SXSW Film Review: 'Faults'

Cult deprogramming gets sinister in Riley Stearn's feature debut

Think carefully about every action you have ever taken. Is it because you wanted to do it, or because somebody made you do it? Or, more terrifyingly, because someone made you want to do it?

Faults begins as a sad face clown comedy, reminiscent of early Wes Anderson. Former celebrity cult deprogrammer Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) is now a down-at-heel schlub stealing complimentary breakfasts from hotels as he tries to schill his latest book in seminars.

Writer/director Riley Stearn's feature debut locks Ansel in a seedy motel with Claire (Stearn's wife Mary Elizabeth Winstead) after he is hired by her parents to deprogram her. They're a Leave it to Beaver-via-Reagan nightmare: The father (Chris Ellis) believes he can bully his daughter back into loving them, while the mother (The Mindy Project's Beth Grant) is a portrait of pinch-faced and glassy-eyed desperation. It almost makes sense that Claire would run away, but when Ansel starts the deprogramming process, her clear-eyed dedication to Faults and its mysterious leader is unnerving.

Stearns patiently strips away the extra characters to show the simple two-hander at Faults' core. Winstead is not a puzzle for Ansel to solve, and she imbues Claire with a mix of innocence and calculation as he works to undo their damage.

Meanwhile Lerner, like Dick Miller (star of SXSW doc That Guy Dick Miller) is one of those immediately recognizable but far from famous actors. That's what they used to say about his ER costar William H. Macy before Fargo and Pat Healy before Complicity. He understands that Ansel is, at heart, a good man who may be the only person in the room who understands the seriousness of what they're undertaking. He is buffoon as shaman, and when the layers he unwraps on Claire's psyche get darker and more disturbing, he makes an astounding transition to tragic hero.

Produced by the prodigious Keith Calder (and featuring a darkly hilarious cameo by his You're Next star AJ Bowen), Stearns' graduation to the feature leagues may be the most quietly impressive since Craig Zobel opened up the Great World of Sound at SXSW in 2007. The calm way that he melds the often disparate tones of the story to create something that is by turns disturbing and humorous, but constantly plausible, makes the former Austinite truly one to watch. As for Faults, its powerful third act reveal makes it one to watch and watch again.


Narrative Spotlight, World Premiere
Thursday, March 13, 9:30pm, Topfer

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South by Southwest, SXSW, SXSW 2014, SXSW Film 2014, Faults, Narrative Features, Riley Stearns, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Keith Calder, AJ Bowen, Leland Orser

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