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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Wednesday, November 29, 2023
South by Southwest 2019 - the annual arts festival - was held in Austin this month.

SXSW 2019 Film: ‘Greener Grass’ and ‘Villains’

“Greener Grass” is an absurdist comedy directed, written and led by Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe. Originally a short film, DeBoer and Luebbe turned it into a full-length narrative feature film due to its positive reception.

The premise is fairly simple: two women living in a tidy neighborhood with a series of events that pushes one of them to the brink. Despite that simple synopsis, there are several absurd events that warp this mundane plot and setting into a hilarious and provocative film. Given that upper-middle class, white suburban life is a default setting for the depiction of American life in the media, it’s brilliant to use it as a platform for this niche style of comedy. 

DeBoer and Luebbe gave a Q&A after the screening in theater, in which they explained that they would write out a completely ordinary scene, and then throw in an absurd twist. However, they were careful to avoid the random without a purpose. Most of their absurd elements were to dissect aspects of social norms and suburban life. Both the creators grew up in the Midwest and wanted to play into the idea of excessive politeness that motivates a lot of the odd decisions the characters make. The movie begins with the two lead women, Jill and Lisa (DeBoer and Luebbe respectively) watching their children play soccer. Within the next few minutes, Lisa compliments Jill’s baby to which Jill insists Lisa takes the child. 

That is one of six outlandish events that take place. It’s far better to be caught off-guard so I will not discuss the rest, but they vary between shocking, embarrassing or truly outlandish. This world has few rules in terms of realism despite its guise, and the audience is quickly shown that nothing is off limits — keeping them fixated.

"Greener Grass" is a short film turned feature-length comedy by writter/directors Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe.

Other than those six events, the film refuses to spare the audience of uncomfortable moments and not wasting any opportunity to get shots of extreme close-ups of a twitching mouth or awful makeouts. 

One of my favorite scenes is at a four-way stop where everyone refuses to go first in order to out-polite one another. The questioning of norms feels like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” but with a dreamy Lynchian twist (“Twin Peaks” was credited as being a major influence). The dialogue embodies forced social cues like excessive apologies or being over complimentary, all delivered with a mandatory cheer that makes scenes hard to watch but feels real. 

The characters and acting are all-around exceptional from the lead women Jill and Lisa. Jill’s husband, Nick (Beck Bennett) also stood out given that he was in his element playing a peculiar character. He was given some of the best, yet strangest antics that took dorky suburban dad to that next level. What began as a fascination with the new filtered pool water turned into an obsession where he brought pool water to restaurants and froze it into popsicles. 

Aesthetically, the costumes and sets are meticulously coordinated. Each main character was always excessively donned in his or her set color. This film pays sharp attention to detail in every aspect from specific acting choices to each shot. Despite being an independent film with a small budget, it managed to be just as compelling and memorable as any other big name film — if not more.

Arts - Villains.jpg
Jules (Maika Monroe) and Mickey (Bill Skarsgard) are thieves turned victims who end up in a fight for their lives in "Villains".

Next up is “Villains”— crime drama meets black comedy — directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen. The two leads, Mickey (Bill Skarsgard) and Jules (Maika Monroe), are the perfect imperfect protagonists. They aren’t too sharp and rob gas stations for a living, though their love for one another and inherently good nature is evident within the first few moments. The two barely pull-off a mediocre robbery before running out of gas in the middle of nowhere. While freaking out, Jules calms Mickey down by draping her hair over his face, which is strange and endearing — also making for a cool shot. Faced with a possible arrest, the two decide to break into the one house within sight.

The film immediately takes a dark turn when the couple finds a young girl locked up in the basement while looking for a siphoning device. This is when Mickey and Jules meet the lovely George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick) — the sadistic residents. Given how eccentric each of these couples is, the film manages to make the overarching plot (which is a bit stale) into something fresh with several unconventional elements all brought to the film by the great characters. 

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The film is mostly limited to the house of George and Gloria, which looks like the set of a 1960’s advertisement. It’s completely inviting to Jules and Mickey as they make cereal and do drugs, though they soon see the evident cracks in its all too meticulous facade. The house mirrors George and Gloria’s southern charm and pressed clothes, but can’t completely mask their unhinged psyches. 

As much as the film revolves around Mickey and Jules’ escape, it is much more intriguing in the contrast between the two couples. Luckily this film had no shortage of outstanding performances. Monroe and Skarsgard give each character their respective quirks and personalities with great physical acting. Moments such as when a partially incapacitated Jules flops around the floor or Skarsgard's uncomfortable facial expressions were some of the most amusing. 

George and Gloria offer a different type of appeal, one that nails the wholesome American stereotype. Both offer such an exceptional performance that makes every antic or escape plan Jules and Mickey craft ten times better. George’s southern charm adds so much comedic value that you can’t help but laugh when he treats his hostages as some mundane task. 

Molly Carmichael is a music columnist for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of her work, click here.

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