With its increasingly high profile and films dominated by major stars, Sundance doesn’t seem like a festival built around discovery as much as it once did, allowing SXSW to pick up the baton as a place to go to truly discover new talent. Jim Cummings isn’t exactly brand-new as he had an award-winning short do the festival rounds and earn rapturous acclaim, but his feature debut had its world premiere at the Stateside Theatre in Austin on Monday. Expanding from the short into a full-length dramedy, “Thunder Road” is easily one of the best films at this year’s festival, an announcement of a major talent as an actor, writer, and director. It’s a must-see and a studio should grab it right now if they know what they’re doing. It’s a movie that everybody was talking about last night and rose to the top of conversations about the best of the festival.
The full version of “Thunder Road” opens with a variation on the short film, in which Officer Arnaud (Cummings) is giving a heartfelt, funny eulogy at his mother’s funeral. The entire description in the SXSW program was only five words: “Officer Arnaud loved his mom.” At first, the vagueness of that plot description aggravated me, but the truth is that this is an incredibly difficult film to describe. It’s mostly about those emotionally unstable moments that come after major life changes like losing a parent. It’s about death and loss, but it’s also often very funny. It’s episodic but somehow still feels genuine, largely because of the character Cummings builds at the center.
“Thunder Road” follows Arnaud for the few days after his mom’s funeral, as he tries to decide what to do with her dance studio, has a few shitty encounters on the job, and argues with his soon-to-be-ex-wife (Jocelyn DeBoer) over custody of their 10-year-old kid. Arnaud would tell you he’s not the smartest guy in the room, but he’s got a heartfelt sincerity that makes him likable and “Thunder Road” works because of how deftly Cummings handles the character. He could have easily become a cartoon—the Adam Sandler version of the emotionally unstable cop who cries a lot—but he feels completely realized in Cummings' hands. He reminded me of someone who would pop up in an early Richard Linklater movie or a long-lost Wilson brother from the “Bottle Rocket” days. He’s just a fascinating guy to spend time with for 90 minutes—someone you want to see get their shit together before his life falls completely apart.
“Thunder Road” is moving, and tonally daring. It walks so many fine lines between comedy and drama that the balancing act is exhilarating to watch. In the past, SXSW has launched people like Trey Edward Shults into the indie film landscape. Cummings is next in line.
From the other side of the world comes another exciting new voice in Clayton Jacobson’s pitch-black “Brothers’ Nest,” a tight, claustrophobic story of siblings planning a murder. It’s early in the day at a country house in Victoria when Terry (Shane Jacobson) and Jeff (Clayton Jacobson) go over how they’re going to kill their stepfather Rodger (Kim Gyngell). It will look like he killed himself by throwing a plugged-in radio in the tub. There’s a bit of a power struggle between the brothers, some poor planning, and some unexpected issues once things stepdad actually shows up. All of it is razor-sharp, darkly funny, and tense.
I’m a sucker for a good single-setting piece about people doing something amoral very, very poorly and “Brothers’ Nest” fits that bill nicely. It’s a taut little genre exercise anchored by the director and his actual brother Shane in the lead roles. As it starts to get clearer that the brothers have different, shall we say, levels of commitment as to what they’re about to do, “Brothers’ Nest” becomes a smart slow-burn movie in that we know everything isn’t going to go as planned—there’s not a story if it does—and so we are stuck in this home with them, waiting for the fireworks to go off. And they truly do. This is a smart flick that should find a satisfied audience if a studio is smart enough to get it a release.
Shana Feste’s “Boundaries” already has a major studio (Sony Pictures Classics, usually such a smart group of buyers) but “satisfied” is not a word that I would associate with this maddening road trip dramedy. Rarely have so many people I admire and even adore been involved in a film I enjoyed this little. It wouldn’t be a film festival without a road movie, and this one has such a great cast that I went in with high expectations. Those expectations were confronted with the tropes Feste peddles and a lack of honest investment in any of the characters or their hijinks.
To be fair, Christopher Plummer does portray Jack with a nice twinkle in his eye but that’s because he can do this kind of thing on a weekend (sometimes literally, as with “All the Money in the World”). We learn about Jack before we meet him, his named changed to “DON’T PICK UP” on his daughter Laura’s (Vera Farmiga) phone. Laura is a single mother who has a passion for animal rescue—her home is full of adorable cats and dogs—and her son Hoyt (Lewis MacDougall) is getting into trouble at school and so has to go to a private one. Jack gets kicked out of his nursing home and Laura needs the money from him to get Hoyt into another school. A few more plot twists lead to Jack, Laura, and Hoyt driving across California so Jack can stay with his other daughter (Kristen Schaal). Jack may be dying, but is definitely transporting a duffel bag of marijuana in his daughter’s trunk.
“Boundaries” is defiantly episodic. The trio have a quick encounter with Laura’s ex-husband (Bobby Canavale) and spend some time with a few of Jack’s old buddies, which is pretty much just so Christopher Lloyd and Peter Fonda can pop up in cameos. None of these encounters ring true—they are all screenwriter devices, and it starts to get dispiriting to see great actors like Farmiga, Plummer, and Canavale given so little to do. The road trip movie may be a film festival staple, but “Boundaries” could be proof that this subgenre has run out of gas.