You never know when you're going to get blindsided by a very good film, especially if you're fortunate enough to attend film festivals like Toronto, Sundance, and/or South By Southwest. Sometimes that "ultra-hot ticket" delivers a big fat dud of a film, and other times you just find yourself sitting in front of a film you know nothing about -- and it's just freakin' great. Such is most certainly the case with Aaron Schneider's Get Low, an excellent little dramatic piece that's awash in humanity, warmth, insight, and wit.

But I lied a little in that last paragraph: Prior to seeing Get Low, I was aware of one thing -- and that was the cast. Like most movie fans of a certain age and attitude, I'll see anything that Bill Murray shows up in. Anything. I also knew that Sissy Spacek and Lucas Black, two very fine actors, were also involved, and that just raised my interest a little more. But the reason I skipped over the Ellen Page roller-derby film and the new Ricky Gervais satire can be summed up in one name: Mr. Robert Duvall.
To most people, Robert Duvall is either A) Tom Hagen from The Godfather and The Godfather: Part 2, or B) that rascally character actor who's always welcome when he pops up in a movie (which is often). But Mr. Duvall (along with Gene Hackman) has been my favorite actor for just about two decades. The man never overacts, he never steals moments from his co-stars, he's always a welcome sight, and he's practically always the best thing in the films he does.

Turns out there's a lot more to like about Get Low than just another fantastic Robert Duvall performance.

The film is about a miserable old hermit who has lived in an isolated cabin for the past 38 years. On the rare occasion that Felix (Duvall) wanders into town, the citizens are content to ignore, mock, or harass the old man. But when he catches word that an old friend has passed away, old Felix starts to hatch a plan: He aims to pre-pay for his own funeral, which isn't all that crazy an idea, but he also wants to be there for the "funeral party." He even wants the unkind townsfolk to attend the party and share all the crazy stories they may have heard about creepy old Felix.

Is he a fugitive? A murderer? Something worse? And here's a more interesting question: Why would a man who hated people for 40 years ... all of a sudden yearn for so much gossipy company? It's clear that Felix has some ancient skeletons in his closet, and he's hoping that someone out there can help him come clean. Perhaps it will be the kind-hearted young mortician (Black) or the desperate funeral director (Murray)? A few clues can be gleaned from a loyal old friend (Spacek), a concerned priest (Gerald MacRainey), and a no-nonsense preacher (Bill Cobbs), but ultimately the task must fall to Felix himself; he must clear the air about his checkered past, but the hard part is finding anyone who'll actually give a damn about his story.

Barring a few minor gripes (a pair of quick subplots that just vanish, for example), movies like this one are why I go to film festivals. I knew just enough to have my interest piqued, and then I got blindsided by a quiet little movie that certainly doesn't feel like a directorial debut. Get Low is low-key, sincere, and satisfyingly confident in the way it tells the tale of these small but compelling people. What some may dismiss as trite or schmaltzy I'd call heartfelt and fairly restrained -- and if you're not interested in Felix's third-act revelations by the time they arrive, then you'll probably get a little misty-eyed due solely to Duvall's masterful performance.

Director Aaron Schneider places his melancholy fable in 1930s Tennessee, and his attention to period detail is nothing short of impressive. Not only is the film beautiful to look at, but the first-time director also has a canny sense of timing, whether he's focusing on a slight Bill Murray eye-roll or a mild plot divergence we didn't see coming. The film allows for both quick, sly moments of humor and longer, quieter moments in which (for example) Duvall and Spacek share a bittersweet reunion.

At its worst, Get Low is yet another showcase for the seemingly inexhaustible Robert Duvall, plus his supporting cast is aces across the board. At its best, the film is a heartfelt and surprisingly insightful story about pain, guilt, loss and loneliness, and how -- if we're lucky -- it's never too late to earn a little friendship and forgiveness.