There is a reason that we cover so many film festivals during the year. We want to be there where it all begins, where the careers of tomorrow’s great filmmakers and actors begin. And this year at SXSW, we are seeing some really great beginnings for some very talented artists. Take for example director Brant Sersen. Even though this is not his first SXSW rodeo — he won the Audience Award in 2004 with his film Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story — we can still see that he is on his way up. This year he brought his second film, the carnival-centric coming of age comedy Splinterheads to Austin to delight crowds once again with his ability to put great talent together and write a script that is rich and funny and all of the things that so many studio comedies get wrong these days.
The film starts out with a close up shot of Justin (newcomer Thomas Middleditch), a 20-something guy who is off in his own world, spending his days helping his obnoxious friend Wayne (Jason Rogel) with his fledgling lawn care business and practicing karate in his bedroom. He’s a bit maladjusted but that’s okay, because he’s a funny, lovable guy who just can’t figure out what he wants to do with himself. That is, until the carnival rolls to town and with it comes a worldly girl named Galaxy (Rachael Taylor). After being ripped off at the gas station by this worldly con-woman, Justin decides to pursue her, leading him to find what might be love mixed with a few senseless beatings from her current boyfriend, a dunk tank douchebag named Reggie (Dean Winters).
It sounds very simple, I know. And it is filled with a lot of the simple gags that come with this love-triangle style comedy — for example, Justin gets peed on by Reggie, has a very revealing moment while after he takes a swim in a lake with only white boxer shorts on, etc. You know, the usual. The beauty of the script that Serson has written and the movie that came of it is that like so many great comedies, it peppers in some very funny, albeit somewhat over the top side stories. There is one in which Justin’s mom, played by the still hot Lea Thompson, is going through a break-up with a local cop named Bruce, played by Christopher McDonald. And since he thinks that Justin is the reason why he got dumped by mom, Bruce proceeds to torment the kid a bit, always showing up in the right place at the wrong time. And it is McDonald who really sells it — think Shooter McGavin ten years later, with a little paunch and a fancy badge.
The only problem I found with this movie was the performance of Rachael Taylor, who you might remember as the sexy Australian computer geek from Transformers. For all intents and purposes, Taylor fits into this movie well — she’s worldly but also has that girl next door charm, and she can play sexy and dangerous when she needs to. The one thing she cannot do: drop her Australian accent. There were moments in the film when she was speaking in a standard American dialect, only to slide right back toward her audibly Aussie roots. And it happens more than once, which is enough to take you right out of the movie. My solution would have been to simply make her character Australian — I see nothing wrong with that. Her character is a well-traveled girl who is way into GeoCaching (which sounds pretty cool, for the record), who is to say that she couldn’t be an Aussie who made her way to upstate New York?
But I digress. Even that one little annoyance isn’t enough to bring this film down. It’s a very funny film with a lot of heart, most of which comes from newcomer Thomas Middleditch, who aptly combines the absurdity of his character’s personality with a tenderness that makes him an easily loved protagonist. And even though he is heaving himself into trouble over a girl who doesn’t always seem to be worth it, we are caught up in rooting for Justin to win in the end. It all works because of Middleditch’s naturalistic charisma, and his ability to do something ridiculous and not make it seem too over-the-top. He brings an energy to his character that fits perfectly with the very energetic pace that Brant Sersen has given the entire film, with an upbeat score and a visual style that helps push the story along quite well. Also, the attentive viewer may notice that the film doesn’t look lo-fi, as it was shot on the Red, which Danny Boyle used in Slumdog Millionaire. This gives Splinterheads a polish and shine that sets it a step above most of the indie fare that we usually see on the festival circuit, leading me to believe that this is one of those films that could find some success out there in the real world, where people eat pizza, drink beer and watch Apatow movies. This isn’t an Apatow movie, but it is just as smart and featuring actors who are just as talented — so why wouldn’t you want to give that a shot?
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