Opinion Piece: The American Indie film paradox; smug self-awareness or naturalistic warmth and wit?

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This is a question that often comes to the forefront of my mind when watching an American ‘indie film’, and after watching Greta Gerwig’s recent Oscar nominated Lady Bird and failing to understand why it got such glowing reviews (except for the performances) I felt a necessity to go and examine this a little further.

Please Note: The following criticisms I state are not necessarily all aimed at Lady Bird (which I thought was a film with plenty of flaws but also some redeeming features – in particular the performances) but watching it made me think of films similar to it, and therefore made me write this.

In an age where the producers are happy to sign blank cheques for increasingly expensive and dumb blockbusters, the lower budget indie films and the directors and actors involved often seem to want to make films that prove a point that their films are more intelligent.

When I refer to indie films I do not mean those really low budget films where those involved have to essentially sell their body parts to get them made. These are films made with the utmost integrity and often the minor miracles that were achieved just to get these often exceptional, thought provoking and unique films made are staggering.

I refer to films that usually have established names attached to them, sometimes these are ‘passion projects’ for a big-name actor, and that is of course to be commended, but often these are somewhere in the lower middle in terms of budget. Films directed by Noah Baumbach are a good example of this, as are ones that tend to do well at the Sundance Festival, while other recent examples that come to mind along with Lady Bird are The Way, Way Back, Captain Fantastic, 20th Century Women, Little Miss Sunshine, Paterson, Listen Up Philip and indeed even Wes Anderson films could be included here too. The list of course could go on……

Anyone who has read my reviews will know that I have given some of these films far better reviews than others, and indeed that list does include some great films. So why do some work very well, while some only just about work and some not work at all?

That is of course not an easy one to answer, as this being film it will not be an exact science, just like why some actors have great natural screen presence and some don’t. However, for me all of these films tread a very fine line between being witty and highly engaging, or over pretentious, self-aware and smug.

I think subtlety is the key here; these films have to be subtle in how the dialogue is both written and delivered, as well as how they are put together in terms of camerawork, editing and sound. I am afraid to say that there is very much a snobbish culture of people feeling like they have to praise certain films because the films are supposedly a bit indie, a bit kooky and a bit different, and therefore in praising them it makes them supposedly a bit left-field, a bit cool and therefore clever.

Where as the fact is that a lot of these indie films that are supposedly non-commercial and ‘indie’ are actually just as generic and formulaic as the supposedly dumb blockbusters, they just follow a different pattern and formula, but it is still a formula.

Now, as much as it may sound like one, this is not actually a criticism at the entire genre, as I know (and believe me, I was frequently reminded of it when I studied my screenwriting MA – sorry had to get that in there, now who is being pretentious?!?) that pretty much all films unless they are directed by David Lynch have to follow some kind of basic structure. I am indeed the first to stick up for clichés; they are based on some kind of truth and there is nothing wrong with a cliched narrative, it is how this narrative is presented that is key. After all, some of the best films ever made are absolutely littered with clichés.

All films (and indeed any art form that involves storytelling) of course tread a fine line between many variables that if fallen into even slightly can make the difference between success and failure, but it does feel that these American indie films are increasingly tending to not care much for this fine line, lacking the integrity that they are supposed to be the very symbol of.

The fact is that these producers will latch on to any trend if it can make them money (and why not, despite all the cynicism at its core, films are after all products that have to make money), hence the ever-increasing amount of these ‘grey pound’ films that dominate British cinema. Well, this genre of American indie films is no different, and I cannot help but think that there is an underlying cynicism behind some of them.

Basically there are some producers and directors out there (I am not here to name names, just plant the seed of thoughts a bit like Inception) that think if they give the film an acoustic soundtrack with sings from ‘cool’ bands, make sure there are slightly longer takes, sun-drenched cinematography and characters all constantly putting each other down in a supposedly humorous way the film will be classed as indie, and will therefore be ‘cool’ and will find an audience and praise from critics.

Now, I must again emphasise that this is not necessarily a criticism of this formula as such. Of the films I listed I gave 9/10 reviews to Paterson (Review), Captain Fantastic (Review) and Listen Up Phillip (Review) as these were films that did have these aforementioned characteristics. However, these films were brimming with interesting ideas and themes, but explored them in an understated, subtle and therefore ultimately far more rewarding way.

What these films also had (and I think this is the most vital thing) was engaging characters. I was always taught that if you give an audience characters they believe in and engage with, then it does not matter what the narrative throws at them, and there is definitely a lot of truth in this for obvious reasons. These films are of course dialogue-heavy (they are indie films, stupid!) so therefore one of the most important elements for these kinds of films to work successfully is the dialogue. Even great performances can only save bad dialogue so much, especially in a dialogue-heavy film.

It is a tricky conundrum for the screenwriter, as dialogue is supposed to be reasonably snappy so to not slow the pacing down too much, but at the same time to fit with the tone of these kind of films be reasonably naturalistic. At the same time of course, scripts go through umpteen re-writes and then some (or at least should), but yet the dialogue has to feel natural and not like it has been edited to within an inch of its life.

For me this is where a lot of the films do fail; because for every Captain Fantastic or Paterson there is a Lady Bird or Mistress America (Review) in which the latter we have over-written dialogue that just feels too unnatural and makes the characters seem smug, and ultimately hard to like (in the case of Lady Bird the note-perfect performances often come to film’s much needed rescue). One of the great aspects of these kind of films is that we are given flawed characters, and if presented in the right way, this can only serve to make them engaging and relatable, but when they say scathing put downs for the sake of a cheap laugh that looks good in the trailer, then that can undermine any potential relatability very quickly indeed. If the characters are hard to like, then we cannot engage with them as they go on their individual arcs and therefore the film runs the risk of losing the audience, and ultimately failing.

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Also, all characters seem to be way too eager to put the others down with some biting comment, while the apparent funnier parts of the dialogue feel the most unnatural and stick out like a sore thumb. Some of these supposed funnier lines feel like punchlines in jokes that were written first, and then the rest of the scene written around them. It is also hard to believe that some of the characters with the upbringing and lifestyles we have just been told about can then consistently come out with such phrases so frequently.

“However, that’s okay as this is an indie film.”

Well, no it is not!

Sadly, this is yet another example of those wealthy producers treating good honest film fans like idiots as they try to exploit another sub-genre. The good and the bad of this genre are likely to share many narrative and visual characteristics, but the genuine needs to be separated from the formulaic. Unfortunately a lot of these supposed indie films that are released just re-hash what they believe to be a winning formula and do not contain any genuine creativity, and their biggest sin of all is that the entire narrative contains an air of smugness.

Likewise, these films often have ill-disciplined and episodic narratives, complacently taking the deeply complacent stance of “it’s an indie film with a character-driven narrative, so that’s ok”. Not necessarily.

Subtlety is very much key, and it seems like there is an air of complacency and cynicism surrounding these American indie films now where all involved think the audience and critics will adore them if these films have certain aesthetic features and the script is written in a certain way. However, when these things are put in these films for the wrong reasons they are not likely to be depicted with the required subtlety, and they may well get found out. Ultimately, my fear is that the genuinely good films of this genre will suffer as a result of the genre being over saturated by this industry cynicism as indie films become less, well indie.

Or maybe I am the cynic?

Can you think of examples of films that fit in with either extreme? Do you agree with me, or am I being a little too cynical? Please let me know your thoughts……

About MoodyB

An extremely passionate and (semi) opened minded film reviewer, with a hint of snobbish.
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