SXSW Review: euphonia



We live in a noisy world, but how often do we really listen to the noise?

The unnamed teenage protagonist of euphonia listens often, to the point of distraction and obsession. Writer/director Danny Madden's film follows the teen as he tires of the dull noise of suburbia around him and, armed with a handheld sound recorder, searches for better sounds.

The teen (played by Madden's younger brother, Will) records sounds as he ventures around his suburban neighborhood and the downtown area of an unnamed city. He records an all manner of sounds, such as the noises made by hitting objects with sticks, rustling leaves, students reading poetry in class, gurgling fountains, traffic, children playing and street musicians. When he begins dating a girl in his English class (also unnamed and played by Maria Decotis), she hesistantly lets him record many of their conversations also.

The teen uses his recorder as a means to connect with the world around him and, eventually, to separate himself from it. As he builds a library of sounds, he finds himself more connected to the sounds than their sources, drifting away from reality and distancing himself from the monotony of his life.

euphonia may be short on story and in length (it's a mere 53 minutes), but it's long on provocative themes. The most obvious theme is the way modern technology filters human communication, separating people while bringing them together. The sound recorder could represent any modern form of communication -- a cell phone that makes communication easier but reduces it to terse text messages, or a social network that reunites old friends while limiting their interaction to comments on each other's posts. Many scenes in the movie hint at the decline of actual conversation in favor of quick, distant, abridged exchanges of information.

The film also is a study in obsession, as the protagonist pays rapt attention to his recordings and panics when the recorder malfunctions or its batteries die. He's obsessed with sound, but even more so with controlling which sounds he hears; the recorder is his gatekeeper as he obsessively tries to assemble a perfect soundtrack for his life. There is great irony in this aspect of euphonia: The protagonist uses the recorder to escape his boring teenage life, only to become entrapped in the alternate reality (or at least the alternate soundtrack) he creates.

euphonia explores these themes with great finesse and startling originality. It's beautifully shot, a visual and aural meditation that conveys its story and ideas with minimal dialogue. I'm always a sucker for lingering shots and quiet moments, and there are plenty of the latter in euphonia despite its often cacophonous soundtrack. The relationship between the two leads works well also; it's engaging and believably awkward, and Madden and Decotis are terrific in their roles. I hope to see more of them in the future.

euphonia of course relies heavily on its soundtrack, and I'd bet that the filmmakers spent as much time (if not more) mixing the sound as they did shooting and editing. The result is an interesting collection of music and crystal-clear noises emerging from the din of civilization, with subtle sounds like footsteps, shuffled papers, and various taps and clicks amplified and exaggerated to great effect. There also are clever juxtapositions of sounds and visuals, such as a housecleaning scene set to operatic music.

As with many films that seem too short, I wish there were more of euphonia, which sometimes can't decide whether it's an extended short film or an abbreviated feature. (It works wonderfully as a short. As a feature, it needs a bit more character development and back story.) But this is the smallest of quibbles; euphonia is a striking, thought-provoking and often mesmerizing commentary on a society increasingly reliant on technology that we think brings us closer, but may be keeping us apart.

Austin/Texas connections: Danny Madden's short (notes on) biology won the 2012 SXSW Animated Shorts Jury Award.

euphonia screens at SXSW again on Tuesday, March 12 at 11 am at Alamo Ritz 2, and Wednesday, March 13 at 4:30 pm at Alamo Drafthouse Village.