Every once in a while, there is a win for small town film lovers like myself. This weekend, the local arthouse was showing festival gem BERNIE. I was ecstatic for two reasons: I’d missed the screening at SXSW and I’d get an opportunity to see a 35mm film print. Win and win. I really only knew the basics about BERNIE. It’s based on a true story, directed by acclaimed Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater (SLACKER, DAZED AND CONFUSED) and was advertised as a docu-style film similar to BEST IN SHOW. Add in Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey and I figured it was bound to be a good time. The theatre was playing the film for one weekend only, so it was do or die on this particular movie night.
Well good news, Linklater and crew did not disappoint. BERNIE is a dark comedy at its finest, especially if you hail from a small town like I do. This appears to be Richard Linklater’s specialty: being able to narrow in on the idiosyncracies that are native only to close-knit communities in the South. Even if you’re from a metropolis outside the Bible Belt, BERNIE is just fun. Linklater starts with a great foundation in this ridiculous tale based on actual accounts and creatively weaves a narrative beyond your typical 6 o’clock news broadcast or front page headline. You care about Bernie (played wonderfully by Jack Black), even though you know (well if you’ve read the synopsis or knew of the case prior) he’s committed this awful crime.
What I took away from the film most was the importance of really building the world of your film. Yes, in this case, Carthage, Texas is a real place and even features interviews with local residents, but you still leave your seat remembering the feeling of it all as if you’d been there yourself. That’s pretty impressive in a time where it seems like every other film I watch takes place in NYC or Los Angeles. Perhaps that’s why a film like DRIVE has stayed with me still. It felt like a different city in comparison to the stale Hollywood backdrop usually featured.
There’s been a lot of talk about demographics lately. We’re swimming in stats that prove women are responsible for largest percentage of ticket sales, complain about the oversaturation of films aimed at males under 25 and are dumbfounded that Black and Latinos go to the movies more than anyone else, but I wonder how much locale plays into movie going choices. As usual, my friend and I were the youngest people in the theater, but the retirees and soccer moms were laughing just as hard as we were at the antics onscreen. What was the common denominator? I believe we all saw a bit of Carthage in our our small Florida city. Perhaps this was the first time a film wasn’t a complete escape, but an inside joke between Linklater and all of us sitting in the audience.
I wrote about this idea in a post earlier this year titled I Love “insert hometown here, where I mused on the pattern of regional filmmakers like John Hughes and Barry Jenkins (and as I learned from Sundance, Lynn Shelton too) in making odes to their beloved cities on film. I’m definitely adding Richard Linklater to that list. As I slowly put the pieces together on my own feature script – a love letter to my hometown of Lakeland, Florida – these folks serve as great inspiration. Their body of work pushes me to look for the specifics that I hope will be universal, but I’m sure will hit home with the small town folks who’ve been there themselves. I can’t promise there will be any murdering morticians, though.