What starts at South by Southwest changes the cinematic world. The annual film fest was all-virtual this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic. What was good and what was meh? Here’s a lightning round of reviews from SXSW 2021, which ran March 16-20. Keep an eye out for these flicks in theaters and on demand in the months to come.
‘Best Summer Ever’
Days later, I’m still busting out the earworm “Best Summer Ever,” one of eight original songs on the soundtrack of this charming musical.
Our story opens at the end of a kids’ dance camp, where we meet Sage and Tony, who have fallen in love and now are heading back to their non-summer lives in different cities. He’s the star quarterback trying to break a 25-year curse who secretly loves to dance, and she’s the homeschooled daughter of two moms who sell cannabis — illegally — and so move their operation after every growing season to stay ahead of the law. Of course, Sage and her moms end up in Tony’s town.
A couple of famous faces show up in cameos, and the cast members puts their own stamps on some high school musical tropes, like the cheerleader/villain bent on being homecoming queen at any cost and the QB misunderstood by the adults in his life. Actress and comedienne Shannon DeVido as Sage is a powerhouse with a solo ballad that gives “Let It Go”-like chills.
“Best Summer Ever” also features something not seen enough yet on screens: people with disabilities whose storylines do not focus on disabilities. The film was made by Zeno Mountain Farm, which is both a camp and a film studio.supporting “lifelong friendships and opportunities for people with and without disabilities and other marginalized communities. … We believe people do not need to be ‘fixed.’ Rather, we need to create a world where everyone has access to these opportunities.”
The cast includes people using wheelchairs and sign language and a whole spectrum of abilities. A voiceover throughout describes the action on screen, and the end pulls back to show that the crew is similarly diverse. “There’s still able-bodied people being cast in disabled roles, which is very frustrating to watch,”“Everyone deserves to see themselves represented, because it makes you feel like part of society. That’s why it’s so important to have disabled actors representing themselves.”
I hope others also will make more of these opportunities, and I also hope to find out what happens next in the “Best Summer Ever” world. How about “Best Summer Ever II: A Great Spring”?
‘Broadcast Signal Intrusion’
Remember those infamous 1987 Chicago pirate broadcasts of a person in a Max Headroom mask? Folks minding their own business watching TV found their signals briefly interrupted by disturbing footage of an inhuman visage, accompanied by distorted audio. The culprits have never been caught. Murky thriller “Broadcast Signal Intrusion” asks, “What if that, but also murder conspiracy?”
It’s a great peg for a SXSW midnighter, and director Jacob Gentry deliciously presents the story by Tim Woodall and Phil Drinkwater as a cyberpunk-lite noir. In the film, James (Harry Shum Jr., perma-glowering) is a video technician in late 1990s Chicago. He’s as haunted as you can get outside of a Dickens story about Christmas, attending a support group for people dealing with loss and tattooed with a mysterious (read: tragic) date. He’s looking for answers any place he can find them, and find them he does in the form of sinister broadcast signal intrusions (natch). The images are of robotic women in repulsive rubber masks, babbling and droning, sometimes with an unseen assailant lurking barely in frame. Soon, James chases leads — complete with “Homeland”-style string board — in hopes of filling the hole in his own life.
“Broadcast Signal Intrusion” always keeps the unease simmering, just like you want, and its gestures toward film noir classics (check out those plaintive horns and that stoic hero) land well without dipping into pastiche or homage. The film flirts with the supernatural, though the nightmare fuel ends up teetering on the safe side, and the mystery is disappointingly unsolvable for the folks at home. In an age of digital horror, Gentry’s gem is a creepy slice of analog neo-noir for that you might wish had gone even a little more bonkers.
Spend like 15 minutes down a Wikipedia wormhole about Brazilian social and racial politics, then cue up “Executive Order.” I wish I had, but that’s a me problem, and no fault of Lázaro Ramos’ dystopian drama.
Set in a not-too-distant future in Brazil, Antonio (Alfred Enoch of “How To Get Away With Murder”) and Capitu (Taís Araújo) are a power couple — he’s a lawyer, she’s a doctor — holding the tide against a conservative regime that hides its racist cruelty behind polite innuendos and glossy PSAs. A movement to pay reparations to those of African descent in the country is met, first by volunteer and then by decree, by mass deportation of anyone in the country who looks like they might be even a little Black. As Antonio, Capitu and their friends stand in resistance, they’re met with brutality and betrayal at every turn.
