There was a time when you had to search high and low to find an indie film. Occasionally one would pop up on TV late at night but apart from that, it was a case of catching it at a select cinema or finding it hiding at the back of a DVD shop. LoveFilm came along and made it more possible to get your hands on more independent films. Now with the ease of video streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, it is far easier to scout out indie films.
Additionally these streaming companies also fund and back a lot of smaller independent projects. This has resulted in a rise in indie dramas, particularly with Netflix who put a lot of money into indie ventures. With more independent films more easily accessible, better funded and with a bigger reception, I thought it would be a good idea to highlight a handful of indie titles, which have stood out to me. All bring something new to the genre of indie but share similarities, whether that be their focus on character’s relationships, a journey undertaken or the underlying tone of the piece.
Lily Tomlin really excels at playing characters who don’t give a shit. Or more accurately, characters who conceal their true sensitive emotions by acting like they don’t give a shit. Her role of Frankie as a bohemian old hippy in Grace and Frankie prone to bouts of fiery passion was highly entertaining and refreshing.
In Grandma, Tomlin plays a more angry and cantankerous version of Frankie. Tomlin tends to play unusual characters or rather, ones that challenge stereotypes. Elle is precisely that. She is a washed-up poet in a relationship with a much younger woman. She is a mother and grandmother but still dresses like a 1970s rocker and drives around in a vintage car.
In the first ten minutes of the film we learn two things. Her brash and blunt personality on the outside and her vulnerable and sensitive on the inside. This is a theme that persists throughout the film. In a nutshell, her granddaughter turns up pregnant asking for money for an abortion. Elle doesn’t have any and so the two must go looking for more help.
A simple task becomes a hot mess, as each avenue they pursue either results in a highly comical sequence or one that is fraught with emotional gravitas. It is a road trip film with a twist where the main set of characters are forced to look at themselves and others. It is a film about understanding people, while simultaneously not being able to understand them and that is the beauty of Grandma. It is real, raw and resonating.
2. Wind River
Harsh, unforgiving and perilous. The story of Wind River pretty much embodies the setting it is based in with its cruel and unflinching style. Set on an Indian reservation, it follows the story of Cory, a tracker and hunter who discovers the body of a native American woman frozen in the snow. This sparks a murder investigation, introducing Jane, an FBI agent sent there to crack the case. As the case unfolds we learn more about Cory and his own tragic past and how it relates to the death of the young girl.
Everything is brutal about Wind River, from the gruelling weather and unforgiving landscape to the nasty villains and broken victims. It is an uncompromising film, which has a constant sense of dread and despair throughout the run time. It is well worth a watch, as the acting and writing is phenomenal. Visually, it is interesting how the tough terrain and environment is so prevalent that it becomes a character itself. Be warned though, it is very harsh in places and doesn’t hold back, making it a tough watch.
3. Adult Life Skills
Adult Life Skills the story of Anna, a thirty-year-old woman living in a shed at the bottom of her parent’s garden. Although she has a job that she is sufficiently skilled in, Anna hasn’t properly grown up. She makes her own films and relies on her mum for clean laundry. The film is full of light hearted humour from her peculiar ways to the other strange characters that she works around.
Yet there is a hidden tragedy beneath all the surface humour. By adding a reason and a poignant one at that, what first comes across as a funny situation soon develops into a very sad one. The sections of the film where you see things from the perspective of Anna’s mother, illustrate how her daughter’s behaviour has a wider impact. There is a nice balance between humour and drama, which results in the film being realistic and relatable.
Her sort of love interest Brendan is an interesting character. An estate agent who has bigger dreams of making it big as writer, Brendan is the opposite to Anna. Like her, he is a creative and imaginative person, but has sidelined his dream for boring adult stuff like his job and having a house. Anna on the other hand shies away from adult responsibility, distracting herself with making short films in her shed. There is a nice interplay between the two characters. Anna reminds him of the importance of having fun and not being too serious. Alternatively, Brendan imparts on her the importance of growing up and facing the harsh reality of life.
With a strong supporting cast and an impressive performance from Jodie Whittaker, Adult Life Skills is an enjoyable warm comedy with hidden depths.
4. To The Bone
When you are writing a story about eating disorders, it is very important that you get the tone right. It is a hard one to tackle because I still think a lot of people don’t realise just how much of an issue it is. To The Bone sets out to do just that. At the start we see Ellen becoming so thin and weak from lack of eating that her parents make her go to rehab. The character of Ellen is done very well. Despite having the eating disorder, it seems that she is the only character who has any brains or sense. Her parents and everyone else around her treat her differently, exacerbating the problem.
Her sister and later Dr Beckham become people who treat her normally and speak sense. The film is a journey. It sets off to explore her eating disorder but soon goes beyond that to explore the bigger issue underlying it. The other people she meets with similar disorders open the issue up, so it explores the theme on a bigger level. This gives To The Bone a level of realism and relatability. Of course, this is a film about eating disorders but it is also about people. It achieves both and for that reason it is well worth your time.
5. Me and Earl and The Dying Girl
Another film that deals with a serious matter. Like 50/50, it isn’t the fact that one of the main characters has cancer but more the impacting fact that the recipient is extremely young. Me and Earl and The Dying Girl is told from Greg’s perspective, which makes the subject matter more impacting as viewers watch Rachel grow more ill through his eyes. Although the main drive of the film is Rachel’s diagnosis and her coming to terms with it, the film also explores Greg’s struggle with his own identity. What sets it apart from other films is that he and Rachel start off not being friends. Although they grow to like each other, Rachel feels like a pity case and Greg can be selfish.
