SXSW report: ‘Midnight Special,’ ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople,’ ‘Don’t Breathe’

Julian Dennison and Sam Neill in ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’
Julian Dennison and Sam Neill in ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ Sundance

Richard Linklater isn’t the only Texas director who had a highly anticipated film at South by Southwest this year. While Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! was a hot ticket Friday night, fellow Austin-based filmmaker Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, making its North American debut Saturday night, was one of the movies packing them into the 1,200-capacity Paramount Saturday night.

Unlike Linklater though, Nichols — who has only directed three films up to now — isn’t too well-known outside of film enthusiasts. But his movies — Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories, and Mud with its notable performance from Matthew McConagheyare renowned for their intense, personal style and American heartland settings.

Yet his fans had reason to be a little concerned about Midnight Special. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Joel Edgerton, and Michael Shannon, it’s his biggest and most special-effects-saturated film and it’s made for a major studio, Warner Bros. But they can rest easy.

While perhaps different in scale from his other works, this tip-of-the-hat to the ‘80s films of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter is still very much a Nichols movie at its core. The story of a boy (Jaeden Lieberher) with strange powers who is being pursued by a variety of forces, it’s an enigmatic chase movie across the South — with aliens and explosions. It will be intriguing to see how it plays when it opens April 1.

If this is still too much for some of his fans, his next project, Loving, is more down to earth. Due for release later this year, it focuses on Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple in 1958 given a prison sentence in Virginia for being an interracial couple.

In this sci-fi thriller, a father and son go on the run after the dad learns his child possesses special powers. The father risks everything to protect his son and help fulfill a destiny that could change the world forever.

Straight Outta New Zealand

Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the latest film from Kiwi director Taika Waititi (who made the cult film What We Do in the Shadows and helmed episodes of Flight of the Conchords), has been a favorite and it’s easy to see why. Screening Saturday at SXSW, it’s a funny, crowd-pleasing road movie of sorts about a flinty elderly man (Sam Neill) and his adopted 13-year-old son (a fantastic Julian Dennison) on the lam in the New Zealand wilderness.

It’s Waititi’s most mainstream movie and that description might turn off some of those who’ve followed his career but, as with Nichols, it still has its maker’s touch, as well as what should be a career-launching performance from Dennison. It’s the kind of film that could blossom from an arthouse into a crossover hit. His next film though is a superhero movie, Thor: Ragnarok. We’ll have to see how much of his voice remains in that one.

Back from the ‘Dead’

Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez seems to be moving in the opposite direction. He created buzz with his first, low-budget project Panic Attack! which got him the job as the director of the unnecessary Evil Dead reboot. Now, he’s left franchise-land and is back on firmer footing with Don’t Breathe, which was billed at SXSW as “Untitled Fede Alvarez/Ghost House Thriller.”

Taking place mostly inside one ramshackle house in Detroit, it stars Stephen Lang as a blind veteran and his dog defending themselves against three intruders. While there are parts that strain credibility, it’s nevertheless a tense 90 minutes of suspense and jump-scares. Welcome back, Fede.

Cary Darling: 817-390-7571, @carydar