Two recently released indie films shed light on an ongoing discrepancy within the arthouse film culture: a puzzling inability among critics and filmgoers to separate style from substance, and quality from dreck. We’ll call it The Arthouse Problem. Of “The Kids Are All Right” and “Winter’s Bone,” one is a legitimate near-masterpiece and the other is a lightweight mainstream film wearing the emperor’s new indie clothes (a fedora and a retro NBA jersey?).
Which is which? (moderate spoilers ensue)
With big-budget studio films, it’s almost always easy to tell if a film is worth your time based on the trailer and a handful of reviews. You can’t be certain if you’ll like the movie, but it’s an easy call to know that Inception is probably worth a ticket, and Grown Ups is not.
With indie/arthouse films, it’s become tricky to navigate the minefields of off-base reviews and misplaced word-of-mouth, because critics and audiences alike consistently allow the “arthouse” label to distract them from a movie’s true nature.
(In 2010, the line of demarcation between studio and independent films is confused. Every major studio has at least one arthouse division or imprint, and the legitimately independent studios still often need to climb in bed with the devil, and make distribution deals with The Big Six. Both “The Kids Are All Right” and “Winter’s Bone” were Sundance purchases, with Focus Features — a Universal arm — distributing “Kids,” and the more “legitimately” independent Roadside Attractions distributing “Bone.” For the purposes of this discussion, I’m using common sense when determining what’s an indie film and what’s a major; considering budget, distribution company, production company, and whether or not a film is likely to play in the local multiplex or in an arthouse.)
“The Kids Are All Right” has earned 96% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a score of 86 on the more nuanced Metacritic (“universal acclaim”), and has taken in nearly $5 million in three weeks at the box office, thanks to a ridiculous $13,174 per-screen average. “Winter’s Bone” has a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a 90 on Metacritic, and about $3.5 million in 7 weeks worth of box office earnings, on the strength of a $2,675 per-screen average. It’s fair to say that both films have been greeted with rave reviews, similar in their enthusiasm and timbre.
“Winter’s Bone” is the real deal: a gripping story, artistically told, led by intimate performances and stunning, icy cinematography. Debra Granik directed (and co-wrote) a film that’s everything an indie film should be — a movie that couldn’t and shouldn’t be made by a major studio, in this case because it’s too small, too bleak and too raw. “Winter’s Bone” tells the tale of Ree Dolly, a teenager negotiating the meth-infested Missouri Ozarks trying to track down her absentee father, so that she and her young siblings won’t lose the house he put up as bond before skipping out on bail. This movie would never make $50 million in wide release, and it’s not designed to do so. The most recognizable cast member is John Hawkes, playing one of the great redneck antiheroes of recent vintage.
In this instance, the positive reviews are well-earned, and critics seemed to see the film for what it is. But in many other cases, such as with “The Kids Are All Right,” low budgets and indie pedigrees blind critics to a movie’s flaws and simplicities.
“Kids,” directed by Lisa Cholodenko, features Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as an all-but-legally married couple with two teenagers, the younger of whom is intent on tracking down the sperm donor who served as the biological father for both. When they find him (Mark Ruffalo), complications follow.
It’s a comedy of awkwardness, with the tension in every scene coming from the socially inept things the characters say and do, which make both them and the audience uncomfortable. The minimal laughter that ensues is typically born of nervous anticipation, not genuine humor. The film’s not particularly observant, nor does it surprise at any point — there’s not a story beat that you don’t see coming ten scenes away.
I’m not claiming “Kids” is horrible — I’d give it a C+ — just massively overrated for reasons that have nothing to do with the movie itself. This movie is essentially a big-budget Hollywood comedy executed with a small budget and arthouse-friendly cast. It’s just as lacking in subtlety and wit as the formulaic garbage that rolls off the studio assembly lines.
Many critics loved both “Bone” and “Kids.” So how could they so easily recognize the quality of the latter while so widely misjudging the former? Well, “Kids” features a number of common critic baits:
- A modern (read: involving gay people) functional-but-not-really family
- A cast loaded with critical and indie-fan darlings
- Production and story accoutrements like a Toyota Prius and a character who runs an organic/local restaurant
- A lot of talking, and talking, and talking…
- Performances that can best be described as “measured,” designed to merely hint at all the chaos taking place just beneath the surface
Really, the only thing it’s lacking is period costumes.
Had “Kids” been produced by Universal itself, instead of distributed by Focus, and starred Jennifer Aniston, it would have received the middling reviews it deserves. Its plaudits are dependent entirely on its debut at Sundance, the credibility of its creative team, and the very idea that it’s a low-budget underdog.
Incidentally, the worst review of “Winter’s Bone” comes from the dependably awful New York Post, where Kyle Smith opines:
Yet the main reason for “Winter’s Bone” to exist is that it delivers a little voyeuristic thrill — a bit of poverty porno — for the critics who awarded it their highest honors at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. There ain’t nothin’ they like better’n a nice bowl o’ grit.
That reading couldn’t possibly be further off (did Smith think Kane just really fucking loved sledding?), and if you read much of the Post, should send you running to the theater.
Unfortunately, the en masse, lemming-like love for “The Kids Are All Right” is not a unique phenomenon. It happens every year to at least a few arthouse films, which are elevated to year-end award consideration merely based on the name of the company that produced them. This goes beyond the whole Miramax-buying-Oscars thing, too, as it’s more systemic, and more based in the all-too-human nature of most critics and most audiences.
In the past decade, we’ve seen indie films ranging from mediocre to disastrous get undeservedly feted, nominated and anointed: An Education, Crash, Chocolat, Slumdog Millionaire, and dozens of others, beloved for their quirkiness, or their famous directors slumming it on a small budget.
So what does this mean for you, the moviegoer? Essentially it means you have to filter reviews of arthouse films through an extra bullshit detector, and proceed with caution more than you would for a studio film. Apparently, it’s all too easy to fool people with the mere appearance of quality and sophistication.