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SXSW Film Festival Day 5: Guns, Ghosts and Psychos

Freddie Highmore: Bates Motel


SXSW Film Festival Day 5: Guns, Ghosts and Psychos

Freddie Highmore: Bates Motel

Freddie Highmore stars in the new A&E series Bates Motel.
Photo courtesy of A&E Networks

As SXSW 2013 comes to an end — for me, not for everyone else — the sadness of having to wait another year until I return to Austin settles in. As I mentioned in my Day 1 recap, I am yet to have anything but an amazing time at this festival, partly because of the incredible films I am able to see and partly because of the fascinating people I meet while standing in line for each movie.

My final day was not nearly as full as I would have liked, but I did manage to fit in a few more features. One of the movies I was most looking forward to this year was Loves Her Gun from director Geoff Marslett. I heard a lot of positive buzz about this film prior to the festival, but I personally thought it took a promising concept and dismissed it in favor of stylistic flourishes and a killer soundtrack.

In the film, Allie (Trieste Kelly Dunn) is robbed and beaten on the streets of New York City after catching a show by a small band called The Karate Kids. The next day, she decides she needs to get out of the city and joins them on the road as their RV makes its way to Austin, Texas. When they arrive, Allie begins a flirtatious relationship with Clark (Francisco Barreiro), one of the members of the band. She also becomes swept up in the Texas gun culture as a result of her still-fresh shock from being attacked.

I would have loved for the film to have focused more on Allie’s psychological pain than the bandmates and their myriad issues. Given the current social climate regarding gun control, Loves Her Gun could have sparked some serious debate about gun ownership and proactive versus reactive behavior. As is, though, the film falls flat and Marslett seems more concerned with impressive camera work (and it is) than telling a powerful story.

Another film that let me down was Holy Ghost People which is directed by Mitchell Altieri. Set in the Appalachian Mountains and featuring a pretty decent soundtrack of bluegrass music, the film follows Charlotte (Emma Greenwell) as she attempts to save her sister from the Church of One Accord, a backwoods church that believes the path to salvation requires the handling of deadly snakes. Charlotte enlists ex-Marine Wayne (Brendan McCarthy) for her journey knowing that he has nothing to lose and no one to care about him. Their mission hits a snag when the charismatic leader of the church, Brother Billy (Joe Egender), begins to work his charm on both Wayne and Charlotte.

Holy Ghost People would have been a very good film if it hadn’t tried so hard to become a psychological thriller and wasn’t so concerned with repeating over and over how crazy snake-handling churches are. For its small budget and mostly unknown cast, it is an engaging film. Clearly filmed where the story takes place, there is a sense of gritty realism to all but the final third of the story. Egender, who co-wrote the script, is fantastic and you aren’t sure if you want to hug him or slap him. Altieri, though, is too concerned with having every scene draw out the suspense with no real release. It reminded me very much of Black Snake Moan: a talented director who gets lost in shocking the audience instead of telling a good story.

As a sign of how important SXSW has become across a variety of media, A&E premiered the pilot episode of its new series Bates Motel. Set in the present day, the series will be a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho. In the first episode, we meet Norma (Vera Farmiga) and Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) as they set up their new lives in a small seaside town six months after Mr. Bates is mysteriously murdered. Norma and Norman’s relationship is defined by its intimacy and volatility — both love the other very much, but they are also prone to bouts of shouting.

Based on the first episode only, I think Bates Motel will be very entertaining, though it remains to be seen if it will catch on with audiences not familiar with the source material. Setting the film in present day is a gamble, but it isn’t too detrimental in the pilot episode. Farmiga is terrifying and its easy to see why her son would both fear her and love her. Highmore is also very good, though his American accent falters at times. His biggest hurdle, though, will be the fact he looks the exact same as he did as an adorable kid in Finding Neverland. Seeing him as a psychologically unbalanced young adult capable of murder will be an uphill battle for him as an actor.

Loves Her Gun: D
Holy Ghost People: B-
Bates Motel: A-

Matthew Newlin lives in St. Louis, Missouri and has been a film critic for over six years. He has written for numerous online media outlets, including "Playback:STL" and "The Weissman Report." He holds a Master's of Education in Higher Education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is an Assistant Director of Financial Aid. A lifelong student of cinema, his passion for film was inherited from his father who never said "No, you can't watch that."

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