Rooftop Films @ SXSW: St. Nick

Mark Elijah Rosenberg is the Founder and Artistic Director of Rooftop Films; look for film reviews from him and the rest of the Rooftop crew throughout the week.

If you’re going to a bunch of SXSW films this year, you’ve probably seen David Lowery’s name in the credits a lot. Among other things, he edited It Was Great But I Was Ready to Come Home, worked on Beeswax, and was listed simply as “right hand man” on Alexander the Last.

At Rooftop, we screened David’s short film A Catalogue of Anticipations in 2008, at our “Surreal Sounds and Shorts” screening, co-presented with MoMA. The short is a strange and wistful fable with a little girl and a skeleton fairy, a unique film in tone, style, and subject matter — fairly different from the mumblecore films he’s collaborating on. So I was thrilled to see he had his debut feature here at SXSW, and my expectation has been rewarded. St. Nick is a stunning film, all the more resonant because it clearly comes from the same movement of realist movies here at SXSW, but has a distinct care for rich visuals and thought-provoking audio, qualities that are often lacking in these other films, which concentrate primarily on getting quotidian performances with a simple verite style.

Lowery’s film is sort of a pre-teen Badlands, a lush and visceral young American drifter tragedy. A brother and sister — they can’t be more than 10 years old — are living on their own. No explanation is ever given about what brought them to this lifestyle, and Lowery said, in the Q&A, that his film wanted to explore the “how” and “what,” but wasn’t concerned with “why.” We know they once had a more sheltered life — the braces the boy painfully tries to remove belie a certain class status. Not explaining what happened is a brave choice to make in a film, in a culture that so often wants the easy answers that can come with a simple and sensational back story, a pat X caused Y morality. Instead, Lowery inspects the painful and shifting psychology of these kids, and the landscape of their purgatory.

They find an empty, run-down house, and settle in. There’s no heat or running water, but they fix a stove so the smoke blows out the window, gather water for the toilet from nearby hoses, rig up a little kid’s favorite primitive defense mechanism, and make a secret bedroom — just at child height — with sheets strung from the walls like a canopy. It’s a sad and twisted fantasy home, a place they hope will not merely shelter them but save them, transform them. But the most revealing metaphor from the house is perhaps the attic stairs, which when pulled down emit a horrifying howl, creating an ominous haunted quality to the space above them — the temporary physical roof and the tenuous idea of ascension and salvation. The detailed explorations of the house are crucial in the story, because they mirror the kids’ attempted development to build an armor of adulthood — attempts that fray and crack at the seams, revealing the vulnerable children inside.

“Why are you talking like that,” the girl asks. — “Like what?” — “Like you’re from Texas?” – “I am from Texas.”

In these snippets of dialogue, the little boy is trying on a subtle tough-guy front, but his sister innocently pierces it. In another scene, the little girl gathers the bones of a tiny dog, reminded of their own former pet. She clings to the bones as a ghastly but quaint talisman of their former, sheltered domesticity, but her brother must try to keep her focused on their new reality, arguing with childish stubbornness that their old dog will have forgotten them by now.

And when a real adult shows up and kicks them out, the kids we’ve begun to see as mature — now with quivering lips and watery eyes, with shuffling “yessirs” and juvenile rock-throwing retaliation — they revert to their childhood status, only now the hopes they’ve built have been challenged, and their bodies are weakened from the strain. I refrain from saying their dreams are dashed, however, because despite the dream-like quality of the film, I think these kids are too practical for much dreaming. Like all kids, they are trying on different incarnations of selfhood, and their long-term plans are still nascent. But unlike most kids, the harsh and tragic facts of their existence means they can have only escape and survival as goals, and the daytime dreamlike quality of their lives — whale songs ringing from trainyards, horses unnervingly coddling them — is not a comfort to retreat within, but a fog from which to wander forth.

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children, but if he’s too be found in St. Nick, he’s probably the church thief who finds the kids, stares them down, and decides they’re not even worth his attention. The film, however, is worth everyone’s attention. With absolutely astonishing imagery, evocative soundscapes, heartbreakingly smart and subtle performances, and a story that reveals layer after layer of complexity, David Lowery has built a masterpiece of introspection and exploration.