From Indie Chic to Indie, Sheesh

Independent films, once examples of a maverick-style approach to cinema, have become increasingly predictable. Here are some of the most original and derivative indie pics from recent years.
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008

Have we seen this movie before?

Opening scene: A teenager's bedroom. Walls plastered with posters for cult bands. The soundtrack plays a cut from an equally of-the-moment musician. The credits roll as if someone doodled them in a spiral notebook, in a jittery, animated font. The plot has to do with some form of family dysfunction, social transgression or adolescent self-discovery. While it reaches its darkly funny or just plain dark conclusion -- often by way of a zany, epiphany-filled road trip -- its protagonists one-up each other in pop culture references that are by turns obscure and painfully hip.

Call it "There Will Be Hamburger Phones": More than 20 years after American independent cinema entered its latest Golden Age, what started as a fiercely autonomous cinematic response to Hollywood and its dominant genres has become a genre itself. And like all genres, the indie aesthetic is rife with its own versions of the hackneyed conventions, tired tropes and cliched themes that weigh down the most predictable action spectacle or by-the-numbers rom-com.

Dysfunctional family? Try "Rachel Getting Married." Disaffected teen? Meet "Donnie Darko." Sexual taboos? "Tadpole's" got 'em. Sly references to pop arcana and sardonic humor? Go, "Rushmore"! Hipper-than-thou soundtrack? Listen to "Garden State," it'll change your life. Llamas and recreational drug use are optional. An overarching tone of ironic detachment is not: Irony is to the indie what the horse is to the Western and the rain-slicked street is to the noir thriller.

To its credit, "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" -- Hollywood's latest example of indie chic -- wears its irony lightly. Audiences charmed by the teen romance, which stars Michael Cera and Kat Dennings as mutually music-obsessed sweethearts, might have a vague sense of deja vu watching the clubland picaresque. There's the shaky-line opening credits, a soundtrack dominated by such musical acts as Band of Horses, Devendra Banhart and Vampire Weekend, and Nick's battered yellow Yugo. Unpopular, unattractive and adamantly uncool, the Yugo may be the perfect indie prop, projecting both winking nostalgia and low-tech authenticity in one efficient, ultra-ironic package.

Could the yellow Yugo be this year's hamburger phone? The hamburger phone, of course, was the ultimate indie signifier in "Juno," the sleeper hit of 2007 and itself an extended riff on established indie tropes and themes. Written by a onetime stripper (indie bonus points!), "Juno" featured most if not every indie cliche in the be-doodled book:

· Taboo subject? Check: Teen pregnancy.

· Quirky young protagonist? Check: Spiky, cracking-wise adolescent heroine.

· Hip music cues? Check: Soundtrack by the cult band Moldy Peaches.

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