Earl is a clever character because he acts as a buffer between the two and characters such as Mr. McCarthy exist to offer advice and a reality check. Greg and Earl’s hobby of comically remaking well known films provides an escape and distraction for Rachel and so the two set out to make her another one. Me, Earl and The Dying Girl is sweet, funny, and heartbreaking but with enough quirkiness to stop it from becoming soppy or generic. It takes a sensitive subject and exposes it raw but that’s a good thing because those raw, unhinged moments in the film provide the realism of the situation.
6. The Fundamentals of Caring
From Easy Rider to Wild Hogs, everybody loves a road trip film. This addition has a unique twist. Ben, played by Paul Rudd, takes a care worker job after suffering a personal tragedy. The job involves looking after a disabled young man named Trevor, played by Craig Johnson. Rudd and Johnson have a great rapport, the mixture of American and British humour balanced well. The confrontation and connection the two have with one another is reinforced by the fact that they both speak honestly and to the point.
The focus is primarily on Trevor and his fear of the outside world, but Ben’s personal tragedy is also explored. This coming to terms with and acknowledging of their respective issues allows for an introspective journey. It is also extremely funny with a suitable number of laughs to stop it from being too drama intensive. Both Rudd and Johnson give beefy performances, alternating from making you cry with laughter to simply making you cry. An extremely cathartic and enjoyable road trip film.
7. The Road Within
Technically another road trip film, The Road Within explores the story of Vincent: a young man with Tourette’s syndrome who has recently lost his mother. Not knowing what to do, his father sends him away to a clinic. There, Vincent meets Alex, a boy with extreme OCD and Marie who is anorexic. Angered by the loss of his mother and his father’s solution, Vincent plans to escape. Marie and Alex end up splitting with him and the three steal a car and hit the road.
The story of Vincent and the stuff he is coming to terms with would be enough, but the inclusion of Marie and Alex adds that extra layer of character depth. It also provides for some hilarious scenes, where their various conditions cause them to act out, much to the amusement of the others. For all their jesting and teasing, there is a sense of kinship between them.
They each have one another’s back and although there are moments of confrontation, ultimately, they are there for one another. Just while their actions may seem irresponsible, the film clearly highlights how special the three runaways are. All three conditions could be explored solely in their own right but it’s the culmination of them together which has its effect.
8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
“I didn’t choose the skux life, the skux life chose me”. One of the many memorable lines from a truly memorable film. When I first saw the trailer for Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I was hooked for two reasons. One, it had Sam Neil in it and two, it was directed by Taika Waititi. His previous film was What We Do In The Shadows and his latest is Thor: Ragnarok. Hunt for the Wilderpeople follows Ricky Baker, a young teenager who has been in social care for some years. In a last-ditch attempt, the child protection services deliver him to Hec and Bella, an older couple living in the New Zealand outback.
Hec and Ricky are opposites. He is loud and asks many questions, whereas Hec is grumpy and introverted. When Bella dies, the child protection services come to take Ricky away, so the two decide to run away. What plays out is one of the funniest chase films of all time. The pair jump from one hilarious situation to the next, encountering strange, weird and completely bonkers characters along the way. Paula from the child protection services is overly aggressive in her pursuit for the child, parodying such classics as The Fugitive and Rambo with great effect.
The dry Kiwi humour is infectious with some great dialogue exchanges and speeches. All this plays out to the backdrop of the New Zealand outback, which is breathtaking to behold. There are countless nods to classic films and pop culture of earlier decades, which add that extra layer of entertainment. Amid all the laughter is a sweet story between a young boy and an old man.
Ellen Page is something of an indie legend. From playing a pregnant teen in Juno to hitting the Roller Derby in Whip It, she has done her fair share of independent films. Tallulah is a young woman recently separated from her long-term boyfriend and now living almost homeless. Through a series of encounters, she ends up babysitting a toddler for a busy mother. Seeing how the child is ignored and not parented properly, she decides to run off with the child.
She ends up running into Margo, her boyfriend’s mother and the two end up forming a bond. It is a difficult film to watch, but not because it isn’t good. If anything, it is too good. Tallulah has good intentions but doesn’t always make the right decisions and despite how touching her relationship is with the child, the uneasiness that it will come to no good lingers throughout. Both Tallulah and Margo are characters who are missing something: Tallulah tries to fill that absence with the toddler; Margo tries to find purpose in her career. Their loneliness and sense of isolation is well focused and despite their rocky start, they soon form a bond that is tight.
This in itself doesn’t particularly set it apart from other indie dramas. However, the included narrative of her taking the son away from the mother adds tension and dramatic suspense. Tallulah is about broken characters and the means they resort to, in order to make themselves feel better.
10. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
To everyone who has woken up one day, suffered several annoyances in a row and felt the desire to take a shotgun to the next moron who tries it on, I don’t feel at home in this world anymore is a must watch. The main protagonist is perfectly cast, helped by the fact that the actress is not hugely famous and known for playing slightly meek, unassuming characters. This allows the writer and director a good amount of time to build up her internal anger and rage.
The film is not merely a chance to enjoy some cathartic release. It is also very funny and quirky. Her neighbour, Todd, played by Elijah Wood, is a heavy metal Kung fu fanatic with a rat tail haircut. Despite his weediness, he has a surprising amount of courage and balls, making for some truly hilarious encounters. His slightly unhinged attitude helps bring the main character out of her shell and having him by her side gives her the strength to take matters into her own hands.
After having her laptop stolen, which is the final straw in a series of unfortunate events, she tracks them down using an app. What originally starts out as a basic pay the bad guys a visit and retrieve her laptop turns into a wild goose chase after the laptop is passed on. Her drive to see it through and Wood’s sheer insanity make them resort to extreme measures, which is where the film suddenly becomes very dark. There is still humour, albeit black, but the consequences to normal human beings trying to tackle things on their terms is severe. If you like dark and satirical humour with a slight bleak quality, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore will appeal to you.