The line-up for Helvetica at South by Southwest this year became its own joke. It's a documentary about a font; what better place for its debut than an audience of computer nerds (for SXSW Interactive) who dig visual design and film nerds (for SXSW Film) needing a break from torrents of either earnestness or blood? But you don't have to be a nerd to like Helvetica -- well, scratch that; you do, a little bit, but you are, so it's okay. And frankly, by the standards of film-festival documentary (which can often be wrenchingly grim or navel-gazingly narcissistic), Helvetica's the feel-good, high-concept movie of the year.
Written and directed by Gary Hustwit, Helvetica seems like a pretty narrow-focus idea; but, then again, you could also argue that one of the best things documentary film can do is go from the micro to the macro -- looking at one story to see where it connects with all stories. And with Helvetica, thanks to Hustwit's clean lines of narrative and intellectually playful style, we get a great look at the universality of Helvetica as a typeface and how, after it was unveiled in 1957 and hailed as a miracle of modernism, it became the unofficial font of official activities. Hustwit's camera noses through a variety of urban landscapes and shows you just how omnipresent Helvetica is -- traffic signs, logos, official notices, storefronts.