SXSW ’12 Review: Seduced by Cameras, Andrew Neel’s “King Kelly” Finds a Spotlight

All our SXSW 2012 coverage can be found here.

If there was a reason to fear a feature film that bills itself as the first to shoot entirely on camera phones, “King Kelly” alleviates them pretty quickly, although that doesn’t mean it’s not horrifying in other ways. Opening with the sight of a live sex chat, a blonde (Louisa Krause) simulates a sex act as a series of anonymous catcalls cascade down the side of the screen, “depositing tokens” to show their approval and posted more and more graphic emoticons from dogs humping to nuclear explosions. Kelly, herself, is a ball of energy, clearly getting off less on the sexual act than the attention and even once her webcam stops rolling, she can’t help but pick up her iPhone to document her every move.

Screenwriter Mike Roberts and director Andrew Neel definitely give her 24 hours worth following, even if Kelly is so immediately detestable, it’s nearly unfathomable anyone would last five minutes with her. Constantly filming material for her soon-to-launch dedicated adult website, she takes every opportunity to turn any situation into something sexually suggestive and appears not just oblivious to anything outside her own needs, but actively contemptuous of anyone else’s. It’s no wonder then that Kelly’s ex-boyfriend (Will Brill) has come to recover the Toyota Camry he claims is his at the start of “King Kelly,” a problem that metastisizes into the plot of the film when Kelly discovers she unwittingly was carrying some prized cargo in the trunk. Armed with a bag full of drugs and a best friend to share them with as well as a car, she ventures into the nether regions of the suburbs outside New York to retrieve the car, enlisting the help of one of her webcam wankers to get her out of the jam.

It doesn’t take much to see past Kelly’s bravado, the little girl lost inside the barely legal body who talks a bigger game than she actually has. But she knows her audience, which truly frightens and to his credit, Neel knows his as well. Although the shifting camera perspectives don’t always entirely make sense – when Kelly’s BFF-le Jordan (Libby Woodbridge) enters the picture, the film never gets past the question of who edited these perspectives together – “King Kelly” still strikes the right tone.

Darkly funny at times, the film gets under the skin of the party girl nihilism at play here, exposing its star in ways the camera can’t even when she’s nude. The decadence of the coke snorted and the increasing level of violence going on around her never wears on her, yet she’s inured herself to life anywhere outside of the spotlight, a friend telling her after revealing he knows of her porn presence, “I feel like I know you less than King Kelly.” He’s probably right and Krause does a solid job of revealing the vulnerability underneath Kelly’s tough skin, unwavering in her resolve and in fact doubling down on the din of outrageous schtick when the alternative of quiet anonymity is inconceivable.

Like Kelly’s façade, the use of camera phones as an aesthetic is largely an act, though the film cleverly has its characters who are less interested in self-documenting themselves surrender to the cameras’ powerful lure. With everyone up to no good, it doesn’t seem prudent for Kelly or anyone she comes into contact with to appear in footage that surely will be enough to convict them in a court of law by the end of the evening, and yet in her viewfinder, everyone feels compelled to perform and to entertain. Otherwise, it doesn’t have meaning.

For the audience, it’s one of the more watchable found footage films to date because as Neel said after the screening, much of it was filmed on the Canon Elph, a consumer-grade digital camera with a gyroscopic stabilizer that doesn’t give one that queasy feeling after it’s over. Only the girl at its center does. When she’s in the car with Jordan, trying to figure out what drug her friend is snorting, she exclaims with delight, “Ketamine… it’s going to be one of those kind of nights.” Indeed, that’s hardly the only strong stuff to digest in “King Kelly.”

“King Kelly” does not yet have U.S. distribution.