Except for a few remaining truly independent distributors, the major studios' specialty divisions—the arm that releases foreign films and what has been dubbed the "mid-size" movie (i.e., Lost in Translation, Sideways, et al.)—now virtually determine what audiences see of what we still think of as American independent movies. In other words, the studios nearly control the system that was supposed to represent an alternative to them. If an American indie movie doesn't have a name filmmaker or stars who have taken a smaller paycheck to work on it, if it doesn't create a buzz at Sundance (or is rejected by Sundance), its chances of getting a distribution deal are pretty much dead.
Consider the case of Kwik Stop, the first film by the writer-director Michael Gilio, who is also one of the leads. Here are the accolades the picture has won: a best director award at the Buenos Aires International Film Festival; a special jury prize at the St. Louis International Film Festival (full disclosure: I was on the jury that awarded the prize, and I and other jurors have since been thanked in new end credits); a rave from Roger Ebert, who included the film in his Overlooked Film Festival and who, when recently asked to pick one film from the seven years of that fest to screen at Chicago's Gene Siskel Center, chose Kwik Stop; an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Gilio as "Someone to Watch"; inclusion by Variety on a list of five "great films that demand distribution."
And even with those prizes and high-profile endorsements, Kwik Stop was rejected by Sundance and turned down for distribution by the major studios and the indie studios. What would have helped? "All I needed, I was told," says Gilio, "was to get famous."
Now, five years after the submission to Sundance, iFilm has released Kwik Stop on DVD (though no retail deal has been made and the film is available for purchase only online; I ordered mine from Amazon). DVD may turn out to be the way some American indies that get praise and no distribution will be seen, as it was with Demane Davis and Khari Streeter's Lift. While I don't want to sound churlish to iFilm, it's a sad state when DVD is the only available forum for a new movie. An indie scene that can find no place for a Kwik Stop because it has no stars, because it is too original, is an indie scene that should be taken behind the barn with a shotgun.
It's easy to get fooled by the surface of Kwik Stop—the semi-deadpan tone to some scenes; the debt to road-movie iconography—you think that you've seen its like before. It takes a while to realize that this is a road movie in which nobody goes anywhere—at least nowhere they want to go. That may sound like a hipster device for defusing audience expectation à la early Jim Jarmusch (or, as Jarmusch did, making fun of having any expectations at all), but in Gilio the ironist is trumped by the romantic humanist. Kwik Stop doesn't deny the dreariness of its settings: the diners, convenience stores, sleazy bars, seedy hotel rooms trying not to look seedy. Yet, Gilio never makes you feel as if you're trapped in the dinginess. He can see the tacky beauty of a mirrored ball above a motel bed or a mobile of stars and planets above a makeshift crib. Gilio refuses to ridicule his characters for dreaming of the stars. He's one of those rare directors who can call his characters on the lies they tell themselves and still show them affection.
The chief liars here are Lucky and Didi (played by Gilio and the miraculous Lara Phillips). He's the typical small-town hot shot who's imbibed every rebel stance he can lay his hands on from Henry Miller to James Dean to Harvey Keitel. With his dark curly hair and baby face, Lucky is a poser naif—all his talk about heading for Hollywood to become an actor is just that. Fresh from shoplifting at a convenience store, he picks up the teenage runaway Didi and she enters into his orbit, which consists chiefly of endless talking about starting out for California and then getting sidetracked by some foul-up.
The interchanges between Gilio and Phillips, and later between Phillips and Rich Komenich as the alcoholic widower Emil, are amazing. They have the humor and melancholy of people standing next to one another yet communicating via crossed wires. Gilio is sensitive to the rhythms of performance, allowing his actors space and time to develop scenes, and smart enough to treat himself as just one part of the show. Phillips, who can scrunch up her face like a kid or look weary beyond her years, gives one of the most accomplished and unheralded performances of the last 10 years. By all rights, Didi should be annoying, with her sudden bursts of energy and the self-conscious little-girl squeal that sometimes creeps into her voice. As Phillips plays her, we can sense the brains behind her Betty Boop affect. You know she's going to wise up soon, and you can sense how she's trying to delay that inevitability. And, as Emil, Rich Komenich uses his bulk as the baggage of sorrow, and nothing is sadder than the smile that occasionally lights up his face. It puts the rest of his existence—a good man killing himself by increments—into relief.
Gilio shows a director's eye in the composition of shots, whether he's shooting power lines and suburban houses, or two profiles in close-up. The framing is striking without unduly calling attention to itself. The cinematography, by David H. Blood, gives lie to those who excuse indie-movie drabness as an acceptable consequence of a low budget. Talent and ingenuity are all it costs to get felicities like the streak of late afternoon sunlight that, in one shot, plays along the fringe of Phillips' bangs.
There are some American indie directors who have managed to keep making movies their way, like Jim Jarmusch (who graduated from his deadpan hipness to the poetry of Dead Man), and others who have managed to move between indies and major studio movies, like Richard Linklater. But instead of indie movies being a chance for directors to prove themselves and bring their talents to better-financed, more ambitious movies, indie movies now function largely as the farm team for the major studio franchises and blockbusters. Indie success is now when a lousy movie like Memento enables the director to make a bigger, even lousier movie like Batman Begins. The system that was supposed to bring small American movies to the audiences waiting for them is broken. The five years it took for Kwik Stop to see the light of day shows why it needs to be fixed. Now.