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THE SCREENER: Septien

southern film

Discussed: Septien

directed by Michael Tully, 2011

Septien, Sundance Film Festival’s official 2011 selection, is the brainchild of writer/director/actor and Hammer to Nail contributor Michael Tully. The film follows Tully’s character, Cornelius Rawlings, after he shows up to his family’s home, where his two brothers still live, after being gone for eighteen years. Each brother is eccentric in his own way. Cornelius, who is unnaturally talented at sports, passes his days getting drunk and hustling strangers. The eldest brother, Ezra, is an obsessively neat Jesus freak. He does his best to keep order in the household—cleanliness is next to godliness, after all. The third brother is an artist; near the beginning of Septien, a shirtless Amos paints various grotesque and cartoonish figures in mostly phallic situations. These serve as a psychological display of character development—Amos has fetishes for both sports and Satan. The combination makes sense: Small towns can paint a very interesting relationship between those two things. All of the brothers seem touched by tragedy, but the film does its best not to make any of their motivations or history too obvious.

Septien’s structure is somewhat unusual. I'll admit I was a little put off at first by the film’s hesitant progression. In an interview with IFC, Tully acknowledges that this reaction might not be an unusual one—he declares that his intention was to create a film without a hook or genre, and claims that Septien would prove to be unlike any other film.

I beg to differ. I've seen plenty of films like this: slow-burning, meandering, and plotless movies set in a rural environment with eccentric leads. As I watched Amos paint in the beginning of the film, I immediately recalled a similar scene in Junebug, another film about a Southern family that mingles quirkiness and tragedy. Junebug also focuses at times on in-screen art, featuring paintings by a man named David Wark that consist of Civil War, race, and sex laden imagery in a crude and amateurish style. Cornelius's characteristic shaggy beard, tennis skills, and aviator glasses are similarly unoriginal: They can be found on another quixotic moper in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums.

 junebug      septien

(Left: Art from Junebug; Right: Art from Septien)

richie tenenbaum cornelius rawlins

(Left: Richie Tenenbaum from The Royal Tenenbaums; Right: Cornelius Rawlings from Septien)

Regardless of the film's inspirations (subconscious or otherwise) and its structure, Septien is largely intriguing, especially after a plumber and his ambiguously underage traveling companion are brought into the mix following an unfortunate septic mishap. My favorite moments from the film are when Cornelius hustles various kids for money by performing skilled athletic feats, from one-on-one basketball to soccer. Tully, as Cornelius, performs a really impressive trick shot while walking off the basketball court that was supposedly completed on the first take. 

Septien isn't as warm or inviting as Junebug; instead of a young bubbly pregnant woman, Septien focuses on a near-silent, bearded sports hustler with a mysterious past. This is ultimately to its credit—Junebug gives us a conventional glimpse of the outsider artist, but Septien embodies it.

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