SXSW 2011 Review: BAD FEVER
If there’s anything a festival like SXSW can prove, it’s that sometimes the best movies are the ones nobody is talking about. In between the premieres and the parties, amidst the latest mumblecore sensations and post-Sundance critical darlings, sometimes it’s possible to find something that catches you completely by surprise and leaves you wondering, “Why haven’t I heard about this?”
BAD FEVER is such a film.
The reason you haven’t heard about this film is that it is an independent venture in every sense of the word. Unlike most of the other films that played at this year’s festival, there was no marketing blitz sent to press, no official release screaming, “See my movie! Review it!” There was no information given beyond a two-sentence synopsis in the program that inspired more questions than it provided answers. As of the time of this writing, it doesn’t even have a publicist – the director, Dustin Guy Defa, is handling pretty much everything related to the film himself. It’s the kind of project that SXSW was originally made for: a self-funded, self-publicized film born out of the blood, sweat, and tears of a small group of dedicated cast and crew. It’s also, in its own weird little way, kind of a masterpiece.
BAD FEVER is a challenging, haunting piece of filmmaking that feels like it comes from a very personal place while exploring universal themes of loneliness and desolation. It’s the kind of movie that Hollywood used to make in the 1970s before the invention of the summer blockbuster and the even more recent catering to fanboy fantasies. Its protagonist is deeply unhappy. The relationships explored are doomed at best, and dangerous as worst. And most of all, there is an intense feeling of desperation infused in every frame, as if the director, much like his protagonist, is struggling to figure out just what exactly we are and hoping a creative outlet might provide an answer. It is a film shot in sorrow, a raw and uncompromising look at the crippling effect social isolation can have on those who buy into the American Dream, and a work of socially conscious filmmaking that asks: if all that’s needed for success and fulfillment is our own individual effort, why are we so damn unhappy on our own?
The plot follows Eddie (Kentucker Audley), a twenty-something loner whose primary goal in life is to one day take the stage at the local comedy club. He spends most of his free time speaking into a handheld recorder, practicing “jokes” (they’re more like monologues without a punchline) and reflecting on his day-to-day life. He is so inept at social interaction that his conversations with others frequently mirror his conversations with himself – they are free-form, nearly incomprehensible, and at times so formally worded that one gets the impression his only concept of language comes from books or movies rather than other people. His life is thrown into a tailspin when he begins a quasi-romantic relationship with a drifter named Irene (Eleonore Hendricks) that soon becomes the dominant focus of his life. But Irene is just as broken as he is and brings her own set of issues to the table, and Eddie’s tenderness and fragility make him an easy target for manipulation.
The camera opens on Irene outside a gas station as she asks Eddie to buy her a pack of cigarettes, and from then on the audience is with Eddie every step of the way – he’s been marked by her, and he (and we, by extension) can only helplessly get pulled along for the ride. Eleonore Hendricks is remarkable as the subject of Eddie’s longing, a young woman who insists on filming nearly every interaction with Eddie with a bulky video camera and forcing him into humiliating situations. There is a desperation and rage behind her mask of compassion, a bubbling longing to be a director rather than an actor in someone else’s story.
But the real standout here is Kentucker Audley, who deserves serious consideration for any and every acting accolade one can throw at him for his performance as Eddie. Audley has, until now, mainly acted in the kind of naturalistic roles that allow him to essentially play himself (assuming he isn’t actually playing himself, such as in his recently-directed feature OPEN FIVE). BAD FEVER cements him not only as an actor with range, but as one of the most talented up-and-coming performers out there. He throws himself into the role and plays Eddie with wild abandon, speaking in repetitive fragments that suggest extremely abnormal socialization. It’s a character that, in the hands of a lesser actor and director, could easily come across as creepy, deranged, or mentally handicapped, but Audley plays him as more Rupert Pupkin than Travis Bickle, a simple soul who finds himself caught between the grandeur of impossible dreams and the harsh reality of working class life. Like a young DeNiro, there’s an unhinged energy rooted in everyday mundaneness that is both gripping and human – there’s no telling what Eddie will do next, but Audley ensures that no matter what it is, it will feel real and genuinely human.
Defa directs things with an assuredness that many veterans of the craft would envy, crafting the city as a manifestation of his protagonist’s deep social isolation. Is Eddie alone because he’s so lonely, or lonely because he is, in fact, alone? The cinematography is handheld when Eddie is around others, accentuating his nervousness, but when he is alone the camera glides and pans effortlessly along the cityscape as an extension of his introverted calm. Defa paints Eddie as a classic loner, adrift in the backdrop not of a desert wasteland but of the abandoned backyards and alleys of a city trapped in stasis. Beyond the occasional customer at the comedy club, we are shown no other residents; the town is as lonely as Eddie perceives it to be. The dominant sound is that of a deep wind whistling through empty streets and dilapidated buildings. This isn’t a place where dreams can come true, it’s a place where they’re left to die and float unrealized in a vacuum of anomie.
Adding to confusion is a semi-meta subplot involving a video camera and a cameo by Mr. Defa himself. Eddie’s search for identity mirrors that undergone by any actor preparing for a role. Several scenes find Eddie – or is it Kentucker? – frustratingly trying to escape the eye of the camera lens and to lure Irene away from the direction of her guardian. If there is any chance at happiness for them, it’s away from that which would force them to not be themselves.
And that’s the beauty of a film like BAD FEVER. It’s the kind of movie that can be watched several times and inspire multiple interpretations and revelations on each viewing. Its melancholy ripples forth from every frame and hangs in the air long after the closing credits have finished. Defa arguably hasn’t made a film about a loner and a drifter as much as he’s made a film about the role of cinema. “Does anybody even want to know that my life isn’t as great as you think as it is?” Eddie muses. It’s a feeling that encapsulates so much – the delusion of grandeur promised by the American Dream, the way in which we’re all searching for our role to play, and the disconnect between how we’d like people to view us and how we really are. In the end, no matter how much we try to fool ourselves, perhaps we’re all really just like Eddie, trying to find ourselves in a world where everybody is an actor and authenticity is easier performed than found.