Glaring superheroes might try to tell you otherwise, but American film is about more than big-budget blockbusters. This May the American Essentials film festival aims to prove it, with a travelling showcase featuring critical hits from the Berlin, Sundance, Rotterdam, Toronto and SXSW film festivals, as well as a carefully curated selection of classics.

With films ranging from drama, mumblecore (an emphasis on naturalistic, often-improvised performances), rom-coms and music documentaries, it’s a diverse field. Festival programmer Richard Sowada says a standout thread is intimacy, especially against the current US backdrop of divisive politics.

“When I look at these films, there’s a definite movement of relationship-driven stories,” says Sowada. “What’s my relationship with the person next to me? It’s probably more defined than ever right now, where people stand and what they stand for.”

The American Essentials Film Festival runs in Sydney (May 8-20), Brisbane (May 9-20) and Melbourne (May 10-20). We asked Sowada to give us an insight into some of the festival’s best.

Outside In
Director Lynn Shelton’s low-key indie films like Your Sister’s Sister and Humpday have long flown under the radar. Her profile ought to change with Outside In, a tender drama about an ex-con (Jay Duplass), adjusting to the real world after spending half his life in prison, and his relationship with his former schoolteacher (Edie Falco).

“I love Lynn Shelton,” says Sowada. “You can see the clear artistic progression in her work from one film to the next. This is very real, solid drama. Because this team – particularly director Shelton and producers and actors the Duplass brothers– are so used to working together, there’s a real sense of family.”

Watch the trailer.

If you like this, check out: My Days of Mercy, in which a romance grows between two women on opposite sides of the death-row debate.

Pet Names
One summer, a smart but directionless grad school dropout grabs her ex-boyfriend and heads for an impromptu camping trip. The two leads played by Meredith Johnston (who also wrote the script) and Rene Cruz carry most of the film.

“This is fantastic,” says Sowada. “It really harnesses the energy of the mumblecore movement. It’s got that dry wit, very real ambience and sense of truth. It’s really refreshing.”

Watch the trailer.

If you like this, check out: The Boy Downstairs, a dry, funny indie screwball comedy starring Zozsia Mamet as a Brooklyn-ite who inadvertently moves into an apartment above her ex-boyfriend.

Never Here
A conceptual artist (Mireille Enos) finds a mobile phone in the street. Rather than return it, she makes it the basis of her next project, building a portrait of the owner from his address book and GPS data. Never Here is a thriller uninterested in supplying all the pieces. It’s more about mood,and disquieting allusions, earning comparisons to David Lynch.

Director Camille Thomas is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, so there’s no doubt that her own qualms about delving into the lives of strangers for the sake of art influenced this unsettling little film.

Watch the trailer.

If you like this, check out: Roman Polanski’s classic noir Chinatown sees Jack Nicholson as a private eye stumbling on a conspiracy. There are no easy answers in Polanski's Raymond Chandler-esque Los Angeles, and the convoluted plot is less important than the escalating danger and mood.

Mom and Dad
What else can we say to recommend Mom and Dad except it’s a wild horror-comedy with Nicholas Cage turned up to 11? When a bizarre disease pits parents and children against each other, a typical American family is torn apart. “It’s completely nuts, in a good way,” says Sowada. “It’s set largely in one house, so there’s a bit of Night of the Living Dead about it. It’s wild fun.”

Watch the trailer.

If you like this, check out: There’s really nothing else like this out there. But if you’re after something else left field, you might like I Kill Giants, a brooding, fantastical coming-of-age film about a kid escaping to a fantasy world where she fights evil giants.

Wattstax
In 1973, iconic soul label Stax Records organised a huge benefit concert to reunite the community of Watts, Los Angeles, torn apart by riots seven years previously. With appearances from the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Richard Pryor, Isaac Hayes, and the Staples Singers, the line-up of soul, jazz, gospel and funk was a force to be reckoned with. It’s now considered the “black Woodstock”. And it was caught on film, creating an amazing time capsule.

“This is one of my favourite films, so I’m excited to show this one,” says Sowada. “Not only is the music incredible, but there’s a lot of brilliant observational footage of LA at the time, and lots of interviews with ordinary African Americans talking about their culture. It’s so powerful, urgent and strong, even now.”

Watch Rufus Thomas perform at Wattstax.

If you like this, check out: How They Got Over, a chance to go even further back into black-American music with a look at the gospel scene of the ’30s and ’40s.

The American Essentials Film Festival runs in Sydney (May 8-20), Brisbane (May 9-20) and Melbourne (May 10-20). See the full American Essentials program.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Palace Cinemas.