the genre of indie films vol.iii: following the quirky leader
With the 2000s in full swing, Garden State and Little Miss Sunshine would push indie quirk to new heights
The trek from independent and arthouse cinema to quirky indie darlings continues. In case you missed them, you can check out part one here and part two here. With the ’90s out of the way, it’s time to move into the 2000s and the age of the mainstream indie film.
Somewhere in the past fifteen or so years, Hollywood wised up to the independent scene. The big studio heads branched off to create smaller studios with the same sensibilities as their larger counterparts, keeping their eyes on two major goals: money and the Academy Awards. They bought so many independent studios and courted the once independent auteur to their big-budget productions that the independent scene and the big studio scene began to morph into one. Of those studios, Fox Searchlight Pictures, played the most significant role in normalizing independent features. They knew which films to distribute and how to make them succeed. They figured out how to game the system and created the “quirky indie” film genre with a few crucial movies. These weren’t just independently made features; they were processed, branded, and perfectly marketed niche films for the audiences that were too “cool” for regular Hollywood films.
After the release of a few sleeper hits, Hollywood developed an idea of what kind of indie movies they wanted to see in the new millennium. Thus, began the period of following the leader, and also began the period of the quirky indie film.
2004: A Doctor Makes a Movie, and a Mexican Becomes President
2004’s Garden State was the film Hollywood was waiting for. There isn’t a way to talk about the indie film as a product without mentioning Garden State. It was a Sundance selection that was purchased by Fox Searchlight Pictures and Miramax; two studios created just for major studios to be able to cash in on the indie market. It was written and directed by Zach Braff— at that point best known as the lead character, Dr. John “JD” Dorian, on the hit medical comedy Scrubs. Garden State made about fourteen times its budget at the box office, and it received strong critical reviews.
The plot was the kind of plot that over the course of the mid-2000s, became pretty standardized. Zach Braff played Andrew, a listless 26-year-old struggling actor who returns home after his mother’s death. He’s apathetic, and his life just isn’t going anywhere. Then comes Sam, who is played by Natalie Portman. She’s fun, and even though she’s a pathological liar, she helps Andrew be honest with himself and get over his issues with his father, as well as with himself. That’s the story; that’s the film, which had a subtle charm, and it wasn’t trying to be overly artistic or ambitious. It wasn’t a Soderbergh film or a Dogme film; it was a nice little movie that worked for young people and for people who were nostalgic about their youth, not to mention an exceptional soundtrack.
Garden State is what opened the door for a whole new generation of films about ennui in the digital era. It was, in some ways, a modernized and alternate version of the male fantasy that propelled so many ’80s action films. Instead of focusing on an ultra-manly superhuman protecting his territory and claiming the woman, it was a sensitive and introspective everyman who is lead by his whimsical female fantasy into being a freer and happier person. That female archetype, the character who is fun, belligerently happy, and very chic, which came to be known as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl’s only character arc is helping the male lead improve himself, and her entire personality is tailored to the male character’s growth. There’s been quite a lot said about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl over the years, but the thing that matters most in this context is how it contributed so much to the quirkiness of indie films. Elizabethtown, (500) Days of Summer, Ruby Sparks, and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World all owe their existence, at least in part, to Garden State.
2004 was also the year of Napoleon Dynamite. Postcollege aged adults may have loved Garden State when it was released, but Napoleon Dynamite worked for all ages and introduced young audiences to the idea of seeing something weird on the big screen. The film followed the titular character through his high school life in an off-kilter world that seemed to be stuck in the 1980s, despite the presence of ’90s and ’00s culture. Napoleon was a hero that audiences were immediately ready to embrace. He was far from cool in the eyes of his peers, but he was sure of himself at every turn. He and his best friend, Pedro, eventually found acceptance by winning the election for student council president. There’s also tetherball, tater tots, a somewhat faulty time travel machine, and entire sequences focusing on farming, martial arts classes, and being a door-to-door salesman. Looking at it objectively, Napoleon Dynamite is a strange film that should have failed. Instead, it became one of the most culturally impactful films of its time among younger audiences and grossed $46 million— over 110 times its budget of $400,000.
Napoleon Dynamite, like Pulp Fiction in the ’90s, got everybody talking. Not only that, it got everybody talking like the characters in the film. All of a sudden, kids were bragging about their “great skills,” insulting each other by saying “your mom goes to college,” and wearing novelty tee shirts calling for everyone to “Vote for Pedro.” Whether by accident or by design, Napoleon Dynamite managed to become an iconic touchstone in film, creating a new kind of comedy that got by entirely on the merits of its quirkiness and imitable dialogue.
Napoleon Dynamite had the same kind of earnestness that Garden State had, but to an even greater degree. It wore its oddities on its sleeve, and like the independent films of the ’80s and ’90s, was the kind of thing big studios would shy away from. Fox Searchlight Pictures had little to lose on betting on it. However, by giving it a wide release and adding in an extra ending scene after the success of its initial limited run, Fox bolstered Napoleon Dynamite to classic cult status and generated an amazing profit compared to what it spent to acquire the film.
