By Sean Boelman
After being forced to take a year off due to the coronavirus pandemic, the SXSW Film Festival came back in 2021, this time in a virtual format. Presenting some exciting new independent cinema, the festival took place over five days, almost too short of a time to catch everything that one would want to see. Below are some of the films that we at disappointment media got the opportunity to screen and you should keep on your radar!
Alien on Stage
Alien on Stage is a fun little documentary following a group of bus drivers who get together to pursue their creative dreams. The idea of an unintentionally comedic stage adaptation of the sci-fi horror classic film Alien is ingenious, and we have filmmakers Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer to thank for bringing it to the world. And while it definitely would have been nice to see more in terms of the actors’ personal lives, the behind-the-scenes story of the making of the homage and the glimpses of the recorded production we get to see are very entertaining.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion
Every midnight movie section has a spot for a dark and gritty thriller, and at this year’s SXSW, that is Broadcast Signal Intrusion. Following a video archivist who becomes obsessed with a conspiracy involving sinister broadcasts, the atmosphere and aesthetic of the film is very effective, although the story does leave a lot to be desired. Harry Shum Jr. gives an excellent performance in the leading role, capturing that descent into madness quite well. But for the most part, it feels rather empty, a big mistake for a neo-noir like this.
The new TBS series Chad has an interesting premise, but the first two episodes do not bode well for the quality of the show. Starring Nasim Pedrad as a teenage boy, this isn’t an average coming-of-age story, but rather, an exercise in outright cringe humor. The first episode is one big joke about sexual assault, and the second is one big joke about race. There are a few moments that get laughs, but for the most part, it feels really tone-deaf and is often a struggle to get through.
William Basinski’s experimental composition The Disintegration Loops is undeniably one of the most magnificent avant-garde musical works ever made. And while the documentary Disintegration Loops offers some interesting insight into Basinski’s process, this is more a reflection of how the messages and nature of the piece mirrors what we are experiencing today in the COVID-19 pandemic. One would expect this to be a moving watch given that it is centered around one of the most beautiful odes to that tragedy, but it still feels like it is missing something.
The Drover's Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson
Written, directed by, and starring Leah Purcell from her stage play (itself inspired by a classic short story), The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson is the latest in a line of Australian revisionist Westerns to offer a spin on the history of the Down Under. Yet despite strong performances, this tale of a mother who will go to any lengths to protect her family is overwhelmingly familiar and heavy-handed. There are some beautiful shots, but as a whole, it’s an altogether average indie in need of an added dose of originality.
Fucking with Nobody
Finnish comedy Fucking with Nobody is probably the film at this year’s SXSW with the biggest amount of wasted potential. Following a woman who decides to engage in a fake social media relationship, the film has a lot to say about the online ecosystem, modern dating, and sex. However, the film ultimately feels overwhelmingly dry and academic, almost as if someone took their thesis paper and turned it into a screenplay, and as a result, these ideas never pay off in a particularly cinematic way.
Here Before is probably the most ambiguously marketed film at this year’s festival, with a logline that tells you basically nothing about the story, but that’s because it’s an exercise in atmosphere above everything else. Andrea Riseborough is strong in her leading turn, but there’s not enough happening in the storyline that is exciting or interesting to even sustain a mere eighty minutes. It looks nice, but quite frankly, it’s also very boring, making this one of the biggest disappointments of this year’s festival.
The Hunt for Planet B
The thing about space documentaries is that they have a built-in audience, and while Nathaniel Kahn’s film The Hunt for Planet B may not be the best entry in the genre, it’s still a pretty fascinating discussion of the search for life beyond Earth. The story of the Webb Space Telescope is fascinating, and while it was a peculiar choice to rush the film out rather than following the project to completion, these brilliant women make wonderful documentary subjects. The philosophical stuff isn’t as deep as it could be, but it’s still interesting nevertheless.
Introducing, Selma Blair
Telling the story of actress Selma Blair and her struggle with Multiple Sclerosis, the documentary Introducing, Selma Blair was one of the more emotional watches at this year’s SXSW. It’s an intimate and compassionate look into Blair’s personal life, with some impressively personal access. It’s not a biographical documentary in a traditional sense, but it’s more effective at making the audience appreciate Blair and her resilience than any general survey of her work ever could. This is one of the best documentary discoveries of the festival.
Travis Stevens’s horror flick Jakob’s Wife is the type of movie that is tailor-built for a cult following. A campy vampire movie starring cult icons Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden, this may not be a very good film, but it sure is a hell of a lot of fun to watch. With plenty of great throwbacks to the greats of the genre from the ‘80s, this is the type of midnight picture that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Admittedly, even casual fans may have a hard time getting behind this one, but hardcore horror buffs will dig it.
Jasmine Stodel’s documentary Kid Candidate offers an interesting premise, following a young candidate running for City Council after his joke campaign turns into something real, but it doesn’t seem to understand how to explore its political implications. Stodel is unable to find a balance between exploring a meme and tracing a political campaign, and while the result is mostly entertaining, it also doesn’t leave much of an impact at all. With a significant re-edit, or maybe a different director at the helm, Hayden Pedigo’s story could have made for a compelling watch, but this documentary is too uneven to work.
There are a lot of films featured in this year’s SXSW lineup that are made in spite (or as a result) of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Natalie Morales’s feature debut Language Lessons stands out for being a pandemic film not about the pandemic. It’s a cute buddy comedy about a mourning man and a Spanish tutor who form an unexpected friendship, and while it does become repetitive after a certain point, it’s a mostly lovely film grounded by strong dialogue and great performances by Morales and Mark Duplass.
