A Golden Age for the Microbudget Indie?


Anyone who’s purchased a digital camera and/or editing software package during the past decade knows that cinema’s digital revolution truly has democratized the filmmaking process. It has literally never been easier to make a movie (whether short or feature-length, fiction, documentary or animation) than it is today. Hell, even cell phones and iMovie have made auteurs out of people who would’ve never dreamed of trying to operate a 16mm Bolex camera or Steenbeck editing table. What was it that Francis Ford Coppola said about that “little fat girl in Ohio” being the future Mozart of the cinema? Unfortunately, anyone who’s ever submitted their independently made labor of love to film festivals knows that virtually every festival, big or small, is also receiving a “record number of submissions” for the same few slots year after year. So if you’re wondering why the glut of newly produced digital movies hasn’t translated into more independent features playing at your local multiplex, that’s largely because the distribution and exhibition of “film” are still primarily lorded over by a Hollywood old guard clinging to an ancient business model. In other words, while more independent movies are being made every year, it’s still mostly that same small percentage — the ones lucky enough to be scooped up by big distributors — that are actually being seen.

There are encouraging signs, however, that the culture of distribution and exhibition is starting to change. Forget momentarily about VOD and the internet as long-hyped sources for motion-picture exhibition; three of the very best films I’ve seen in the theater this year have been true “microbudget” indies (budget estimates I’ve seen for each have topped out at $50,000): Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine and Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act. Amazingly, the most successful of these three appears to be the self-distributed Upstream Color, which had an unusually lengthy run at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre and also turned up for a week at the recently restored Patio Theater. (Carruth has apparently been as successful at educating himself about the business-end of distribution as he was about the artistry of picture-making.) But, since I already wrote a long review of Upstream Color in April, I’d like to dedicate the rest of this post to those other two eminently worthy indies: Sun Don’t Shine was released by the innovative film and record company Factory 25 while The Unspeakable Act was put out by the ambitious distributor Cinema Guild. Both played at the Gene Siskel Film Center in recent weeks to crowded and enthusiastic houses.


Sun Don’t Shine is an exceedingly realistic, sun-baked neo-noir about a pair of down-on-their-luck white-trash lovers driving across Florida and desperately trying to dispose of the body in the trunk of their car. It represents the directing debut of actress Amy Seimetz (so good as the lead in Upstream Color) and stars the terrific Kate Lyn Sheil as an emotionally retarded bartender and single mother and Kentucker Audley as her partner in crime. The main selling point here is Sheil, probably the best American actress under the age of 30, who has an Isabelle Huppert-like intensity that seems capable of burning a hole right through the cinema screen. In her jealous/freak-out scenes, I could not take my eyes off of her. Probably made for a fraction of the catering budget of that movie about the man in the iron suit, Sun Don’t Shine was nonetheless impressively shot on real 16mm film, and the images have a bleached-out, pastel-colored quality that puts them in beautiful and ironic counterpoint to the downbeat story.

The Unspeakable Act is just the third feature made by film critic and director Dan Sallitt over the past three decades — though, because it’s being referred to as his “breakthrough,” one hopes he’ll now be able to pick up the pace a little. The story deals, sensitively and intelligently, with a 17-year old girl’s incestuous longing for her older brother while the latter acquires his first girlfriend and prepares to leave home for college — a double-whammy that fractures their formerly idyllic but unhealthy childhood-sibling bond. This is a bold, witty, nuanced and delightfully talky character study (the lead actress Tallie Medel is remarkable at handling dialogue both diegetically and via her copious voice-over narration) that is set in a deftly sketched upper-middle class Brooklyn milieu; the old wooden houses and residential-neighborhood feel put it in pointed contrast to the hipster-Brooklyn we’re used to seeing in contemporary movies. The result is, very fittingly, dedicated to French New Wave master Eric Rohmer. The Unspeakable Act marks Sallitt, now in his late-50s, as exciting of a “new talent” to watch as any American director half his age.


One hopes that the success of the new microbudget indie augurs well for the diversity of the kinds of American films that will be distributed in the future. One suspects that the recent success of companies like Cinema Guild and Factory 25 results from the fact that 1) digital exhibition means eliminating the formerly prohibitive costs of making and shipping film prints, 2) “social media” has actually made advertising, including crucial word-of-mouth publicity, easier and cheaper than ever before and 3) the popularity of downloading/streaming movies by the masses has made the DVDs and Blu-rays put out by these boutique labels highly desired collector’s items for those still interested in physical media (in much the same way that the popularity of vinyl has surged in recent years in the wake of the ubiquitous mp3). In the past few years alone, Factory 25 and Cinema Guild have been responsible for releasing such important titles as Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Hong Sang-soo’s The Day He Arrives and Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel, as well as multi-film box sets by directors as disparate as Alexander Sokurov and Joe Swanberg. Let’s hope that other enterprising distributors will follow their lead in bringing good cinema fare to screens both big and small — and thus expand the number of refreshing alternatives to Hollywood’s never-ending onslaught of soulless “entertainment.”

Sun Don’t Shine Rating: 7.8
The Unspeakable Act Rating: 8.0


About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

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