Carly Stone accepts the Special Jury Recognition For First Feature. Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for SXSW

 

Singular Visions Drive SXSW Film Award Recipients

Narrative category standouts did it their way

The Jury Award winners of SXSW 2018 are a testament to the festival’s growth and highlights film subjects we don’t often see in the cinematic landscape. Nilja Mu’min’s Jinn, Jim Cumming’s Thunder Road, and Carly Stone’s The New Romantic — the three winners in the Narrative Feature category — each crafted singular narratives, but each film was imprinted with the filmmakers DNA.

Darren Aronofsky gave some brilliant advice for young filmmakers during his SXSW Keynote Speech: make the film only you can make. Each narrative jury selection winner seems to have unwittingly (or by grand design) followed Aronofsky’s sage advice.

Writer/directors Mu’min, Cummings, Stone, and a host of other SXSW film alumni, demonstrated the cinematic gifts to be harvested when brilliant writers are given agency to shoot their own words.

 

L-R: Special Jury Recognition for Writing: Niljla Mu’min for Jinn, Grand Jury Winner: Thunder Road, directed by Jim Cummings, Special Jury Recognition For First Feature: Carly Stone for The New Romantic

Carly Stone (center) and actors attend the premiere of The New Romantic. Photo by Ismael Quintanilla/Getty Images for SXSW.

Carly Stone (center) and actors attend the premiere of The New Romantic. Photo by Ismael Quintanilla/Getty Images for SXSW.

 

Carly Stone’s The New Romantic takes modern day romance and hookup culture to task while highlighting the power and pain of embracing female sexuality. Jessica Barden stars as Blake, an undergraduate who is trying to win the Hunter S. Thompson prize for gonzo journalism. Blake embarks on a relationship of mutual benefit, finds a “sugar daddy,” and documents her escapades.

Some would argue the romantic comedy is dead. But films like Hello, My Name is Doris, Obvious Child, Appropriate Behavior, and The New Romantic show the genre is not dead, but rather transitioning. Romance and the idea of falling in love are now in themselves, comical. From Elizabeth Bennett to Bridget Jones, our favorite heroines have all managed to single out men of means as the object of their affection. So who is say what’s wrong with making the means the objective and the man rather a method to get there?

Interviewed at SXSW, Stone confessed that she especially wanted to an unapologetic and ambitious heroine. “I didn’t want it to be judgmental. I didn’t want it to be about money,” Stone said. “I knew when I made Blake a journalist; I realized that her curiosity could drive the story.”

Since winning the SXSW prize, Stone has inked an overall deal with ICM Partners and secured distribution deals for The New Romantic with The Orchard for the U.S. and with Elevation Partners for Canada.

Nijla Mu'min speaks at the premiere of Jinn. Photo by Kurt Lunsford.

Nijla Mu'min speaks at the premiere of Jinn. Photo by Kurt Lunsford.

 

The night after Aronofsky’s keynote, I watched him chat animatedly with Barry Jenkins in a local Austin bar. The next morning, I rose early to watch Jenkins’ keynote, and it cemented the idea that 2018 was a standout year for SXSW. A keynote from either director any year would be a must-see moment, but to have both in one year was a cinephile’s dream realized.

In Jenkins’ speech, he spoke to the future of filmmaking, singling out Nijla Mu’min’s Jinn as a part of the cinema’s bright future. Jinn is a slice-of-life story dealing with faith, sexuality, and the black experience.

The film features a dynamic black female protagonist rarely seen on screen. Summer’s (Zoe Renee) struggle with identity, as opposed to external forces, further distinguishes the film from its contemporaries. The poetry of film stems from the title itself — a Jinn is an invisible entity of Islamic theology, created out of smokeless fire. The semi-autobiographical tale is tailor-made for “Afro-punk” kids underserved by today’s market standard for young adult films.

Mu’min said she was blown away to win a Jury award: “It was such a shock, and I still can’t believe it happened.”

Since her win, she has been steadily working to secure distribution for Jinn. “I have learned so much about how the film distribution works,” she added. “I wasn’t expecting a bidding war… there hasn’t been a lot of film representation of African-American Muslims.”

Below is the trailer for Jinn:

Jim Cummings speaking at the screening of Thunder Road. Photo by Katie Marriner.

Jim Cummings speaking at the screening of Thunder Road. Photo by Katie Marriner.

 

The struggle of SXSW films to find distribution seems a common thread, with several standouts still seeking deals. Jim Cummings recently headed to the south of France to shop Thunder Road for international distributors in The Director’s Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival.

Cummings parlayed the response to his buzzy short at Sundance in 2016 into a Kickstarter campaign to fully fund the feature version of Thunder Road. The result produced a singular performance, which wowed this year’s SXSW jury.

Cummings’ intimate and excruciating take on a broken man is a hard watch, yet riveting and morbidly hilarious at times. The brilliance of his performance was evident from the opening shot when his character, Officer Jim Arnaud rambles and raves at his mother’s funeral in what could be described as the best/worst eulogy you’ve ever witnessed. It is fascinating to witness the quiet desperation of a man succumbing to the worst hits that life can at throw him, yet steadfastly unable to express his apparent rage and deterioration.

Cummings’ performance demands us to connect with a less-than-sympathetic man-child, and I must confess sympathizing for a police officer dripping with white privilege and entitlement can be hard to stomach. In the end, the character of Arnaud is so disarming that you can’t help but root for him to grow up and get his life.

Cummings is writing his own playbook on how he got the film acquired, handling the sale of the feature without an agency. “Many of the agencies were helpful, but we just wanted to do it ourselves.” Cummings said in a Twitter Q&A recently.

Days before his trip to Cannes he left advice on his timeline, which offered a tip which echoed Aronofsky’s keynote advice: “Don’t wait for someone to make your movie.” For these three award winners, that belief has paid off with great films.

Below is the original short of Thunder Road that debuted in 2016:

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