It was a busy year for me at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival, as I had the opportunity to watch 16 films (17, including the 10th anniversary screening of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon). Here are my thoughts on the final three films that I had a chance to see while in Austin: Like Me, Game of Death, and The Honor Farm.
Like Me: I had absolutely no idea what to expect from first-time director Robert Mockler’s Like Me, but after seeing what he could do with his cautionary tale about the dangers of social media obsession, and how it can affect those unable to cope with the isolation it often leads to, I’m an instant fan of Mockler. Like Me ended up being the most unpredictably wonderful movie-going experience I had during all of SXSW 2017.
Like Me opens at a drive-thru window of a small-town convenience store, where a mysterious car pulls up and a timid voice inside only utters one phrase, “I want some milk.” A somewhat baffled attendant (indie powerhouse Jeremy Gardner) goes to retrieve the milk, only to be confronted by someone wearing a hoodie and mask with a gun in tow, bullying him around the store while they record everything with their cell phone.
Mockler then introduces us to the convenience store culprit, Kiya (Addison Timlin), a teenage loner who drifts from hotel to hotel, desperate for a connection that manifests itself in some very odd ways. When she’s not busy committing random acts of destruction to post on her YouTube page, Kiya befriends a homeless man and takes him to a diner, only asking for one thing in return, “Tell me a story,” and she takes another man hostage (Larry Fessenden) so that she can torture him in hopes of gaining more followers online. Kiya finds herself so obsessed with her audience that it continues to fuel her desire to go further and further, until she crosses the one line she can never come back from.
In my interview with Mockler, I said Like Me was the equivalent of a neon-soaked fever dream, and I stand by that 100%. DP James Siewart perfectly blends vibrantly colored moments of surrealism when Kiya is living in her fantasy online world with other starkly desaturated shots whenever our protagonist is puttering about in her everyday life.
Like Me soars on Timlin’s infectious performance, a delicate mix of instability and curiosity. She often dominates the screen without uttering a single word. Fessenden, who’s been an indie filmmaking pioneer for decades and always seems to pop up in a variety of projects each year, gets a significant role in Like Me as well, and he’s just as incredible here as he is in cult classics like Habit or Session 9. Kudos to Mockler for getting Fessenden to take on this part, because I absolutely loved seeing his acting talents being used to their fullest.
Movie Score: 4/5
Game of Death: If horror movies have taught us anything, it’s that when a bunch of horny teenagers get together to hang out, nothing good can happen. Such is the case in Game of Death, in which a group of friends stumble upon a dusty board game called “Game of Death” that intrigues them enough to start playing it. The rules are simple: kill or be killed. Participants have 24 hours to kill 24 people and if they don’t, their heads will explode in glorious fashion.
The concept behind Game of Death is pretty intriguing, but there’s no real mythology or logic behind the titular game’s rules, making the whole affair feel pretty unbelievable. Everything kicks off when those playing have their fingers pricked in order to join the game, and their blood awakens the mechanism, but I’m still awfully confused as to just how a finger prick can lead to your head exploding, or how a mostly sentient game (it does laugh every time a murder is committed, so maybe there’s something more there?) even knows if you’ve committed a murder in the first place, because no explanation is fully fleshed out here. And it is so frustrating, especially because I was really willing to go along for the ride, but filmmakers Sebastien Landry and Laurence Morais-Lagace didn’t seem to put an awful lot into any kind of road map for us to travel here as viewers.
And if the game itself is haunted, which I’m supposing is plausible, there’s nothing set up in Game of Death that would even insinuate that possibility, making for an experience that doesn’t seem to make a lick of sense. Also—and this is just a pet peeve of mine—there is no existing gun technology that allows someone’s handgun to have an infinite supply of bullets, and yet, one character in particular seems to have bullets to spare in Game of Death, shooting off nearly 50 different shots that I counted. I know it’s a little thing, but details like that can take me right out of any movie, good or bad.
The upside to Game of Death is that there is an impressive amount of practical effects on display, especially when heads start popping and all the gore rains down all over onlookers. Kudos to special effects coordinator Matisse Contant and his crew for pulling off an unbelievable amount of practical effects on a limited budget. Also, most of the performances in Game of Death are “fine,” but the one standout for me was Emelia Hellman, whose character’s transformation throughout the story was one of the best aspects of this project, by far.
Movie Score: 2/5
The Honor Farm: Co-writer/director Karen Skloss introduces us to best friends Lucy (Olivia Applegate) and Annie (Katie Folger), who end up having the craziest prom night ever when Lucy’s boyfriend, Jake (Will Brittain), blows it by getting supremely wasted and acting like a total jerk. Lucy, fed up with his shenanigans, hightails it with her bestie in tow, and they cross paths with another group of girls led by Laila (Dora Madison), who decide to join up for a late-night trip to the Honor Farm, an abandoned prison tucked away in the woods. Lucy and Annie take some mushrooms and bond a bit with their new friends, including JD (Louis Hunter), before they arrive at the titular location, leading to a trippy, life-changing experience they’ll never forget.
Once inside the Honor Farm, things go awry as the group splits up; Laila decides to perform a ritual to speak with her deceased cousin (and JD’s brother), while Lucy and her group come across a weird ritual involving Lucy’s dentist (Mackenzie Astin), a drugged-up victim, a baby goat, and a Hostel-style deer head mask. They must regroup and find a way out before things get out of hand.
While there are definitely some interesting aspects to The Honor Farm, it often succumbs to a lack of focus, ultimately feeling like a mishmash of five different movies with none of the elements coming together in a truly complimentary way by the end of the film. Skloss offers up a hypnotic coming-of-age tale with shades of horror—there’s some supernatural stuff thrown in, as well as a weird cultish subplot. Maybe that’s a little intentional on the director’s part, due to the fact that teenagers themselves are kind of all over the place by nature, but I just wanted more for Lucy on her journey of self-discovery than what we ultimately get here.
The film does offer up some stunning cinematography, particularly during The Honor Farm’s more surreal moments during Lucy’s fantasy, and the waterfall scenes were rather lovely as well. As far as the actors, Applegate has a natural warmth and likeability to her that made it easy for me to invest in her as a viewer, and I thought the rest of the supporting cast were solid, too.
While it may not be wholly cohesive, I will give Skloss a lot of credit for constantly defying conventions and taking some risks in The Honor Farm. They may not always pay off, but I’d rather watch a movie that tries to subvert my expectations than sit through something that just plays it safe because it’s “easier.” Skloss shows a lot of promise as a filmmaker, and I’m interested to see whatever she helms next.
Movie Score: 2.5/5
Stay tuned to Daily Dead for more of our SXSW features, and in case you missed it, check out our previous coverage of the film festival.