After a few rounds on the festival circuit, you start to wonder if the road to indie inauthenticity is paved with Southern accents. “Tennessee” is a banner example of the type of film that aims for grit and heartstrings by way of regional blue-collar misery and ends up seeming as genuine as a McDonald’s sweet tea. The second film from Aaron Woodley, who’s actually Canadian so Canadian he’s David Cronenberg’s nephew is indeed about Tennessee, along with New Mexico, and the states through which you’d have to drive in order to get from the latter to the former. In “Tennessee,” all marriages are abusive, everyone drinks their liquor straight and someone can be treated for leukemia without losing a hair on his pretty head. The film’s about two brothers who set off on a road trip to Knoxville to find their estranged father, from whom they fled years ago when he started getting rough with their mother. But you don’t watch the film for them. You watch it, with glee in your heart, for Mariah Carey, who plays Krystal, the singin’, cryin’ Texan waitress who’s on the run from her overbearing State Trooper husband, and whose flirtatious mothering of the siblings makes you wonder if the film is going to head into “Y “Tu MamÃ¡ TambiÃ©n” realms. (It doesn’t.)
Carey is still uniquely and engagingly terrible on screen she gives every line a downward intonation, and appears to wage a continuous, Stalingrad-scale struggle not to make eye contact with the camera. But while “Tennessee” is a true wedge of country-fried cheese, it’s also too downbeat and long to be pleasantly good-bad, much less “Glitter”-worthy. At least it’s harmless, which is more than can be said about “From Within,” a horror movie from longtime cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (“Walk the Line,” “Sideways”) that also made its world premiere at Tribeca this year. Set in the oppressively evangelical Grovestown, where they for real still burn witches, the film begins with a guylinered teen shooting himself and kicking off a rash of supernaturally induced suicides. (The first being his girlfriend, worth a mention only because she’s played by Rumer Willis, who’s been touted as one of the film’s big names despite essentially having the Drew Barrymore role in “Scream.”) The lynch-happy townsfolk blame the family of the woman they groundlessly killed before for being different who, it turns out, actually was a witch, and whose craft is fueling the J-horroresque curse killing off the town’s residents. Derivative scares aside, “From Within” has one of the most egregiously awful portrayals of Christianity I’ve ever seen, one so over the top it’d be silly if it also weren’t earnestly ugly faith is used to justify monstrous hypocrisy, cruelty and an avalanche of white-trash stereotypes. I’m cheerfully atheist and still found myself getting angry on behalf of fundamentalists, and maybe also the Jews in the audience, who had to negotiate the sight of a rednecked-out Adam Goldberg twanging about being an instrument of the will of God (who came to him, naturally, in prison) before setting a girl on fire for refusing to pray.
“The Wild Man of the Navidad,” directed by Duane Graves and Justin Meeks (who’s also the star), is a welcome palate cleanser, not the least for being in on its own joke. Produced by Kim Henkel, the writer/producer of 1974’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” the film’s a low-budget, lo-fi look at a mysterious creature wreaking havoc on a small Texas town. The pacing’s erratic, most of the cast is blatantly nonprofessional and the monster looks like (and may in fact be) a dude wearing a pile of animal skins and antlers. It’s all part of the deal “The Wild Man of the Navidad”‘s a deliberate stylistic echo of a ’70s horror b-movie, and while it’s more funny than frightening, it maintains its own oddball Texas-gothic rhythm. Meeks, awash in flop sweat, plays Dale S. Rogers, forced by circumstance to allow people to hunt in family land occupied by the creature. Eyes darting, he nervously takes their money and sends them off to be slaughtered, while in the background his cockeyed Mexican manservant molests Rogers’ wheelchair-bound wife. At the town’s cafe/bar, the grizzled locals swig moonshine and start to wonder where their friends are disappearing to. There’s not an epiphany in sight.
[Photos: “Tennessee,” Lee Daniels Entertainment, 2008; “From Within,” Burgundy Films, 2008; “The Wild Man of the Navidad,” Greeks Productions, 2008]