The Lost Sons
The Lost Sons tells a story that should be compelling — that of a man trying to discover who he is after an identity crisis that is both literal and figurative — but director Ursula Macfarlane is unable to find the core emotion of the film. The twists and turns are there, but what is missing is the hook. There have been much more compelling documentaries about people who were switched at birth, and Macfarlane fails to find a way to adequately differentiate her film’s story from those.
The documentary Luchadoras may be about female wrestlers at its core, but in reality, it’s a greater portrait of Mexican society and the misogyny that permeates it. Filmmakers Paola Calvo and Patrick Jasim tell these women’s individual stories and experiences and use them in a way to provide commentary on the issues facing the country and world on a greater scale. It’s a documentary that has a little bit to offer for everyone, from sports fans to those looking for a provocative thinkpiece.
The thing that is most surprising about Ninjababy is that it is unexpectedly sweet. Yngvild Sve Flikke’s film about a woman who suddenly discovers that she is six months pregnant struggles to find the right balance between dark humor and genuine heart, but it does some really interesting things along the way. Viewers will be left wishing that the film did more with its animated elements, but the emotion in the script and Kristine Kujath Thorp’s excellent performance allow this to be mostly effective.
Mickey Keating is an interesting filmmaker for sure, but his newest film, Offseason, didn’t work very well at all. The visual style is interesting, creating a moody and dreamy atmosphere, but the story is very basic and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Keating should be given props for not going Lovecraftian with his coastal horror like so many recent flicks have, but his approach isn’t all that much more entertaining. Occasionally creepy and never scary, this film is likely to leave viewers scratching their heads and asking why they just watched it.
Potato Dreams of America
Wes Hurley’s autobiographical coming out comedy Potato Dreams of America is authentic at its core, but this is buried beneath so many layers of tropes that it is an hour and a half of pure cheesiness. The aesthetic is terrible, feeling like a low-budget period piece that opted for campiness out of necessity rather than choice, and the script is inconsistent, with significant gaps that are never explored. Perhaps the only thing worth seeing here is a funny performance by Jonathan Bennett as a gay Jesus, but it’s too small a role to sit through the whole thing.
As a portrait of the phenomenally talented Cuban vocal quartet Vocal Vidas, Ivaylo Getov and Jeremy Ungar’s Soy Cubana is very entertaining and effective. However, it’s clear from the beginning that there is a lot more potential to this story than the average road trip music documentary. There are some subtle messages about Cuban-American relations that are interesting, even if they aren’t the focus of the film. Still, it’s a wholly inspiring and uplifting documentary celebrating Latina culture, and it’s lovely.
Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free
Documentary filmmaker Mary Wharton is extremely talented at taking archive footage and turning it into something compelling and entertaining, but her newest work isn’t up to par. Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free offers some decent insight on the eponymous rocker’s songwriting process but it’s really more of an analysis of his album Wildflowers than a true music bio-doc. Fans will love the opportunity to hear some of Petty’s greatest hits, but those who aren’t hardcore devotees of his music probably won’t find much to enjoy in this surprisingly niche affair.
Under the Volcano
The documentary Under the Volcano benefits from featuring some of the greatest musical artists of all time, but otherwise, it’s a very by-the-numbers music documentary. Quite a few of the stories told in the film about the origins of these classic songs are really entertaining, but there isn’t a whole lot of depth to this doc. Clocking in at a lean ninety minutes, this is a film that musicophiles will definitely want to check out, but otherwise, it isn’t much to call home about.
Justine Bateman’s Violet is probably one of the most ambitious and unique films that played at this year’s SXSW, and it’s sure to be divisive among audiences. Following a film executive who has a conflict with the voice inside her head, it’s a somewhat straightforward story told in a way that is anything but. The film’s experimentations with form and structure make up for the fact that it is somewhat heavy-handed with its message. And on top of that, Olivia Munn and Justin Theroux carry this film extremely well.
WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn
Jed Rothstein has made some very effective documentaries, but his newest, WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, falls victim to trying to be too much like other successful films. The biggest issue here is that the story of WeWork — a coworking start-up that became hugely successful before falling from grace — isn’t that compelling. So in trying to make it into a story of an entertaining colossal failure a la Fyre, Rothstein is trying to create a tension that isn’t there, and the result isn’t gripping enough to work.
Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America
A documentary version of civil rights lawyer Jeffery Robinson’s talk on the history of anti-Black racism in the United States, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America is an eye-opening experience. Through interviews, archive materials, and personal testimony, Robinson paints a picture of how our country’s history is fundamentally tied to institutional racism. It’s a gripping call to action that needs to be heard, especially given how much things have escalated in the country in the past few years.
Elle Callahan’s Witch Hunt is perhaps the most marketable film to debut at this year’s festival. Set in an alternate present in which witchcraft is persecuted, this film benefits from its insanely cool concept, even if its execution isn’t always consistent. Callahan’s script signals the arrival of an exciting voice in the genre, with plenty of fresh ideas and a good way to say them. This is the entertaining, thoughtful, and exciting midnight movie that audiences love to see coming out of the festival circuit.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror
For horror fans, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is sure to be a treat. An extensive exploration of the genre in its various forms, this is a heavily academic affair that looks at films from around the world, some familiar and others more obscure, and dissects the ways in which they reflect the cultures in which they were made. It’s fascinating stuff for cinephiles thanks to lots of great clips and informative interviews, but the more than three hour runtime is likely to keep this a fans-only prospect.
The online edition of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival ran March 16-20.
The Snake Hole
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