AUSTIN If there were any doubt about the vitality of the indie Texas filmmaking scene, it could have been wiped away in a few short hours Monday at the SXSW Film Festival. Chris Eska's The Retrieval, a tale of family and survival during slavery, and Yen Tan's Pit Stop, a look at the lives of two gay men in small-town Texas, are both moving and haunting without resorting to cheap hysterics.
On paper, The Retrieval bears a passing resemblance to Django Unchained. There are bounty hunters, escaped slaves, and a former slave yearning for the woman he left behind. But instead of putting it all behind a wall of attitude and action-movie violence, Eska concentrates on the bond that grows between a young black boy, Will (Ashton Sanders), part of the bounty-hunter crew, and Nate (Tishuan Scott), the former slave being hunted. Their de facto family is the heart of the story.
With Pit Stop, Tan could've taken the cliched approach to small-town gay life and filled it full of persecution and hateful people. Instead, Bill Heck and Marcus DeAnda play men who, while they don't advertise their sexuality, they don't hide it either. Both are recently out of relationships -- one was married to a woman, the other seemed to just drift apart from his partner -- and are lonely. Yet, it's not quite as simple as packing up and moving as their lives are in this town. They actually kind of like it there even if, to big-city mindsets, it might seem oppressive.
While Tan is based in Austin, there is a Metroplex connection: North Texas filmmaker David Lowery co-wrote the script. Tan and Lowery were able to give a depth to a story that is once simple and complex. Eska, who got a lot of notice for his acclaimed drama about an undocumented worker, August Evening, has made another film about family in tough times.
Tan, Lowery, and Eska have bright futures in front of them. With any luck, North Texas audiences will have the chance to see both of these films soon.