Between Garden State (with its focus on the aimless 20-something-year-old getting over his hangups) and Napoleon Dynamite (with its focus on putting a spotlight on the lovable outsider), Hollywood had the basic formula for successful quirky indie movies. The next few years were spent adding to and refining that formula.
Everybody’s Family has Issues
The next film from Fox Searchlight Pictures that majorly influenced indies was 2006s Little Miss Sunshine. This film still stands as one of the most popular of the mainstream indies, and it made the dysfunctional family a hallmark of any self-respecting indie. Little Miss Sunshine follows a family’s attempt to get their youngest member from New Mexico to a beauty pageant in California. Hijinks ensue when the family takes to the road in their busted old van, and their wildly disparate personalities collide. It’s a fun film. At the same time, when pulled back, it sounds relatively bland— like just another road trip film. That’s not inaccurate, but Little Miss Sunshine worked because of its cast of characters. Again, it all comes down to quirk.
Putting a suicidal Proust scholar, a misanthropic mute, a heroin-addicted old man, a bullheaded motivational speaker, an optimistic matriarch, and a ten-year-old aspiring pageant queen in one van was a choice made to differentiate the film from past versions of the road trip film.
This film doesn’t have the same nostalgia for youth that Jarmusch inspired indies did. Instead, it took a Dogme 95 inspired approach and looked at the destruction a family could do to itself, but dressed it up with humor, several heartwarming moments, and an ultimately feel-good ending. That structure set the foundation quirky indie films use to this day— from The Hollars to Lady Bird.
I Bet You Haven’t Even Heard of this Band
The last significant addition to the Hollywood indie was the hipster element. The word hipster is undeniably overused, but for a while, it was one of the aptest ways to describe Hollywood’s most popular indies. 2007s Juno is basically the case study for when modern, hipster centric indies became the standard expectation for big Hollywood backed quirky indie movies. Juno starred Ellen Page as the titular character, an expectant teen who was so quirky that she had a hamburger shaped telephone, watched nothing but B-horror films and did things like set up a living room worth of furniture in her friend’s front lawn just to have a dramatic reveal.
Of course, the aspect of Juno that stood out most to critics and audiences was that the characters all talked like how smartass teenagers think they talk. Everyone spoke in romanticized quick-witted barbs. According to Diablo Cody, Juno‘s stylized dialogue was a practical choice; the dialogue was the selling point she used to get the script read by producers.
Cody’s script, with all of the deadpan quips and snappy dialogue about teens in love, as well as an accidental pregnancy added to the mix. It seemed tailor-made for the hipster audiences that Hollywood was courting. It was another Fox Searchlight Pictures release, and it made over $231 million against a roughly $7 million budget. It was nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and won for Best Original Screenplay. If Garden State didn’t cement studios’ obsession with quirkiness, then Juno did.
The other aspect of Juno that stood out was the soundtrack. Music had always been one of the most significant selling points of independent film genre, and one of the areas where they stood out most from Hollywood features. They’ve always been tied with pop punk, alternative, underground, and avant-garde music since the days of Jarmusch and Tarantino. Garden State won a Grammy for its soundtrack, and even Napoleon Dynamite opened with the White Stripes. However, films like Juno and the somewhat more obnoxious, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, were the ones that put the music choice at the forefront as a way of telling audiences: “Hey! Look at how cool we are! If you’ve heard of this band, you’re cool enough to see this movie!” The music of Juno, from acts like Kimya Dawson and Sonic Youth, was more niche than its earlier counterparts. That makes sense and ties in with how, by this point, indies were just as much about generating money as mainstream Hollywood films because soundtracks sell.
However, almost everything about the characters and the film itself seems built around justifying that dialogue and that soundtrack. Juno wanted to be as quotable as Napoleon Dynamite, and at least half as charmingly weird. Juno and the brand of films it introduced like Jennifer’s Body and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, wanted to be a cult classic, similar to the John Hughes movies of the 80’s.
Following the Leader
Curiously enough, most of these films are rooted in the same place: nostalgia. They exhibit the same kind of youthful nostalgia that Jim Jarmusch had in his films. These were movies about being young, lost, and perfectly fine with that. They were subdued, thoughtful, and as deep as the young adult hipsters that watched them— they often examined youth and family through the lens of music. There may be an argument to be made about Little Miss Sunshine, but really none of the quirky indies had characters with any kind of, for lack of a better word, edge. They weren’t self-destructive heroin addicts, they weren’t Bible quoting hitmen, and they weren’t victims of molestation; they were safe.
Hollywood, largely off the successes of Fox Searchlight Pictures, homogenized the mainstream indie film and set an expectation of what indie films should be. At this point, we should stop saying these films are offbeat; they’ve all been following the same beats for years now. However, there may be hope for a return to the era of subversive and imaginative of independently made feature films being the norm. Hollywood may be ready to move past its love of quirk, or at the very least, it may be willing to have an affair with arthouse films on the side.
With the origin of quirkiness established, I can finally move on to the present. Check out the conclusion of this series next week where I’ll take a look at how studios, like A24, and films, like Drive, may be disrupting the mainstream indie, and finally talk about Lady Bird.