Break Point, directed by Jay Karas
I Believe in Unicorns, directed by Leah Meyerhoff
Joe, directed by David Gordon Green
Day seven at SXSW was bookended by two films dealing with troubled boys looking for surrogate fathers. In between, a teenaged girl, desperate to get away from a life of caring for her wheelchair bound mother, takes off with an older boy.
In most respects, the Jeremy Sisto vehicle Break Point is a conventional sports dramedy. Sisto plays a talented but obnoxious tennis pro who has to reconcile with his estranged brother (David Walton) since no one else will partner with him. What we need to know about tennis can be summed up in one sentence for each brother. Sisto's character leads the qualifying circuit in aces and double faults. His brother once volleyed for five minutes to win a single point by waiting for his opponent to make a mistake.
We know from the start that the brothers will each have to become a little more like the other, but the formula is slightly complicated by a middle school student who latches on to Walton's character after he does a substitute teaching gig. The boy lives with his grandmother, claiming to be an orphan, and it is clear that he also needs to be a little bit like both brothers. Nearly everything I said about Chef applies to Break Point as well. The adult-child interactions are the best parts, and it is surprisingly sweet for the eighty percent that is not needlessly crass. Sisto's character is a prototypical example of the emotionally arrested man-child who is never quite as charming in real life as he is in the movies. But Sisto has charisma to burn, and as far back as I can remember (like Six Feet Under) he's managed to make jerkish behavior feel like a cry for help.
Gary (Tye Sheridan) doesn't know how to cry for help in David Gordon Green's Joe. His father is a mean drunk who beats him. His sister has turned mute and is not that far removed from becoming catatonic. Joe Ransom (Nicolas Cage) is willing to give him a man's job and a fair wage, but when he sees Gary's father beat him he remarks only that "I can't get my hands dirty about every little thing."
Joe has done some proverbial hard time for assaulting a police officer. Jail has not exactly rehabilitated him, but it has taught him that "restraint" is necessary to stay alive in a world where power is threatened by whoever or whatever refuses to simply take abuse. This quality of restraint he defines—quite accurately, actually—as "the reason why most moments I shouldn't do what I want to do." It is the difference between saying "most" and "all" that provides the film's impossible dilemma. Is it never right to act on violent desires? Even in self defense? Even to save the innocent?
Based on a novel by Larry Brown, Joe presents as bleak a portrait of human nature as you are likely to see. It also presents a man and a boy struggling against the rage that is within them that is constantly struggling to express itself in violence. Abuse isn't constant, but the threat of it is. Consequently, dread grows steadily.
Given the relentless nature of Gary's father and Joe's oppressors, a violent end appears inevitable. The only real question is who will succumb to his inner demons first, and whether anyone will be saved when the weak bonds of restraint are finally loosed.