Based on the play “Namíbia, Não!” by Aldri Anunciação, the film’s 94 minutes are heightened to opera, minus the arias. But what counts as realism these days? “Executive Order” is a radical cautionary tale that sadly feels barely allegorical, even if you’re only cursorily familiar with current Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s inflammatory rhetoric and policies. It also puts our own intimacy with white nationalist fascism in distressing context.
Winner of SXSW’s jury prize for narrative feature, writer-director Megan Park’s beautiful, brutal “The Fallout” might just become a definitive story of gun violence in the U.S. today, and you never even see its inciting incident up close.
Sixteen-year-old Vada (Jenna Ortega, exquisite) is a smart and brassy member of Gen Z with a tight bond to her younger sister, Amelia (Lumi Pollack). Then, a classmate shoots up Vada’s school. Park captures the unspeakable with remarkable restraint, and though this is fiction, we know the excruciatingly real-time scenario — Vada trapped in a bathroom stall with classmates Mia (Maddie Ziegler) and Quinton (Niles Fitch) as screams and shots ring out nearby — is a close mirror to an obscene number of true events.
“The Fallout,” as you could gather, is not about that scene, not really. It’s about what a nation paralyzed into inaction on gun violence leaves it youngest and brightest to carry for the days, weeks, months, years after wholly avoidable traumas darken the doors of the places they should be the safest. Park’s young characters are easy to befriend for a couple hours, and familiar adult faces like Shailene Woodley (as a therapist) and Julie Bowen (as Vada’s distraught, neurotic mom) lend an air of gravity.
A stunning, grab-you-by-face glimpse into the waking death our leaders have done nothing to protect us from, false notes are few and far between in “The Fallout.”
‘Fruits of Labor’
Emily Cohen Ibañez’s documentary doesn’t scream. “Fruits of Labor” is a gentle and lovely thing, but the fear at its heart is so prosaic and constant that your heart can’t help but crack.
The film tells the story of Ashley, a Latina high school student in small-town California helping her single mother, Beatriz, to raise her siblings. Beatriz is an undocumented immigrant who works as a housekeeper, and first-generation American Ashley similarly works long overnight shifts in a strawberry production plant. As the mother and daughter labor to keep their family afloat, they live under the specter of ICE. News reports of Trump-ordered deportation raids in their town play matter-of-factly in the background of their small home. The feds come sniffing around their building. The ladies make contingency plans for the worst.
But all the while, Beatriz keeps a brave face for the children for whom she’s worked over two decades to give a future, and Ashley dances just on the edge of that better tomorrow. She shops for a prom dress, flirts with her loving boyfriend, builds a community garden and meets with a college counselor — the shy, pragmatic young woman dares to hope, even as her circumstances would grind many into despair.
Filmed mostly without flash, save for a few interstitial flourishes of nature photography, “Fruits of Labor” is yet another deeply compassionate document of the human experience that just so happens to be an immigrant story. Without ever once saying it out loud, it exposes the invasive weed of American nativism for the irrational, racist hatred that it is.
Imagine a Lifetime movie adaptation of “Hereditary.” There’s “Here Before,” an Andrea Riseborough-starring drama that premiered at SXSW.
Written and directed by Stacey Gregg, “Here Before” is the story of Laura (Riseborough), an affluent Irish mother welcoming a less privileged family to the house next door. Laura and her husband (Jonjo O’Neill) have lost their young daughter, and the still-mourning woman is happy to get to know the new family’s precocious daughter, Megan (Niamh Dornan). Laura and the girl seem drawn together — an increasingly disconcerting bond as Megan begins to say things that only Laura’s dead daughter would say, driving the woman to obsession and near-madness.
Riseborough is the reigning queen of mind-bending psycho-horror (see “Mandy” and “Possessor”), so “Here Before” seems to know what its doing by placing the actress in its maternal labyrinth. The setting’s pleasingly bleak, and there seems to be some interesting class commentary peeking through. But the film taunts you with spooky mystery before making a baffling third-act turn into melodrama. Mother, may I sleep with missed opportunities?
According to comedian and executive producer Jessica Kirson, the most difficult part about putting together this chronicle of women in standup comedy was narrowing down which comedians to feature.
