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Two very different but rewarding character-driven comedy-dramas made their debuts at SXSW 2016.

SXSW Movie Reviews: ‘Miss Stevens’ and ‘Donald Cried’

Timothée Chalamet, Lily Rabe, Anthony Quintal and Lili Reinhart in 'Miss Stevens.'
Timothée Chalamet, Lily Rabe, Anthony Quintal and Lili Reinhart in ‘Miss Stevens.’

Miss Stevens
Written and directed by Julia Hart
Starring Lily Rabe, Timothée Chalamet, Lili Reinhart, Anthony Quintal and Rob Huebel

Rachel Stevens (Lily Rabe) teaches English at a school in a small California town. Although she goes about her daily duties efficiently, her lonely evenings are spent drinking and mourning her directionless life.

Things get shaken up when she is tapped to chaperone three drama students for a Young Dramatists’ Competition at an out-of-town hotel. They include the commanding Margot (Lily Reinhart), insecure Sam (Anthony Quintal) and the talented but apathetic loner Billy (Timothée Chalamet).

They arrive at the hotel just in time for the students to begin rehearsing for the contest and for Rachel to begin nursing her demons, enjoying a bit too much wine at dinner and impulsively picking up a fellow teacher (Rob Huebel) for a one-night stand.

Though Lili and Sam have their own mini-dramas during the course of the film, the relationship that takes center stage is the one between Rachel and Billy. Here, the clichéd plot contrivance of a teacher attempting to “break through” to a troubled youth is set on its ear as the scenes between Rabe and Chalamet are handled with delicacy and realism.

Rabe, daughter of the late actress Jill Clayburgh, delivers a performance that her mother would certainly approve of: it’s moving, funny and pulsing with conflicted emotions. Chalamet also compels as Billy, who’s decided to take himself off of his behavior modification medications and is now starting to feel something like human. The young actor commands the screen, even when he’s silently reacting to the other characters. And when he performs a monologue from Death of a Salesman for the student competition, it’s really quite magnificent.

Screenwriter Julia Hart makes her directorial debut here, and she shows a real flair for the material.  It’s a simple story, but she underscores the central drama with gentle humor while preserving the essential humanity of the characters.

Miss Stevens was reviewed at SXSW March 12, 2016, at the Vimeo Theatre, Austin.

Jesse Wakeman and Kris Avedisian in 'Donald Cried.'
Jesse Wakeman and Kris Avedisian in ‘Donald Cried.’

Donald Cried
Written and directed by Kris Avedisian
Starring Jesse Wakeman, Kris Avedisian, Louisa Krause and Ted Arcidi

Peter (Jesse Wakeman), a successful Manhattan banker, must journey to his working-class Rhode Island town to settle the estate of his late grandmother. It’s been decades since he’s set foot in this town, and his displeasure at coming home is apparent, exacerbated by the fact that he’d left his wallet on the bus and is now without resources.

Reluctantly, he goes to see his next door neighbor and childhood best friend, Donald (Avedisian), to ask for a ride to the nursing home to pick up his grandmother’s possessions and a few bucks so that he can make his way back to New York. Donald is surprised and delighted to see his old pal after years of separation and is more than happy to help him out, provided that they can spend some time hanging out together, just like the old days.

Mullet-headed Donald has not matured since their old days as metalhead teenagers. He still lives in his mother’s attic, surrounded by KISS action figures and posters of metal gods. Peter has changed considerably, however — he’s cleaned up, buttoned up and reacts to everything with prickly distaste, especially when Donald comments about how much he’s changed — and how old he looks.

As the day progresses, Peter is given glimpses into the miserable life that Donald leads (although Donald doesn’t see it that way). First they go to see Donald’s boss to ask for the day off and to pick up his paycheck, which sends the older man into paroxysms of rage. Then he stops in a park to buy prescription painkillers. After a few more embarrassing stops, Peter is more than happy to end the reunion, but Donald can’t be shaken that easily…and the real journey down Memory Lane begins.

Avedisian’s screenplay is rife with bleak humor, and his portrayal of the title character is immediately recognizable to anyone who grew up in a small town and came back years later to revisit old friends who’d become frozen in time. Donald comes across as rather peculiar, simple and too eager to please, yet there’s an undercurrent of frustrated rage that emerges in several instances. The effect he has on Peter is peculiar, too. As old memories bubble to the surface, so does a whole lot of guilt, and he finds himself transported back to the “glory days” (as Donald puts it) of their youth, only to realize those days weren’t glorious at all.

Donald Cried was reviewed at SXSW March 13, 2016, at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Austin.

About Kurt Gardner

Writer, critic and inbound marketing expert whose passion for odd culture knows no bounds.

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