The Genre of Indie Films Vol. IV: The Branching Paths of Indies
The quirky indie is a full-on genre, but that doesn't mean there isn't anymore innovators.
This month, we’ve been going through a brief history of independent films, looking at how and why the art-house and stylized independent films of the ’80s and ’90s turned into the quirky hipster indies of the 2000s. In case you need a recap, be sure to check out part 1, part 2, and part 3.
We’re finally in the present. In the age of Millennials and streaming, there isn’t a shortage of independent films. However, there is an increased divide between the quirky mainstream indie and the more niche independent feature.
Balancing The Power
A while back, I discussed how new film studios were disrupting Hollywood by backing new directors with substantial budgets, producing original screenplays, and going after niche markets. That disruption, caused by studios like Blumhouse, A24, and Netflix, is what’s creating the current environment of independent films. Blumhouse and A24 act as the 2010s equivalent of Fox Searchlight Pictures, operating as the tastemakers of independent films, but allowing filmmakers to have much more creative freedom. Rather than push for obvious marketability, those studios want solid ideas and vision. At the same time, audiences are much more likely to see independently made features now than they were ten years ago because of Netflix’s streaming services. Not all of those films will be critically acclaimed or financially successful, but they will keep the indie film market alive and well. The question then becomes: What kind of films are driving the independent scene?
Right now, there are basically two branches of modern indie films. One is spearheaded by the same studio system that orchestrated the hipster film boom of the mid-2000s; they’re the manufactured mass appeal “cult classics” aimed at marketability and winning high-profile Hollywood awards. The other branch is the modern arthouse, the auteur and passion driven projects that are adored by cinephiles and update the style of indie films rather than just regurgitating it.
The Modern Nostalgia: Making It All Look The Same
Picking up from where Juno and Garden State left off, the quirky indie darlings of the 2010s are still all about the feeling of nostalgia, but now they’re tailored to the Millennial generation. They’re much more deadpan and lo-fi, which is a result of the Mumblecore movement, and often less overtly stylized. They take certain aspects of Dogme 95’s stripped down approach and focus on when the mundane becomes traumatic. They also share many of Jim Jarmusch’s sensibilities in that they focus heavily on youth, or how youth affects adulthood, and use the same kind of dark and deadpan humor to flesh out the characters. Those aren’t bad things, and those qualities could (and often do) make substantial and compelling films. The problem modern mainstream indies have is that they use those qualities as their substance rather than to express their substance. Jarmusch and the directors involved with the Dogme movement were trying to subvert the mainstream style of filmmaking because that style didn’t fit their stories or vision. When major studios co-opted the independent movements of the ’90s, the stories became standardized for the sake of winning Academy Awards with significant financial returns.
Case in point: Lady Bird. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig and produced by A24, Lady Bird was a coming-of-age tale of a teen girl who wants to experience love and go to college in New York City, far away from her hometown of Sacramento and her domineering mother. It was a fine film, and that’s exactly what you expect it to be from the trailer. I thought it was alright, and I know that some people adored it. I understand how it could be viewed as a story about class and culture in America, and I also fully understand and accept that it’s an important film for female audiences. However, I can’t fully grasp its significance in that regard. That said, I genuinely don’t think it was exemplary in any real way.
Lady Bird was the culmination of all the various big studios influencing the direction of indie films for the past 15 years. It had the quirky ennui of Garden State, the loving, but volatile familial relationships of Little Miss Sunshine, and the pithy suburb teen angst of Juno. Lady Bird, regardless of Gerwig’s intentions, was another example of the mainstream homogenized indie darling. Lady Bird wasn’t daring, and I don’t think it was trying to be. I don’t think it was really asking audiences to “go” anywhere they hadn’t been already or believe anything they hadn’t considered previously. Instead, it was built on audiences recognizing the sameness of Lady Bird and relating it to their own experiences with their mothers, teenage years, school life, or money issues. Mainly, Lady Bird worked because it was, in all honesty, standard fare as far as the substance and filmmaking go (I’m too diplomatic to call it generic).
Despite having all the humble earnestness of a Jarmusch film, Lady Bird was not made for general audiences; it was made for festival and Academy voters. It was released in early November (peak Oscar season), and hit the ground running with positive hype from its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. Lady Bird, compared to a film like Moonlight (another A24 coming-of-age film with a similar background), is part of Hollywood’s indie genre. Films of that genre are heavily formulaic, but they get by on the strengths of the cast’s performances, and because no critic or casual filmgoer wants to be the one who didn’t like it. At this point, we should stop saying these films are offbeat; they’ve all been following the same beats for years now. Fortunately, for the filmmakers behind these indie darlings, that’s a beat that mainstream Hollywood is comfortable with. Lady Bird grossed over $73 million against a $10 million budget, and received five Oscar nominations. It won two Golden Globes, and has a 99% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes.