“I work with all these women and they’re so incredible, and I wanted to show their talent and all the things that we’ve been through in this business,” Kirson said during a panel about the movie.
The sweeping documentary that premieres on FX on April 2 highlights 15 female comics, including pioneers like Joan Rivers, lifers like Margaret Cho and Sherri Shepherd and newcomers like Kelly Bachman, who was thrown out of a Manhattan club for confronting Harvey Weinstein during a set in 2019. (Weinstein was convicted of two sex crimes, including third-degree rape, on Feb. 24, 2020.)
“There was no Me Too movement in comedy,” Shepherd, who was heckled mercilessly for years about the size of her breasts, said during the panel. That sentiment is echoed throughout the documentary as woman after woman shares cringeworthy stories of being objectified, ignored and dismissed.
Structured in thematic segments, the documentary traces the history of women in comedy, the broad cultural resistance to their presence in the boozy boy’s clubs where comedians perfect their craft and the longstanding myth that women are inherently less funny than men.
The documentary handily demolishes that last idea, examining the ways women excel as hilarious cultural commentators and how a new spirit of collaboration is helping elevate female voices in a way that benefits the form as a whole.
Local filmmaker/University of Texas alum Mei Makino has met the moment with “Inbetween Girl,” an indelibly Texan tale of girlhood, growing up and rescuing your own identity from the tide.
In this dramedy filmed in Austin and Galveston and set in that coastal town, teenage artist Angie Chen (an absolutely winning Emma Galbraith) is caught in the middle of a lot of things. To start with, there’s her divorced parents and her bicultural heritage (her father is Chinese American, her mother is white). Staring down life after high school, she’s not quite a kid and definitely not an adult. And when she least needs it, she gets caught between school golden boy Liam (William Magnuson) and his blonde Instagram-influencer girlfriend Sheryl (Emily Garrett). She might be falling in love, or at least lust, with Liam, and as it turns out, Sheryl might be someone she can really count on.
There’s so much to love about “Inbetween Girl.” Makino uses illustrations and camcorder confessionals to charming effect; the film feels like a mixed-media project Angie might make herself. And it’s just so wonderfully specific, from its keen sense of place in Galveston to its heartrending portrayal of growing up Asian American in Texas. This ready-for-Y.A.-success story belies a graceful, existential film of captivating substance.
‘Introducing, Selma Blair’
The celebrity bio-doc is a fraught format, often existing at either pole of puff or paparazzi. Never have I seen such a vulnerable celebrity diary as “Introducing, Selma Blair,” a film pulsing with warmth yet not without its thorns.
Winner of a special jury award at SXSW, Rachel Fleit’s documentary walks alongside Blair, ‘90s pseudo-”it” girl of films like “Legally Blonde” and “Cruel Intentions,” as she navigates her 2018 multiple sclerosis diagnosis. The disease, for which there is no cure, has hobbled the acid-witted actress. Her ability to speak degrades under too much sensory stimulation, and she walks with a cane. Hoping to have more time with her young son, Blair starts the process of stem cell transplantation. Fleit’s camera has the access of a close friend for all of it.
“Introducing, Selma Blair” is a humanist triumph despite its celebrity subject — and maybe because of it, because the viewer feels like they already know her. “We have a long time to be dead,” says the resilient Blair, who favors a snazzy turban and Googles chic canes. The audience is in the room for crushing medical nadirs, resigned compassion for her difficult mother (she “tethered a darkness to me,” Blair says) and side-splitting moments of levity — “I’m sorry I can’t talk right now, we’re shooting the final days of my life,” the actress says on the phone at one point.
The media we consume doesn’t always teach us how to deal with the hard stuff, not without varnish, in my experience. Thank god for Blair and Fleit for sharing this story with such generosity.
‘Lily Topples the World’
I didn’t know about the professional domino world or the young woman at the top of it before “Lily Topples the World,” which won best documentary feature at SXSW Online. You might have seen one of her videos, though:(that’s how some of her college friends found out she’s a big deal).
Lily Hevesh fell in love with dominos as a kid and, when she was too young to have a YouTube channel, as she admits in the doc.
