An enlightening conversation with the team behind one of the best films at this year’s SXSW.
“Patricia Highsmith is Texas-born. A lot of people think she’s English, or from New York or something, but she’s Fort Worth born and bred.” Jason Cortlund, who along with Julia Halperin wrote and directed the SXSW narrative competition entry La Barracuda, is telling me about how the famed writer of The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train was an influence on the film’s screenplay. Indeed, Cortlund and Halperin’s engrossing Austin-set thriller evokes shades of those page-turning mysteries, albeit with a Texas-fried perspective that is entirely their own. La Barracuda is one of those films you can only hope to catch at a festival, an utterly new take on familiar conventions that leaves you with the unshakeable feeling that you have witnessed a breakout for all involved. You’ve seen the dysfunctional Texas family drama, but never quite like this.
“… you might miss the past, but you have to live in the present. You don’t have a choice.” – Julia Halperin, director
One of the many fresh and fascinating angles that La Barracuda takes on is that of the bond between two half-sisters – both born to the same late country music icon, but raised on opposite sides of the pond. In fact, Merle (Alison Tolman of Fargo fame) isn’t even aware she had a sister until Sinaloa (newcomer Sophie Reid in a star-making performance) shows up at her doorstep. The disconnect between them is immediately apparent: Merle is returning home from dinner with her fiancé Raul (Luis Bordonada), a box of leftovers in her hand and the keys to her family SUV in the other. Sinaloa has nothing but the shirt on her back and a ragged backpack at her side, her thick English accent only amplifying how out of place she is in this world. And while Merle has done everything in her power to escape the shadow of her philandering, absent father, Sinaloa has taken on the mantle as a singer/songwriter herself, having returned to Texas to navigate the same world of music that he once dominated.
That specific world and culture of Austin music, and the way Cortlund and Halperin expertly use it as a canvas for this story, are amongst La Barracuda’s greatest strengths. “It’s a very nurturing community with a lot of resources to offer,” Julia Halperin tells me about the decision to shoot the film in city, where she and Cortlund have lived for just over twenty years. “One of the themes of the film is this longing Sinaloa has for the old Austin as this musical paradise,” Halperin continues, “but it’s also about how you might miss the past, but you have to live in the present, and this is how the city is now.” This theme is consistent throughout the film, which was breathtakingly shot by Jonathan Nastasi, in that it subtlely intersperses shots of the urban sprawl and construction that pervades throughout Austin in between shots of its wildlife and hilly, green landscapes. Cortlund adds, however, that they were fully aware that gentrification is not unique to just Austin. “We were hoping that aspect would be universal.”
But what is a familiar location without an unfamiliar stranger to navigate it? Raised in the U.K. and sporting a Mexican name, Sinaloa fits this bill perfectly; the film opens with her (literally) emerging from water, leaving her home behind and then making her way through the diverse terrain of Austin, conversing with the locals and figuring out her next move. Because of this fascinating juxtaposition, I was excited to ask U.K.-born actress Sophie Reid about her experience as a foreigner working on a film so embedded in an American culture (she had never been to Texas). Her word for it? “Extraordinary.” She goes on: “As an actor, it completely liberated me. Having no experience with this terrain or culture, it really helped me find this feeling that (Sinaloa) has of being cut off from her family and wanting to be a part of it.”
The resulting performance is indeed phenomenal; it’s a complex role full of moments that walk the line between restrained and compulsive, and Reid runs with it, delivering a serpent-like portrayal of a young woman who is defined both by the scars of her past and her unsatiable desire to move forward. Tolman’s character Merle is an excellent foil for Reid, an unhappy and domesticated professional who feels trapped by her office job and engagement to a man who grows increasingly uncomfortable with Sinaola’s excessiveness. The film is a revelation in how it allows these two women to be flawed, real people, no doubt helping indie and mainstream filmmaking finally get with the times in how it portrays the female experience. “I talk to people about how these are strong female characters, but really, they’re just characters to me,” Halperin ponders, crediting Cortlund’s screenplay with having painted all of its characters with nuance and realism. “Ideally, we’d live in a world where all characters are complex and detailed people.”
“Anyone who spends any amount of time (in Texas) knows that it is many things.” – Jason Cortlund, writer/director
When asked about the dynamic between him and Halperin on set, Cortlund elaborated on their process. “We met in grad school and have been working together ever since, trading off directing and producing on our projects before our first feature Now, Forager in 2010.” Forager, which was shot in New York and premiered at Rotterdam, follows the dissolution of a couple who gather wild mushrooms to sell to restaurants. It was on this film that the two developed their work ethic, as Cortlund continues: “Throughout pre-production, it’s a collaborative process, with everyone just bouncing ideas off of each other. But once we get on set, Julia focuses solely on watching the live performance and directing the actors, while I’m on monitor and making sure it’s translating to the screen while also focusing on the technical aspect.” They cite the Dardenne Brothers (Rosetta, The Kid with a Bike) as a particular model they found effective in handling the dual responsibilities of direction.
“Anyone who spends any amount of time (in Texas) knows that it is many things,” Cortlund tells me. “The film opens and closes in completely different parts of the state. We wanted to ground this in the many different landscapes, the characters and the cultures that are here.” Along those same lines, Halperin adds, “one of my favorite things to do is to portray a location in a way you wouldn’t expect.” And it’s in this dexterous, expert handling both of the epic scope of Texas and the flawed, vulnerable characters that inhabit it that Cortlund and Halperin prove their talents. It’s rare to see filmmakers so in tune with their environment, using it to elevate already terrific writing and a talented cast, and hopefully it will not be too long a wait before we see what they do next.
For all its value as Texan film, La Barracuda is able to stand on its own as a thoroughly unique and fascinating entry in the thriller genre. It’s a film about a specific time and a place, but mostly, it’s a film about moments of longing, moments of pain, and the songs we sing in between.
You can check out the poster for La Barracuda below.