I think you can learn as much from watching movies that don't work, as much as you can learn from watching the classics. It's important to note my choice of words. I am not calling them bad movies, but rather movies that don't work. I realize just how difficult it is to complete a movie, and so my applause goes to any filmmaker that has a feature to show.
One of the things that strikes me most about indie movies that don't work, is the lack of narrative cohesion. I first read the script for ESL about a year before it was produced. I remember feeling very jealous of the writer. My ultimate compliment. The story was well conceived and I could follow the narrative. Basically, as the script read, the hero played by Kuno Becker arrives in the US as an immigrant trying to find a better life. But when he arrives, he finds the labor available to him is difficult. So when offered the chance at working at a strip club as a dancer, he takes the opportunity. Of course, by the end of the movie he feels he has sold out his soul and decides to return to Mexico. This is complicated by witnesses a young woman runs over some immigrants when he arrives. In exchange for her accident, the young lady must do community service teaching ESL. The Kuno character is learning english at the school she teaches so a little romance ensues. As you can see from my explanation, it gets a little complicated.
Maintaining a narrative thread is especially difficult in dramas. In dramas, the overt narrative(the heroes primary objective) is not as apparent. In ESL, Kuno wants a better life in the US, but it's complicated with meeting the girl, working at the strip club. Action and adventure stories, where the primary goal is physical action, the narrative is easier to maintain. The classic overt adventure narrative is Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first Indiana Jones film. In this movie, Indiana must find the ark of the covenent before the Nazi's because whoever finds it first will gain the power to control the world. Basically, Indy must fulfill his task to save the world. This is easy to measure because in each scene he is either getting closer to finding the ark or further away. He has a very clear action to follow. AND, as the audience, we are told from the beginning what he must do and what are the stakes.
This gets trickier in dramas because you don't have as big a goal as that to hang your hat on. You take a movie like Lost in Translation, and the characters overt goal is not as easily decipherable. They are not trying to save the world. In my opinion Scarlet and Bill Murray are trying to connect with someone. They each have the same problem, they can't connect with their spouse, and they're misplaced in this crazy Japanese world. SO, their goal is to connect with each other. BUT, we don't know this right away and neither do they. Their isn't an International Diplomat that walks into their hotel room and says, "Hey kids, you are both really lonely and alienated from your spouses, you're in this crazy town, and so you should try and hook up with each other because you'll really enjoy that." In an action movie like Indiana Jones, this narrative device is expected and easy.
This becomes especially difficult for the director and actor of drama because you must watch your character and make sure there is an emotional progression from scene to scene over the length of the film. There is nothing more boring than the character brooding for an hour.
And this is one of the challenges with the films ESL. The characters primary goal becomes convuluted. Is his primary goal to hook up with the American girl, to make money, to bring his family, etc. On the other hand, you take the soon to be classics Under the Same Moon, and the narrative is pretty simple and effective. A young 8 year old boy leaves his hometown in Mexico to find his mother in the US. There are subplots, will the mother have a romance with the security gaurd, but the primary narrative is very clear and what keeps us wondering what will happen next.
About two years ago I worked on an indie film titled, Por Vida. It's a day in the life story of an aspiring writer/gang leader girl from Watts. After watching a rough cut recently, and thinking about ESL, I realized it's biggest challenge was the lack of narrative cohesion. In the writing, it's clear that what she wants is to leave the life and take a writing fellowship in Iowa. But in the performance, the main character, Rascal, doesn't have a driving emotional force. She sort of broods from scene to scene.
What I think this means is that the drama requires a very strong actor to carry the film. We have to see in their face, the desire for something. The goal, the narrative. The actor could deliver each line well and make us believe in the scene, but if they don't hold the narrative together, and we don't see a profession in their desire from scene to scene, than the movie falls flat. It's very easy to say this, but insanely difficult to execute.