She did not reveal much about herself online for a long time, going by Hevesh5 and keeping her gender unknown as she got better and better at creating elaborate domino setups (and then toppling them). Domino fans expressed surprise when they learned she was a girl, although the domino community depicted here seems ultimately supportive.
This is a quiet story in many ways, and those dominos sure are soothing to watch and hear as they click and fall. The biggest tensions in the film: Will she and her dad get a manufacturing deal for her own line of specialized dominos? Will someone accidentally topple a creation mid-build? (This did have me on the edge of my couch more than once.)
But it’s not simplistic. Themes of family, representation and self are explored, both through Lily’s story (she was adopted from China by a white family and no one else looked like her where she grew up in New Hampshire) and through the YouTube world and what it means for the generations growing up with it.
Lily talks more than once about being shy and not having many friends in high school. Dominos became a world in which she developed friendships and confidence as she went from play to passion to profession. She also developed her leadership style, which shows in domino workshops with people of all ages and warm interactions with fans.
I’m still thinking about a moment in which she was briefing an all-male crew on a professional job about how they need to film an installation and its toppling for best results. (Dominos fall faster than people think, we learn.) I’m old enough to wish I had seen young women in roles like that when I was growing up. Lily as role model and her advice not to let anyone talk you out of giving up something you love should stay with viewers for a long time.
Bring on the COVID-era screenplays. They were always coming. Whitney Call and Mallory Everton wrote the script for and star in “Recovery,” a roadtrip buddy comedy that could not have existed even a year ago. If you’d like to escape talk about pandemic life altogether, you might still find something to appreciate in this genuinely clever romp, directed by Everton and Stephen Meek.
Call and Everton play Jamie and Blake, sisters and roommates on the cusp of great personal turns when that ol’ devil, March 2020, rolls around. Scenes of early-pandemic life are treated with knowing laughs — clothes off after a grocery run, disinfectant spray cans at the ready — but the pandemic is never treated as a joke. People are dying, the sisters remind their boozy, COVID-scofflaw sister, Erin (Julia Jolley, hilariously honing in on a very specific type of blithely irresponsible lady who would go on a coronavirus-era cruise). When their grandmother’s nursing home is beset by the virus, Jamie and Blake undertake a cross-state highway adventure to rescue her, battling airborne anxieties as they race to beat Erin to the punch.
Call and Everton are in perfect comedic sync, and the script is sparkling. (“Have you ever smelled mouse afterbirth? You will.”) “Recovery” has the potential to be a landmark comedy of this era, a gleeful ride through the gallows humor we’ve all deployed to get through the slog. The pandemic isn’t the punchline — our pathetic attempts as a society to deal with it are.
Three things to know going into SXSW dramedy “Swan Song.” One, Udo Kier plays an aging hairdresser who busts out of his retirement community to pull one last job: making up a dead doyenne for her funeral. Two, the soundtrack features Robyn, RuPaul and Judy Garland. Three, Jennifer Coolidge plays the antagonist.
So, you either already know you’re gonna love this or you’re not. Based on the premise, you might expect writer-director Todd Stephens’ “Swan Song” to be a hairsprayed kitsch curiosity. To the film’s credit, it’s coiffed with a thick sadness pulling its sometimes-cheesy strands together. Kier’s Pat, based on a real figure from Stephens’ life, is a tropical bird too good for his small-town Ohio habitat. The opportunity to make sure his long-lost client looks good as she crosses to the other side dredges up the highs and lows of Pat’s own long life — tortured grief over his late lover, David; memories of halcyon days at the local gay bar, now doomed; and resentment over fabulous follicular fame he thinks former protégé Dee Dee (Coolidge, really giving you what you came for) stole from him.
It’s high-camp glitter, cut with the ashes of melancholy. Grab your stunning chandelier headpiece, darling, and enjoy the trip.
‘Under the Volcano’
The March 20 world premiere of the Australian film “Under the Volcano” offered a fascinating look at the decade-long run of Air Studios Montserrat, which famed Beatles producer George Martin built on an island in the West Indies in the late 1970s. The remote island’s natural beauty and friendly locals serve as an almost surreal contrast to the constant parade of music legends who recorded there: Jimmy Buffett, Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder, Elton John, the Police, Dire Straits and dozens of others. (Sting’s classic cameo on Dire Straits’ smash single “Money for Nothing” happened because Sting just happened to be hanging out on the island when Mark Knopfler’s band arrived to make their mid-’80s multiplatinum masterpiece “Brothers in Arms.”)
