In independent cinema, there are no rules. Filmmakers are free to take artistic risks and explore controversial topics like pedophilia and sex addiction that are banned from mainstream moviedom, which often succumbs to a bankruptcy of creativity. And there has been a recent surge in the release of quality, creative indies — indeed, the majority of this year’s Oscar contenders were low-budget independent films. Last weekend marked the New York release of three notable independent features, “Look Both Ways,” “Hard Candy” and “I Am a Sex Addict.” The juxtaposition of these three movies highlights the diversity inherent to the contemporary independent film landscape.
The primary commonality between the films is that they were all released the same weekend: They differ in genre, aesthetic style, cinematography and subject matter. To a certain degree, they also share a character-driven nature in their narratives — the Aussie “Look Both Ways” examines the emotional effects of death, “Hard Candy” explores the psychology of perversion and psychosis, and “Sex Addict” tracks the development of addiction and its ensuing consequences for romantic relationships. Each is a directorial debut, and as such they all fall prey to the common mistakes of inexperience. But on balance, they offer an exciting cross-section of what’s going on in the world of independent cinema today.
“Look Both Ways,” Footprint Films, Sarah Watt
As impossible as it may sound, “Look Both Ways” is a spirited and joyous film about death. Meryl (Justine Clarke), an impoverished artist clad in the typically offbeat and mismatched dress of the creative-minded, cannot help but imagine violent catastrophe everywhere she turns (the audience is similarly kept on edge). But her paranoia is not unfounded — on the way home from her father’s funeral she witnesses a man being run over by a train. The film follows the intersecting stories of Meryl and the others affected by the horrific railroad accident, most interestingly the romantic developments between her and news photographer Nick (William McInnes). Throughout the film there is an ongoing and dynamic interplay between Meryl and Nick’s preoccupations with imagined disaster — included in the film as short and jarring animated segments — and the tragedies that occur in the real world: the death of a parent, being diagnosed with testicular cancer, or the utter disconnect between a father and teenage son. As one of the characters says, “Everybody has to find a way to face their own death, and life.”
And yet, despite this thematic concern with death, “Look Both Ways” is, in the end, a love story infused with awkward humor and an underlying optimism. In her debut feature, writer-director Sarah Watt has deftly expressed the bizarre intermingling of death and life, the grotesque and the beautiful, the tragic and the comic.
Similarly true to life, as well as to the dominant indie aesthetic, both the film’s color palette and folksy score are simple and muted. For the most part, “Look Both Ways” follows the established convention of the romantic independent film, but is off-beat enough (perhaps because of its Australian flair) to make it refreshing, original and worth noting.
“Hard Candy,” Lions Gate Films, David Slade
More widely publicized and eagerly anticipated than “Look Both Ways” is the edgy psychological thriller “Hard Candy,” dealing with the equally unpleasant but unequivocally more explosive topic of pedophilia. During the first, and arguably best, 20 minutes of the film, the precocious 14-year-old Hayley (an award-worthy breakout performance by Ellen Page) agrees to hook up at a local coffee shop with Jeff (Patrick Wilson, known best as Raoul in “The Phantom of the Opera” or the conflicted gay Mormon in HBO’s “Angels in America), a fashion photographer almost 20 years her senior whom she met in an Internet chat room. The opening flirtations and banter between smart, charming Hayley and deceptively nice-guy Jeff shrewdly capture the awkward verbal foreplay of strangers trying to impress one another without looking overeager. But this witty repartee is cut short all too soon as Hayley finds herself in Jeff’s Mini Cooper en route to his trendy, minimalist bachelor’s pad in the Hollywood hills.
The ensuing story line is a sort of cat-and-mouse game turned on its head, the expected power dynamic having undergone a complete reversal. But neither character engenders any lasting sympathy, and the audience will find their loyalties continually shifting between the two — Jeff, while his pedophilia remains unconfirmed, is manipulative and pathetic, while Hayley turns out to be a teenage sociopath in the making with Lorena Bobbitt tendencies. The complexity and ambiguity of the characters is undoubtedly one of the film’s most compelling features.
Unfortunately, “Hard Candy” begins to unravel and slowly loses momentum as the choppy ending draws near. But it remains an impressive debut feature by director David Slade and is certainly a powerful and unsettling experience.
“I Am a Sex Addict,” IFC Films, Caveh Zahedi
Almost as a foil to “Hard Candy,” the fictionalized documentary “I Am a Sex Addict” also deals with deviant sexuality, but director Caveh Zahedi’s film is self-mocking and funny whereas Slade’s is profoundly disturbing. “Sex Addict” is a dramatized recreation of the writer-director-actor’s life as a sex addict — essentially an expedition into the world of Too Much Information as the audience becomes privy to more details about Zahedi’s sex life than they could have ever possibly wanted to know. The film, which took almost 10 years to make, is a conflation of confession, memoir and catharsis. Zahedi said, “Writing the script was a type of closure.”
One might wonder why anyone would chose to make a film about something as private as their sex life, much less about their prostitute fetish (the nature of said sexual addiction), but Zahedi is disarming in his candor and sincerity, and his deadpan humor effectively keeps the audience from passing judgment.
Zahedi’s sex addiction came on suddenly in the summer of 1983 when he happened across a beautiful Parisian prostitute, and, from there, the audience follows his downward spiral (guided by continual voice-over narration) and watches as his addiction poisons all of his relationships. “I Am a Sex Addict” is one of a kind, and just might be one of the most honest films about addiction ever made. It is unquestionably unique, and more enjoyable than the other recent indie documentaries about sex (“The Aristocrats” and “Inside Deep Throat”). It is a comedy about something that really isn’t funny.