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UT movie aiming for the festival circuit

Shot in 2008, Austin crime drama 'Dance with the One' is the latest feature from the University of Texas Film Institute

Chris Garcia
Gabriel Luna, right, with Mike Davis, is affecting as a young man trying to escape a troubled family.

The independent film scene is awash in grainy, small-scale personal movies tracing the romantic foibles of the post-collegiate crowd and the existential crises of the disaffected. From "The Puffy Chair" and "Beeswax" to "Frownland" and "Goliath," they are microbudget movies featuring nonprofessional actors and a semi-improvised approach whose antecedents include the do-it-yourself films of John Cassavetes and Richard Linklater's "Slacker."

The modest success of these films — they're more culturally influential than lucrative — has shaped what the educated viewer looks for at indie-oriented film festivals. They seek the offbeat and unpredictable, almost anything that flouts Hollywood molds, even at the expense of conventional visual "beauty."

Despite this climate, the producers of the low-budget crime thriller "Dance With the One" aspired to make a more traditional picture, a straight-faced genre film with love, drugs and guns set in contemporary Austin. Shot in the summer of 2008 and now being submitted to film festivals, "Dance With the One" is the first feature by the University of Texas Film Institute since ending its four-year partnership with the now-defunct Burnt Orange Productions. (As partners, the institute and Burnt Orange produced such films as "The Quiet" and "The Cassidy Kids.")

"The script demanded that we take a different approach than many low budget films you see these days," director Mike Dolan says. "The story wouldn't work without a real commitment to production design and cinematography. Fortunately these are elements of the craft that I love."

Dolan, who as an actor co-starred in the feature films "Hamburger Hill" and "Biloxi Blues," claims the neo-noirs "At Close Range" and "One False Move" and the unvarnished realism of the Ken Loach oeuvre as influences — "low-budget, hard-driving narratives that have a truthful and emotional heart ... (and) a stripped-down, muscular vibe," he says.

"Dance With the One" was rejected by this year's Sundance Film Festival, though the festival programmer noted that the film's "execution was exceptional." Alex Smith, the institute's creative director, surmises the movie was turned down "because it is more 'earnest' than 'hip.'\u2009" The filmmakers are awaiting word if it will play South by Southwest in March.

Based on a script by Smith Henderson, a graduate of UT's Michener Center for Writers, and his writing partner Jon Marc Smith, "Dance With the One" stars a mix of non-professional (UT graduate theater student Xotchil Romero ) and professional actors (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson of "Friday Night Lights") to tell the story of a young man (piercing newcomer Gabriel Luna) whose dreams of escape from a troubled family are violently complicated by drugs and thugs. The twang-tinged score was produced by Austin musicians Bukka Allen and Brian Standefer, and the soundtrack features songs by the Black Angels, the Damnations, Doug Sahm and Roky Erickson.

"The story has a ton of heart and true Austin grit," Smith says. "It has outstanding Austin talent, in front of the camera and behind it. I'm particularly proud that every key creative choice was made by a UT student or recent alum — from script to direction to cinematography to editing to the score to casting — yet never once does it feel like a student film."

On the set of the film in the summer of 2008, Smith explained to me, "UTFI is a way to bridge the gap between film school and the professional film world. So this is a hybrid of a student film and a professional film. It's student-made, but without the pressures of the marketplace."

"Dance With the One" was shot in 22 days with a roughly $200,000 budget funded by UT, grants and outside donors, with no promise to make the money back. Some on the production were paid; students received course credit. The producers — Smith, the institute's executive producer Tom Schatz and the institute's academic coordinator Bryan Sebok — say the film won't get a theatrical release, opting for new distribution models of cable, video on demand and DVD.

The institute's program is on hiatus until it finds money to finance another feature, Schatz says. They are considering several "promising" scripts, says Smith, including a "rock 'n' roll horror comedy musical and a modern, urban Bonnie and Clyde dark comedy."

While partnered with the for-profit fund-raising arm Burnt Orange Productions, the institute produced four features, none of which found much commercial traction, contributing to the demise of Burnt Orange. Only "The Quiet" was theatrically released. Met with scathing reviews, it made but a third of its estimated $900,000 budget. "The Cassidy Kids," "Homo Erectus" and "Elvis and Anabelle" were never released theatrically and have effectively vanished into VOD and DVD obscurity.

The filmmakers have higher commercial hopes for "Dance With the One."

"It doesn't pull its punches, yet it's very moving and never over-the-top," Smith says. And the fact that it lacks the trappings of the contempo indie "will make it a film with a long shelf life."

"Maybe the programmers at some festivals aren't going to like it," Dolan says. But he's sure the typical moviegoer will.

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649