I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
Normally I am one to engage in the opening night feature. It’s where the majority of badge holders flock to, in hopes of catching an exciting feature that sets off the festival on the right foot. As much as I am dying to see John Krasinski’s A QUIET PLACE, I, ironically enough, wanted to venture to a quieter place, to take in some potentially more nuanced films that would possibly challenge my intellect and shift my perspective of life. Sure as you know it, the two films I saw yesterday did just that.
LEAN ON PETE
A24, the indie distributor that’s been nothing but on a roll since they came onto the scene five years ago, has six titles they’re screening at the South by Southwest Film Festival this year. (I plan to see most, if not all, of them.) Spearing their slate is LEAN ON PETE, Andrew Haigh’s American odyssey that follows in the tracks of a teenager (a very good Charlie Plummer of ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD) and the horse he comes to care for, the titular Lean on Pete.
Right out of the gates, Haigh (director of 45 YEARS), who introduced the film at the opening night screening, spoke of how difficult the film was to market and how grateful he is that A24 took the reins. If you’ve seen the film’s trailer (see below), it has all the markings of a story you may be familiar with: A boy and his horse, he wants the horse but can’t afford him, takes him before he ends up in the wrong hands, and all of the trials and tribulations they face because of that decision. Only those trials and tribulations aren’t the same as you’ve seen in more family-friendly movies.
LEAN ON PETE is not a family film. Its R-rating and A24’s involvement should be a tell-tale sign that the film is not what it seems to be. Thinking about what all happens in the narrative and where it ends up, I couldn’t agree more with Haigh’s opening statement. Where do you even begin with marketing a film that makes you think it’s one kind of a film, but winds up being another?
LEAN ON PETE is an oddly comforting and grueling experience. On one hand, the way the film is shot, primarily with long takes and wide shots to get a feel for the space and atmosphere, allows the viewer to exist in the story along with the characters. Everything unfolds in a manner that doesn’t feel broken up. It flows quite organically and doesn’t necessarily fit into the traditional American narrative, and that’s an admirable quality. However, the film will also test your limitations.
Plummer, who also spoke before the film commenced, told audiences to hurry up and eat their Alamo Drafthouse (the film screened at the Lamar location in Austin, TX) meals because the content may cause the food to rise. Upon hearing that, I thought the worst things imaginable were going to happen. While there are some tense moments, especially one that will make or break the movie for audiences, it’s nothing viewers shouldn’t be able to handle. It’s by no means an easy watch from beginning to end, but it’s all necessary for the boy’s journey.
Ultimately, LEAN ON PETE feels like a modern retelling of HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Both central characters take off with other characters they feel should not be in the situation they’ve been dealt. Both go on an adventure across the lands and have encounters with even more characters that shape them or challenge their morals. It’s a story of lives intersecting and diverging. Though it may require some distance and a good “pick me up” afterwards, you will appreciate the way it subverts your expectations and feels authentic to the human experience. You know, like all of A24’s films.
LEAN ON PETE will have two encore screenings on Sunday at 6:15 p.m. and Wednesday at 2:15 p.m. Visit sxsw.com for all details.
Interview with director Andrew Haigh and star Charlie Plummer coming soon…
Speaking of that pick me up, Bo Burnham’s EIGHTH GRADE fits the bill. It’s funny, relatable, honest – all things you want from a good coming-of-age movie.
EIGHTH GRADE, also being put out by A24, takes us through a teenager’s experience of her last week of middle school. It’s got an inkling of Richard Linklater’s filmmaking technique – how life can steer us in strange directions and how time can affect us – but it isn’t clouded with so much poetry and existential questioning that you’re taken out of the film.
The central teen, Kayla (the naturally gifted Elsie Fisher), taps into many of the moments you may recall from being a middle school student. There are thoughts of wanting to be accepted, valued by your peers, and the longing for the good looking boy or girl. It has it all. But it also filters that through a modern day lens, which many filmmakers have expressed disinterest in because of the difficulty of trying to make the age of the technology and social media appealing.
That said, Burnham manages to find the sweet spot. He aesthetically uses cellphones in creative ways, and also pokes fun at the frustration of kids constantly being on their phones and gadgets. There are multiple scenes where the popular girls of the school choose to burry their faces in their tech rather than talk face to face with the person who is trying to converse with them. We’re all just loosely connected, right.
Even the way Burnham handles the relationship between a father and his child hits home. Personally, I am only the father of a seven-month old boy, but like what Burnham said during the film’s post-screening question-and-answer session, I feel like I am on a nice bridge between being a kid and being an adult/parent. The way Kayla’s father, played by the heartwarming and hilarious Josh Hamilton (13 REASONS WHY, FRANCES HA), hones in on the struggle of communicating with your child, who, like any typical teen, wants barely anything to do with their parents. He’ll protectively watch over his daughter while she goes to have a fun hangout with her friends at the mall and will also be there to listen when she wants to talk. One moment in the backyard and a bonfire will hit the feels.
EIGHTH GRADE is not a loud or mainstream version of growing up. It’s an authentic one. Like teens today who speak in “ums,” “likes” and “whatevers,” it may leave you grinding your teeth, but it captures youth in such a way that no other film has.
EIGHTH GRADE will have an encore screening on Monday at 2:15 p.m. and Wednesday at 4:45 p.m.
Interview with Bo Burnham and star Elsie Fisher…