For comparison’s sake, consider the film The Diary of a Teenage Girl. That film, like Lady Bird, is about a California teen, Minnie, who wants more out of her life, and who wants to feel like an adult by exerting her own independence. Minnie conflates adulthood with sexuality, and ends up in a relationship with her mother’s boyfriend as a result of trying to be the woman she thinks she wants to be. To clarify, it’s about a 15-year-old who has a full-on sexual affair with a man in his late 30s, while the man is dating her mother. It also has some impressive visual sequences when Minnie, an aspiring cartoonist, lets her imagination blend with the real world.
It’s not a 1:1 comparison, but as far as female-centric coming-of-age films set in Northern California go, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is much closer to the spirit of independent films that began in the ’70s and flourished in the ’90s. It takes chances and is unapologetic in the sense that it is not made for everybody. Lady Bird is more of the Hollywood genre of indie that is made for accolades and safe returns.
The Hollywood indie genre won’t stop anytime soon. It’s too lucrative, and often their only crime is that they are too by-the-numbers to push films forward in the same way that the independent films did before them. Again, none of that is necessarily bad; however, it does speak to how major mainstream studios learned how to make independent movements into their own marketable genre.
Learning To Love Arthouse Genre
I have to stress this point: independent films are alive and well. Quirky indie films aren’t always bad, but Hollywood is producing its own genre of quirky indies that aren’t made for anything but gaming the system. That said, the past few years have seen a widespread return to independent films garnering acclaim for being fresh, well-made, and raising the standards of modern filmmaking. Whiplash, Moonlight, and Boyhood all show that there is still room for actual independent filmmaking, and that that kind of filmmaking still has the power to push boundaries— just as much as the Coen Brothers and Soderbergh did when they first started out.
More than anything else, the return to actual independent studios has greatly benefited genre films. It’s been a slow grind, but 2011s Drive signaled a return to the ’90s era of independent features. As a blend of neo-noir, crime, action, and a bit of romance with tight cinematography and a strong mixtape soundtrack, Drive could have easily been a contemporary of Pulp Fiction. Drive got more attention than a film of its kind normally would because it starred Ryan Gosling. When it did well, everybody took notice. It wasn’t a bombastic film, and it worked because it wasn’t something audiences had seen in while. Drive, with its synth-laden soundtrack, quiet lead, and stylized, but violent action sequences, led to John Wick and Atomic Blonde, as well as the modern action film. Its ’80s inspired aesthetic predicted the current infatuation Hollywood has with the ’80s, and helped it stand out from the tired “one man army” films that had been fairly stagnant since the early 2000s. Basically, Drive did what mainstream indies fail to do and what ’90s independent films did all the time: it pushed the conversation of film forward.
Horror films have also been pushed forward by independent films. Thoughtful, deeply cinematic, high concept horror films are seeing a resurgence because of independent films. 2015s The VVitch and 2017s Get Out, distributed by A24 and Blumhouse respectively, cemented the end of the found footage horror craze of the mid-2000s, and made horror films as artistic as they were in the ’70s. Arthouse films, like The Neon Demon, aren’t always financially successful, but they still work to offset the oversaturation of sterile indie darlings as their influence drifts toward the mainstream.
So, What Now?
With all that, I feel like the Garden States have been pushed out by The Big Sicks for now. Eventually, there will be a slew of somber lo-fi romcoms about interracial relationships. Filmmaking, like every other aspect of pop culture, is cyclical, and there will always be an audience for the more mainstream stuff, as well as an audience for the arthouse.
Obviously, the point of all this wasn’t to be a complete history lesson, and it certainly wasn’t to condemn major Hollywood studios for trying to make money. They figured out the game, and that’s their job. However, I hate that so much attention is being put toward films that are tailored to resemble the cult classics and independent films that I love without actually advancing film as an art form. I hate how once independent studios were bought so that Hollywood could lessen the competition and churn out easy profits, but I get why they did it.
I wanted to get to the root of why the phrase “indie film” conjures images of two late teens/early 20s leads smiling at each other while a terrible anti-folk band plays in the background. Hopefully, I did that, and I suppose, if anything, the point of this series was to stop crediting imitators with innovation. That’s a difficult thing to do with art, but I don’t think that means we shouldn’t try.