SXSW Review: Loves Her Gun

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Loves Her Gun

Yeah, she loves her gun all right.

Well, not really the gun itself. What the protagonist of Loves Her Gun really loves is the feeling of security and power a gun gives her. She sleeps better at night knowing it's there in case she needs it. She's no gun nut -- she's just wants to stop being afraid. Can't blame her for that, right?

Austin filmmaker Geoff Marslett has delivered a stunning new film with Loves Her Gun, a stylish and captivating mix of two genres: twentysomething angst-fueled indie drama and horrifically timely message film. Plenty of movies have shown us aimless young adults indulging in Austin's slacker milieu, but none do so as tragically as Loves Her Gun. The movie deservedly won the SXSW Louis Black Spirit of Texas Award earlier this week.

The woman who loves her gun is Allie (Trieste Kelly Dunn), a young Brooklynite with no job and no desire to keep dating her annoying boyfriend. After a brutal assault, she ditches her life in New York and hitches a ride to Austin in an RV with her friend Xoe (Ashley Spillers) and Xoe's fellow members of a karate-themed rock band.

Like many new arrivals in the River City, Allie has no job and no plans; Austin is more of an escape than a destination. She couch surfs in the home of band member Clark (Francisco Barreiro), whose crush on her is obvious, and takes a backbreaking job with landscaper Sarah (Melissa Hideko Bisagni).

Allie tries to settle into her new surroundings and enjoy Austin's famously laid-back vibe and party culture, but memories of the assault haunt her. By night, she can't sleep for fear of another attack; by day, she's exhausted and stressed, and no less afraid of being victimized again. When Sarah suggests Allie buy a gun to protect herself, she isn't interested at first, but the adrenaline rush of target practice and the secure feeling of a gun in her hands change her mind. When in Texas, do as the Texans.

Loves Her Gun

The gun makes Allie feel safer, but it also complicates her life and brings about a reckless change in her personality; once a victim, she's now an aggressor. This is the heart of Loves Her Gun: Allie's story is, of course, the story of America's gun culture. But the film is no preachy diatribe against guns; Loves Her Gun is more complex than that, blurring the line between rational fear and paranoia, making us sympathize with Allie's fears and not condemning her for wanting to feel safe and empowered. Its tone is more observational than partisan.

Much of Loves Her Gun will look familiar to any fan of films about aimless twentysomethings. There is plenty of relationship drama and career uncertainty, as the characters' stumble through their young adulthood. But we see all this angst through a much darker lens than usual; the party scenes and half-drunk conversations have vaguely disturbing undertones, and the threat of violence lurks in every corner. Loves Her Gun is no quirky mumblecore story filled with self-absorbed complaining about about first-world problems. It's much grittier, and the problems it addresses -- domestic violence, for one -- are agonizingly real.

From its title to its climax, Loves Her Gun is also a deeply ironic movie, paralleling the mind-boggling irony of America's gun laws and attitudes about firearms. Allie buys a gun to feel safer, but it makes her less safe; anyone familiar with gun-related statistics knows this is true in any household where there are guns. (If you own a gun, you're three times more likely to be shot than if you don't.) Allie is amazed that in Texas, she can buy a gun very easily but can't buy beer after midnight; this situation reflects countless other absurd gun laws in a culture that requires us to register our cars but allows no-questions-asked gun sales and encourages people to pack heat wherever they go.

More than anything, Loves Her Gun skillfully nails the bottom line of why there are so many guns in America: we're afraid. Fear -- not happiness or love or any other positive emotion -- rules Allie's life the way it rules the lives of many Americans, often with tragic results.

Although a bit unpolished here and there, Loves Her Gun works fabulously in many ways -- a terrific, bitingly observational script, gorgeous and unusual cinematography (Austin's natural beauty and funky charms seldom look so rough and unfriendly) and direction that never drags. There also are great performances all around, but the film's driving force is Dunn's scarily familiar portrayal of Allie. She demands our sympathy as a victim of violence, but isn't always likeable; she has too many sharp edges, a streak of irresponsibility and a sometimes needlessly combative nature. Yeah, Allie's beautiful -- but she's hardly an ideal person to date (if she loves her gun, she loves little else). Dunn skillfully plays down Allie's physical attractiveness while playing up her abrasive, somewhat distant personality.

As both a life-in-Austin indie and a piercing social commentary, Loves Her Gun is gripping and thoroughly entertaining cinema, the sort of unnervingly real, thought-provoking movie that does the Austin film industry proud. It deserves a wide audience for its unfortunate timeliness, but also for its art.

Austin and Texas connections: Loves Her Gun was filmed mostly in Austin. Marslett lives in Austin, as does most of the cast and crew. Fans of Austin film might recognize supporting actors John Merriman, Heather Kafka, Chris Doubek, Jennymarie Jemison and Byron Brown. Musician Jon Dee Graham appears briefly as a concerned bartender. The band in the movie, The Karate Kids, is based on Marslett's band of the same name.

Loves Her Gun screens at SXSW again on Friday, March 15 at 4 pm at the Topfer Theatre at ZACH.