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Walk With a Wild Child (Possibly a Sociopath)

Chaos and creativity in the Zellner Bros.' 'Kid-Thing'

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., July 6, 2012

David (l) and Nathan Zellner: breaking it open to see how it works
David (l) and Nathan Zellner: breaking it open to see how it works
Photo by Sandy Carson

When you're 10 years old, every sin is original. That's the bleak truth at the heart of Kid-Thing, the lesson-free fable from Austin's Zellner Bros.

Annie, played by Sydney Aguirre, is the eponymous kid-thing. Like Pippi Longstocking without the moral center or pet monkey, she roams the emotional and literal hinterlands of youth. Ten years old, raised by her disconnected father Marvin (producer Nathan Zellner) and his equally clueless friend/roommate Caleb (writer/director David Zellner), she prowls the semirural periphery of her Texas community. Her face locked in a perpetual scowl beneath a mop of blonde hair, Annie is the eye of her own personal storm, engaging in dispassionate acts of random violence. Bugs are squished, abandoned toilet bowls hurled down off-ramps, and innocent store clerks attacked with paint balls. It is, ultimately, Annie's world – we're just ducking the broken glass and hanging up on her prank calls. For David Zellner, the tween Annie is caught at "that age when you're just figuring things out. Everything is new, and there're extremes of excitement and beauty and horror because it's all fresh and you're just trying to figure out what works and how do you fit into it."

After debuting in January at the Sundance Film Festival, the Zellners' fourth feature has been touring the festival circuit, with screenings at SXSW, Berlin, and Edinburgh, before a return to Austin as part of the Cinema East outdoor screening series (see "Nightwatch," June 8, 2012). David Zellner says he is happy even with divided audiences, "because we'd rather have someone react with an extreme emotion than indifference."

Sydney Aguirre in <i>Kid-Thing</i>
Sydney Aguirre in Kid-Thing

If fellow SXSW alum Kat Candler hadn't beaten them to the punch with her own Sundance short, this could just as easily have been called Hellion. Shot with an almost pastoral grace but filled with random acts of juvenile violence, Kid-Thing is a tale of quiet outrages. Annie is, after all, no ravening global dictator, but she's a minor menace to those around her. Her world is rich with such contradictions, like the opening scene of a mud-splattered demolition derby set to the smoky, Sixties Parisienne club tones of François de Roubaix's "Les Amis."

Yet Kid-Thing never even flirts with the idea of judgment. Even when Annie equivocates on the seemingly clear-cut decision of whether or not to rescue an old woman (Susan Tyrrell) from down a well, the film never demands yes-or-no answers. Instead, it dwells within Annie's unformed and amoral cosmos, never broaching whether this is just a phase or the birth of a mini-Frank Booth, busting heads and wrecking parties in her Blue Velvet and Red Bull haze. "It's interesting seeing people's responses. Some people see her as a sociopath, and others bristle at that name," Zellner comments. Even the soundtrack gives little clue as to whether Annie is the devil or just a wild child. Her random acts of carnage are as likely to be highlighted by dark tribal drums as by an innocent Mellotron tone. "We tried to avoid the typical bad-kid performance that you'd see on the Disney channel," Zellner says. "We wanted to have the same expectations that you would have from a good adult performance, and since there were so many long takes we weren't going to be manufacturing the performance with editing."

As the least experienced member of the cast, that means the movie hangs off of Aguirre's every sullen-eyed action. The Zellners already had the script ready back in 2009, when they started filming the video for "This Old World" for Ola Podrida. Although they didn't know it, that four minutes of banjo-driven folk became a dry run for Kid-Thing. It was their first time working with Aguirre: They knew her through her father and, even though she was not an actress, Zellner notes, "We just thought it would be fun to do this video with her." In it, she stalks the bushes, baseball bat in hand, clad in what would later be Annie's trademark airbrushed T-shirt, wreaking carnage by the riverside under the freeway. "We realized that she would be able to carry the feature because we needed a kid that, one, would be easy to work with and, two, could express a lot with a little." says Zellner.

It's a mostly silent performance, as Aguirre storms through the undergrowth and parks like an infant juggernaut. "What she brought to it in particular was that she was very athletic, which we loved, because it gave her character more of a physicality." Annie is resolutely a tomboy, Zellner continues: "Because we wanted to focus on the age right before puberty, right before kids become more identified with the gender tropes of boys doing what boys are supposed to do and girls doing what girls are supposed to do, and it's just kids at play. It put her in this transitional state that was more interesting to us." It didn't hurt that the brothers gave Aguirre the opportunity to rip loose on the world, a one-girl demolition derby. "She had such a ball," says Zellner. "This sanctioned destruction that she could take part in was such an adventure for her."

Annie's story is about the creativity of boredom and isolation, and that's something David and his brother Nathan could relate to. Raised in semirural areas of Colorado before decamping to College Station and Austin, David Zellner notes, "Much of our youth was spent playing in the woods, roaming around on BMX bikes and just exploring, testing boundaries." Did they ever reach Annie's level of chaos? "Nathan and I weren't bad kids at all," he says, "but for every kid there's something satisfying about breaking things, because you want this sense of control and sense of power." Even though the Zellner Bros. trade on their sibling brand, they still know Annie's sense of distance. "Everyone experiences some form of isolation at different points in their life. It's a fine line between loneliness and solitude, when you're off in the woods exploring by yourself."


Kid-Thing screens as part of Cinema East, Sunday, July 8, 9pm. Yellow Jacket Stadium, 1156 Hargrave.

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