set in Cape Cod in the summer of 1991, and as I now live in Massachusetts, I thought I should check it out. Honestly, the idea of another coming of age drama didn’t sound massively appealing. Well it turned out to be far more than that, and just straight up awesome on top.

Writer/director Elijah Bynum’s debut feature is a mix of teen comedy, period drama, and crime noir told with incredible flair and a killer soundtrack rocking out Bowie and Can numbers for a couple of hours. The premise sounds familiar – a teenage boy (Timothée Chalamet) is sent to the Cape for the summer where he makes friends (Alex Roe) and finds a girl (Maika Monroe) – but there’s a drugs ring, violence, and a lot of laughs. Bynum includes several genre clichés simply to toy with them. One particularly erotic moment involving a lollipop actually takes place while discussing the use of Epsom salt to kill slugs.

Hot Summer Nights gradually shifts tone, shedding its light-hearted skin for a bleak inevitability as the end approaches, without ever dimming the quality of the film. The imagery is fantastic, the use of archive footage perfect, and the performances, Maika Monroe in particular, are spot on. All that’s left are minor quibbles that really don’t amount to all that much. It was a fantastic way to finish the evening, and a strong contender for film of the festival.


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