The studio’s fall was as spectacular as its rise: Shortly after the Rolling Stones recorded their 1989 album “Steel Wheels” there, Hurricane Hugo destroyed it. A major volcanic eruption in 1995 nearly destroyed the island town of Plymouth and left the Air Montserrat property a ghostly, inaccessible artifact. Martin, shown touring the remains of the place near the end of the film, was philosophical: “It’s like everything in life, isn’t it? Everything has a period.”
‘When Claude Got Shot’
Claude Motley thought he left the violence behind when he left Milwaukee. With a history of racial discrimination and divestment in minority communities, the upper Midwestern city has struggled with poverty and systemic violence for generations. But Motley, a family man who was finishing up law school, got out. He had moved with his wife, an attorney, and children to a spacious home in a quiet suburban neighborhood in North Carolina. He was preparing to take the bar exam.
Then he returned home for a high school reunion and everything changed.
The night he was shot during an attempted carjacking, his son was staying at the home of a friend, documentary filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein. The bullet passed through Motley’s jaw. He was lucky to be alive, but his recovery would be emotionally, physically and financially grueling. Shortly after he was released from the hospital, Motley and Lichtenstein began chronicling the process.
Milwaukee police apprehended Nathan King, the young man who shot Motley, not long after, when he was shot by registered nurse Victoria Davison during another attempted car-jacking. King was 15 years old. The shooting put him in a wheelchair.
In a gripping documentary produced by rapper Snoop Dogg’s Snoopadelic Films and scored by Living Color’s Vernon Reid, Lichtenstein masterfully weaves a story of how Motley, King and Davison’s lives were all upended. Motley’s recovery required more than 10 surgeries, leaving him tens of thousands of dollars in debt and derailing his career plans. Davison’s post-traumatic stress drove her out of the city as she grappled with both lingering fear of the violence on the streets and guilt over putting a child in a wheelchair during an act of self-preservation.
As King moves through the criminal justice system, the documentary asks hard questions about punitive versus restorative justice. It also presents a devastating picture of how precarious the path to success is for young Black men trying to escape a system that’s stacked against them. As our society struggles to reconcile a vision of America as the Land of the Free with a history marked by deep-seated discrimination, this film feels like essential viewing.
‘Without Getting Killed or Caught’
Part-time Austinite Tamara Saviano and her husband, Paul Whitfield, co-directed “Without Getting Killed or Caught,” a remarkably thorough and well-sourced documentary that expands upon Saviano’s 2016 biographer of Texas songwriting legend Guy Clark by digging deep into Clark’s relationship with his wife, songwriter and painter Susanna Clark. Oscar-winning actress Sissy Spacek provides perfect narration with passages taken from Susanna’s diaries, while archival cassette recordings provide glimpses of conversation between the Clarks and their close friend, fellow Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt.
‘Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror’
Austin filmmaker Kier-La Janisse is going to tell you more about pagan rituals and demonic cats than you ever realized there was to know. The documentary “Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror,” clocking in at a dissertation-length 193 minutes, takes its business seriously. Its business, by the by, is the cinematic world of folk horror, less a genre as Janisse’s film insists and more a mode of dredging scares up from the old ways of the places we now live.
Divided into chapters and gilded with truly beautiful animation and music, “Woodlands Dark” is a near-definitive chronology of a canon that spans from “The Wicker Man” to “Midsommar,” from “Kuroneko” to “Candyman.” With talking heads like folklorists, “The Witch” filmmaker Robert Eggers and Janisse herself, the documentary strings together clips of film-nerd favorites from the U.K., travels to the problematic frights of America’s backwoods and even tours the silver screens of Iceland, Japan, Australia and beyond. Folk horror is deep cuts like “The Reflecting Skin”; it’s also mainstream flicks like “Pet Sematary” and certain episodes of “Doctor Who.” Tying them all together is a friction between the modern world and humanity’s darkest demons, often tied to colonialism and misogyny and never dormant for long.
“Woodlands Dark” probably doesn’t need to be longer than “Avengers: Endgame,” but it’s a lovingly exhaustive — and not quite exhausting — compendium of a fictional realm that deserves its due.