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South by Southwest 2012

At SXSW, a few films have broken through the general calm.

From left, Will Brill, Roderick Hill, Louisa Krause and Libby Woodbridge in King Kelly

It takes a lot to disturb the collective cool of anything-goes Austin, where South by Southwest—the ever-ballooning music-movies-multimedia fest—kicked off March 9. But anger pierced the calm on March 11 at the world premiere of The Sheik and I, the latest provocation from cine-essayist Caveh Zahedi (I Am a Sex Addict). Commissioned by the Sharjah Biennial in the UAE to make a short film on the theme “art as subversive act,” Zahedi was given very few restrictions, one of which was to not make fun of Sharjah’s sheikh. Zahedi decided the way to be subversive would be to do exactly that—and went further, staging a broad parody of his perception of life in the Muslim world.

The Sheik and I documents that process and its aftermath. At the Q&A, outraged viewers demanded to know whether the American-born Zahedi had endangered the lives of the people who appeared in his film, while the director defended himself as testing boundaries in the name of free speech. “Would you be willing to go to Sharjah and have this conversation?” a questioner asked. When pressed, Zahedi admitted he “wasn’t paying that much attention to the culture”; he doesn’t feel understanding a place is necessary to make a movie about it.

Tabling the ethics discussion, it’s worth noting that Zahedi’s doc pushes buttons in a way that sometimes seems more willfully offensive (and repetitive) than productive. But it’s true that understanding a culture isn’t always the litmus test for whether a movie works. The most ambitious film I saw my first weekend here, Andrew Neel’s fearlessly off-putting King Kelly, aims to be the definitive portrait of Generation YouTube—despite a depiction of teen life that seems exaggerated beyond recognition.

The title character (Martha Marcy May Marlene’s Louisa Krause) is an airhead who aspires to Web-porn superstardom; she gets in over her head after serving as a drug courier. If the filmmakers can be believed [an update on that here], the movie was shot entirely on iPhones and a consumer-grade point-and-shoot Canon, mostly by the actors. The results are startling, even when the content overreaches. There’s something potent about the way the film ultimately turns on a state trooper’s own desire for video fame. (Stranger things have been documented: The Source, one of the better documentaries here, remembers the Source Family cult of the ’60s and ’70s, making amazing use of the commune’s archival records.)

A more accurate depiction of youth than Kelly, Lena Dunham’s Girls (premiering on HBO April 15) marks a big step forward for the 24-year-old writer-director-star of Tiny Furniture, who makes a bid for Whit Stillman territory in the first three episodes of her new series. The subject matter—unemployed, early-twenties aimlessness—is close to Furniture’s, but the writing is sharper, and the characters seem more removed from Dunham’s own world. Gimme the Loot, Adam Leon’s unassuming NYC indie about two teen graffiti artists, provided a homegrown counterpart. The movie’s sweetness recalls Raising Victor Vargas, even if its lack of technical polish can be irritating.

The biggest sop to fanboys was opening night’s The Cabin in the Woods, a Joss Whedon–shepherded meta scareflick that’s alternately smug and witty in its genre deconstructions. (It’s slated to open April 13.) For backwoods horror, Amy Seimetz’s eminently spoilable, Florida-shot Sun Don’t Shine offered a smarter template. Initially a road movie about a troubled relationship, the prolific actress’s debut feature reveals its plot with a minimum of exposition, in a way that feels alternately affected and realistic. Given that the normally arid Austin got drenched by torrential downpours, the title seemed appropriate.

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