Thursday Editor’s Pick: “St. Nick” (2009)

by on April 28, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick


7:00 at ReRun Gastropub [Program & Tix]

 
Today’s your last chance to catch director David Lowery’s high-def, low-key Amerindie debut St. Nick: “sort of a pre-teen Badlands, a lush and visceral young American drifter tragedy” in the words of Flavorwire’s Mark Elijah Rosenberg. The comparison to Terrence Malick’s 1973 film (which is playing at Museum of the Moving Image May 14-15, coincidentally) has been echoed by many reviewers–including ReRun’s very own programmer, who previously covered the film at its 2009 festival debut.
 
As Aaron Hillis then wrote for GreenCine Daily:

Without a doubt, the best film at SXSW 2009 was writer-director David Lowery’s lovely, lived-in, slow-burning debut feature St. Nick. Front-loaded with very little dialogue, the trade-ins are lushly photographed vignettes and sensory textures (my god, why can’t more young filmmakers pay as much attention to film grammar, or craft their diegetic sound design this purposefully?) that reveal themselves methodically, pensively: the rustic Texas landscape in autumn, a hidden majesty from somewhere in Badlands country.

Lowery’s film adeptly taps into the child’s-eye perspective of underage survival similarly found in Treeless Mountain, Nobody Knows, or Children of Invention, but here it isn’t just about naturalism, but the detached dreamlike mystery of watching or recalling these events as a grown-up…Their vulnerability is palpable, but Lowery wisely chooses to neither romanticize nor make tragic the lives of runaways; it’s the surreal disconnect between youth and maturity that colors St. Nick‘s magic. If it were only shot on film, not HD, this one would be a far more dangerous contender on the indie awards and fest circuit.

 

Official theatrical trailer.

 
Here’s Steve Dollar for the Wall Street Journal:

Themes of childhood innocence and experience consume the imaginations of many filmmakers, but few nail them so perfectly as David Lowery. The Dallas native is an accomplished cinematographer and writer with an unwillingness to impose too much external order on his stories, which play out at their own idiosyncratic tempo, alive with fleeting epiphanies and graced by an introspective tone that stealthily gathers up an emotional wallop.

 

Jason Guerrasio has a great interview with the director in Filmmaker Magazine:

FILMMAKER: How much was improvised – like how specifically did you direct their building of a sheet fort?
 
LOWERY: The tent – that’s a funny story. That’s in the script that they build a sheet fort, because all kids build tents. One night, the art director and I stayed late to build this tent; we were like, let’s build the perfect tent that kids would love. And it was just retarded. It sucked. We shot scenes in it the next day and I just hated it, it looked so stupid. I said to James M. Johnson, my producer, “We have to reschedule this and reshoot it.” So we tore down the tent, and a day or two later we gave the kids all these sheets and said, “OK, build a tent, we’re just gonna film it.” And it was awesome. It’s beautiful. That was a turning point in the movie for me, because when I realized that we should just let them build it and film them, I think that’s when we really hit our stride. It was about three days into filming and it was the point where I let go a little bit. The next morning we had a quick production meeting and we were all like, let’s start rolling secretly and stand back and let them do their thing, and let’s do that a lot.
 
FILMMAKER: It brings up one thing about your movie I think is rarely portrayed accurately – kid play is not fun. It’s not a game. When you make a fort like that, it’s serious business.
 
LOWERY: Right, exactly – and there’s a very pragmatic thrill when you finish it. That’s what I wanted to see, the pragmatic procedural aspects of playtime, hammering sheets to walls and figuring out the best way to do something. Afterwards it’s not like, “Now let’s play,” it’s more like they’ve finished a hard day’s work. They’ve accomplished something and are maybe a little bit older and more mature.

 


 
On the process from page to screen:

FILMMAKER: How did the script develop?
 

LOWERY: It was like shooting a documentary. The script was 30-pages long, and some of the scenes were just one line – “the kids walk through a field.” Some of the script was very specific, and a lot of it was incredibly loose and we threw away. You’d be hard pressed to find sides while we were shooting.
 

FILMMAKER: That’s pretty amazing to be able to communicate your vision without much of anything on paper…
 

LOWERY: I’ve kind of developed that as my way of working. I’ve done shorts entirely by myself, and when I’m working by myself the script is entirely in my head. I think my shorts feel structured and precise and formalist because that’s my aesthetic, but I don’t feel the need to put it into words first. For the sake of having a crew, and actors and needing a production schedule, I wrote this 30-page document. It was helpful but I don’t know how much you could get from it as far as conveying what the movie was gonna be. I would just talk to people. The kids never saw that script, not once.

 

 

The Village Voice’s Nick Pinkerton was underwhelmed by the film:

As much as possible, Lowery dispenses with any direct reference to life outside the characters’ immediate runaway reality, aligning St. Nick with a strain of American Indie-an taciturnity in which character development is sublimated (or obfuscated) through cinematography. (St. Nick is shot on digital video by Clay Liford, and cut in off-speed combinations of scuffling handheld and austere composure.) The child performers are limited, while the filmmaking is too discrete, finally, to touch on the raw spots of childhood. What drove these kids out into the cold world—dead parents? Abuse? Foster-care mishandling?—is kept as private as the reasoning behind the title. Like a child bluffing at knowing a secret, St. Nick teases and frustrates.

 

But the New York Times’ Andy Webster liked it alright:

A potentially stifling ambience is deflected by quiet suspense and the awe-inspiring compositions of the cinematographer, Clay Liford. Decaying rustic interiors evoke Andrew Wyeth still lifes; pastoral long shots suggest a Southwestern walkabout. And Mr. Lowery seems ready for a bigger canvas.

 
And Mark Elijah Rosenberg (Founder of traveling NYC theater venue Rooftop Films) loved it:

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.

 


 
As you may have read in the Filmmaker Mag interview, Lowery’s film began as a webisode series which he abandonded after a single episode (below). I think its safe to say that that this kind of lyrical minimalism–which can be hypnotically immersive in a dark theater–is not served well by web-browser distribution.
 

 
St. Nick will be playing with Lowery’s 2010 short, Pioneer, “in which singer-songwriter Will Oldham tells the most epic and touching bedtime story ever to a wide-eyed little boy, who hangs on every magical word” (Steve Dollar).
 
Oh and David Lowery handmade these DVDs as a ReRun Theater giveaway (via his blog):

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