Writer-director: Michael Tully
Starring: Robert Longstreet, Onur Tukel, Michael Tully, Mark Darby Robinson, Rachel Korine, Jim Willingham
A unique slice of Southern Gothic that premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, Septien is sort of the embodiment of what more American indie film should be doing and trying — which is to say identifying universal themes or feelings worthwhile of exploration for the creators, and then coming at them in a roundabout or subversive manner. An off-kilter dramatic mystery that trades in low-level mischievousness, and a kind of quietly comedic snapshot of deep-fried familial dysfunction, Septien is the ultimate chameleonic cinematic experience — it is chiefly what one wishes it to be, based on their mood while watching it, and interpretation of its rhythms. Regardless, it’s sure to be unlike almost any film you see this year.
Writer-director Michael Tully stars, along with Onur Tukel and Robert Longstreet (each of whom receive story credit), as a trio of brothers, the Rawlings, who occupy a rundown house somewhere in the rural South. (The movie was filmed in Tennessee.) Septien opens with the return of Cornelius (Tully), the prodigal son who now sports a crazy prospector’s beard that makes him look like a homeless Vincent Gallo or the disaffected stunt double for Joaquin Phoenix in I’m Still Here. In the years-long absence of their brother (which he doesn’t much want to really explain), Amos (Tukel) has taken up outsider art, painting twisted and sexually perverse living hellscapes, while Ezra (Longstreet) has doubled down on henpecking oversight, and (over-)embraced his caretaker’s role by sometimes sporting dresses.
The Rawlings’ friend Wilbur (Jim Cunningham) also hangs around like a stray mutt, eventually sparking the idea for an “art party” when he finds an old, buried video camera and shoots some random footage of nature. Cornelius, meanwhile, just kind of loafs about, sleeping and occasionally hustling unsuspecting dupes in unlikely sports wagers. As the brothers — individually and collectively, but also somewhat implicitly — try to figure out if they can repair their fractured family, a plumbing problem brings an old codger, “Rooster” Rippington (Mark Darby Robinson), to their home, and in tow a young girl, Savannah (Rachel Korine), who might be but probably isn’t his daughter. Eventually, an old connection to Rooster comes bubbling to the surface, forcing the brothers to confront difficult issues and emotions head on.
Septien is, by turns, curious, bemusing, inviting, standoffish, darkly funny, quietly unnerving and pleasantly confounding — but always relaxed, and comfortable in its own skin. One’s enjoyment of it is proportional to their tolerance for — nay, embrace of — room for the delightfully unexpected in cinema. It’s not some wildly esoteric waste of time, but neither is Septien comfortable completely and solely in any of the little genre sandboxes in which it dabbles. It moves to and fro, touching on themes of repression, fraternal connection, gender identity, trauma, religion, revenge and redemption.
Shot on Super-16mm, the film feels like an assemblage of time periods every bit as much as genres, straddling various decades by largely eschewing technology, or incorporating older iterations. With an understated acting ensemble that teases along a viewer’s interest, Septien is, with just a couple exceptions (a self-conscious evocation of Of Mice and Men, for instance) a strikingly original and enchanting work, the type of which we need more of. Note: In addition to its theatrical engagements, the film is available nationwide on VOD via IFC Midnight. To follow its makers on Twitter, meanwhile, hit up @SEPTIENFilm.
Written by: Brent Simon