Indie Focus: Festival faves 'Midnight Special,' 'My Golden Days' and more hit theaters

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen, and welcome to your weekly field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

My colleague Steve Zeitchik and I were just in Austin, Texas, at the energizing and inspiring South by Southwest Film Festival. It was a jam-packed few days with high-profile premieres from films such as “Everybody Wants Some,” “Keanu,” “In A Valley of Violence” and “Sausage Party,” plus exciting discoveries with “Miss Stevens” and “Jean of the Joneses.”

And I moderated an hourlong conversation with “This American Life” host Ira Glass. A film he produced, Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice,” was one of the highlights of the festival.

We’ll have more screening and Q&A events coming soon, so check back at for more info.

Nonstop movies. Movies nonstop.

‘Midnight Special’

Among the films at SXSW was the North American premiere of “Midnight Special,” the new film from Jeff Nichols. It’s a bold, ambitious movie with vision and emotional heft starring Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton and Adam Driver in the tale of a young boy with extraordinary powers and the adults who surround him.

“‘Midnight Special’ announces the arrival of a filmmaker in total control of his technique as well as our emotions,” wrote The Times’ Kenneth Turan in his review. “A bravura science-fiction thriller that explores emotional areas like parenthood and the nature of belief, it’s a riveting genre exercise as well as something more.”

In the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “This is a film that generates much of its suspense through genre sleight of hand. If I even try to tell you what kind of movie it is — crime story, road picture, science-fiction allegory, religious prophecy — I might be telling you something you’d rather not know just yet.”

In an insightful interview with Emily Yoshida at The Verge, Nichols described how he matches storytelling and technical prowess when he said, “My characters aren’t chess pieces. I don’t move them around some big board. I actually care about these fictitious people.”

Steve Zeitchik also wrote about the film, and as Michael Shannon said to him of Nichols, “The first time Jeff mentioned ‘Midnight Special’ to me, he described it as a chase film where I’d be driving a cool, old car late at night — and that was about it. He saw the film very clearly even without knowing what it was about.”

‘My Golden Days’

Recent winner of the best director prize at France’s Cesar awards, Arnaud Desplechin is simply a gem. The film he won that prize for, “My Golden Days,” is something of a continuation of his earlier “My Sex Life … How I Got Into An Argument,” but entirely self-contained and totally fresh. It’s a story of the first true love for the character of Paul Dedalus, played as an adult by Mathieu Amalric and as a young man by newcomer Quentin Dolmaire.

“The story is straightforward; the telling, less so,” said Manohla Dargis in her review for the New York Times. “The brilliant French director Arnaud Desplechin likes to mix lofty touchstones with George Clinton beats. … There’s a restless intelligence to his sampling, which always feels organic, experiential instead of merely ornamental. In ‘My Golden Days,’ which largely takes place in the 1980s, every musical, literary and fashion cue speaks to the moment when Paul began a feverish love affair.”

As Kenneth Turan put it in his Times review, “Film has always been especially effective in portraying what it can feel like, what it can mean to be in love, and ‘My Golden Days’ is right up there with the best of them.”

I’ll be publishing my own interview soon with Desplechin and Amalric, but Justin Chang at Variety had his own conversation with the director. As to the way in which the film connects adulthood to adolescence, Desplechin said, “I guess it’s coming from a worry that I have — this idea that you are not sure that you have your own identity, that you are not sure who you are, etc. It’s a crisis that we go through when we are adolescents.”


The winner of the grand jury prize at last year’s SXSW, Trey Edward Shults’ “Krisha” is just now hitting theaters. A bracing drama of addiction and its impact on family, the film was, as Shults likes to point out, made at his mother’s house starring his aunt.

In his review for The Times, Robert Abele said, “This astonishing debut feature offers a simultaneously dread-filled and empathetic picture of a damaged soul.”

Richard Brody in The New Yorker said, “Fairchild, who performs like a counterculture Gena Rowlands, is irresistibly passionate and volatile even in repose, and Shults displays a bold visual and dramatic sensibility with his impressionistic rearrangement of time and his repertory of darting, whirling, plunging, and retreating camera moves, which seem to paint the action onto the screen.”

“Our limitations helped make this special,” Shults said to the AP’s Jake Coyle. “Everyone has a unique life. Everyone has something unique around them. Maybe that doesn’t mean cast your aunt and mom and grandma in the lead roles in your movie, but who knows. Get creative and let the limits spur that creativity.”

Steve Zeitchik profiled the real-life Krisha Fairchild last year at the Cannes Film Festival. “I’m not like my character,” she said to him there. “Maybe a little. The big personality part.”

‘Too Late’

A low-budget Los Angeles-set detective drama written and directed by Dennis Hauck, “Too Late” is formally ambitious and driven by a moody lead performance by John Hawkes. In the film, Hawkes plays a local P.I. who is drawn into a case that turns unusually personal. The story is told in a series of one-take scenes that each last the length of a projected reel of a 35-mm film print. (Nerd alert: The film is even debuting in 35!)

In the Hollywood Reporter, Sheri Linden noted “Hauck injects just enough weirdness to brush the cobwebs off even the most clichéd of his five settings.”

“You’ve seen a lot of movies like ‘Too Late,’ and yet you haven’t,” wrote Michael Nordine in LA Weekly.

I spoke to Hauck last year when his film premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Of his decision to shoot on film and even make the length of a film reel into a structuring device, he said: “I look at it, and it looks better to me. It just feels special to me, like a real movie. I love cinema, and I don’t want it to be made up of the same raw materials of zeros and ones that everything else in the world is made up of these days.”

‘The Clan’

There are just so many terrific movies opening right now, even we can’t quite keep up. One movie not to overlook is Argentine filmmaker Pablo Trapero’s “The Clan,” which picked up a best director prize at last year’s Berlin Film Festival. Based on a true story, it features an absolutely ferocious lead performance by Guillermo Francella as a man who tries to turn a kidnapping ring into a family business.

In Film Comment, Mike Sragow said Francella’s performance is “one of the damnedest things you’ll ever see — and I do mean damnedest. Few actors have made evil so insidiously accessible.”

The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin noted Trapero’s muscular, assured filmmaking by saying, “There’s such an irresistible, black-hearted swagger to his latest that Martin Scorsese would immediately recognise a kindred spirit. Effortless tracking shots, spasms of sickening violence and a perfectly pitched jukebox soundtrack are all conspicuously and stylishly deployed, sometimes all at once.”

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter @IndieFocus.

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