By Sean Boelman
After a 2022 edition that brought fans back to Austin for an in-person component in a hybrid festival, the SXSW Film Festival came back better than ever with a 2023 edition that was in-person only and boasted one of the most impressive lineups of any festival in recent memory.
We at disappointment media were so excited to cover the festival and see the many films in its lineup that it would have been impossible to do a full review for everything we saw. However, we wanted to make sure we gave you a brief rundown of the many films (and a few shows) we checked out at the festival.
Another Body is certainly one of the hardest-to-watch documentaries that played at this year’s SXSW. Following a college student who discovers deepfake pornography of herself online, the film shines a light on some of the most disgusting corners of the internet. Sophie Compton and Reuben Hamlyn’s documentary plays out in a way that almost feels like a thriller, but not in a manipulative way, as it follows the subject’s quest to discover the truth and get justice for the wrongs committed against her and several other women. It manages to feel both inspiring and distressing at once.
Cora Bora has a very talented ensemble cast buoyed by a charming lead performance from Megan Stalter. Unfortunately, this story of a woman in an open relationship that she discovers might not have been as open as she thought is frustratingly insubstantial and lacking in enjoyable humor. There’s tons of potential here, and a few moments that will even have viewers giggling, but it feels like a bunch of ideas thrown to the wall — and very few of them stick.
Lance Larson’s Deadland has an interesting concept, following a U.S. Border Patrol agent who is haunted by the consequences of his actions. It had the potential to be a timely commentary on the immigrant crisis, but the execution is so lacking that the film feels like a hollow shell of what it should have been. The only thing that stands out here is solid cinematography by Jas Shelton that showcases some desolate landscapes quite well, but otherwise, it’s uninspired and vague.
Geoff McFetridge: Drawing a Life
Geoff McFetridge: Drawing a Life is pretty much exactly what one would expect from a standard biographical documentary about an artist. It’s lighthearted and breezy, shot with an artistic eye, and offers moderate — if not too prying — insight into its subject’s artistic process and personal life. For cinephiles, the highlight of the film will be getting to see McFetridge talk about his collaborations with filmmaker Spike Jonze. Otherwise, it’s just an altogether pleasant film that, at under an hour and twenty minutes, it’s hard to deny its charm.
Join or Die
Inspired by Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, the flashy documentary Join or Die is the type of film that could be exactly what America needs to see — or it could also do some tremendous wrong if it lands in the wrong hands. Although the film’s overall message, encouraging civic involvement, is a positive one, there are some significant leaps in logic that could be read by uncanny viewers the wrong way and lead them to being indoctrinated. Showy editing and interviews with well-known subjects like Pete Buttigeg and Hillary Clinton are likely to give this film a high profile, but viewers just need to be wary of its content.
The Lady Bird Diaries
Filmmaker Dawn Porter is known for her amazing use of archive footage to tell stories of important historical footage, and in First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson’s extensive library of recordings, Porter has plenty of archive materials to pull from. That being said, Porter paints in very broad strokes, offering an unexpectedly vague look at the life of the influential political figure. Nothing is said in The Lady Bird Diaries that reveals anything audiences won’t already know, and the result is a film that is good, but not as good as it could have been.
Love & Death
Love & Death is the second miniseries to come out telling the story of small town ax murderer Candy Montgomery after last year’s Candy on Hulu. The SXSW premiere only showcased the first episode of the show, and it’s hard to make an accurate judgment as to its quality based on that alone — as it’s largely the setup, making it feel more like a romantic comedy than a true crime drama to this point. Still, Elizabeth Olsen and Jesse Plemons both give fantastic performances, so it will be exciting to see where they take the rest of the material.
My Drywall Cocoon
The Global section at the SXSW Film Festival tends to be one of the weaker sidebars, and unfortunately, My Drywall Cocoon does not buck that trend. The film takes place in the events leading up to and following a tragedy occurring at a seventeen year old girl’s birthday party. You can see the potential in the film, but the nonlinear narrative structure creates an uneven melodramatic tone in a way that makes it almost feel like a telenovela. They are clearly trying to use this structure to turn the film into a mystery, but instead, they simply make it frustrating.
The New Americans: Gaming a Revolution
There is no denying the technical competence of Ondi Timoner’s The New Americans: Gaming a Revolution. However, the arguments made in the film are so backwards that it is difficult to get on its level. Although there are certainly flaws with many of the institutions that the film targets — namely Robinhood — the film also takes aim at the principles they represent, mainly the democratization of the financial market. As a result, the film feels strangely opposed to the average American, which is a concerning approach to take.
Peak Season is the type of movie where it’s hard to say anything bad about it because it is utterly harmless, but there’s also very little to recommend it for the exact same reason. The story of a woman who, facing an increasingly distant relationship, finds kinship in a fly fishing guide, simply isn’t very interesting. The film also largely lacks the poignancy or insight that it thinks it offers. The only thing that the film does unquestionably well is its cinematography, which beautifully showcases some wonderful landscapes, but that alone is not enough to make the movie worthwhile.
Periodical is a very well-made documentary containing lots of great information. Unfortunately, this very solid film will likely be put to waste, as the audience that needs to see this movie has very little overlap with those who will see it. The whole film feels like it is preaching to the choir. That’s not to say that there is no reason to watch it — some of its statistics could be used as ammunition against uninformed opponents in arguments, or it could be used to inspire young women to take up activism — but this discussion needs a platform that will better serve it being seen by the people who need to hear it.
There are a lot of things that can be forgiven about festival indies — such as poor production values, bad acting, and the “first-time director” jitters — and Pure O falls victim to a lot of those mistakes. But there’s one thing that can’t be forgiven about this film: its toxicity (and that’s putting aside its strangely conservative politics). The film obviously has a lot to say about second chances and forgiveness, and while yes, people are deserving of sympathy, this should not come at the expense of others. This semi-autobiographical story clearly means a lot to its filmmaker, and he certainly means well, but he doesn’t seem to realize that sometimes it’s not necessary — much less healthy — to subject other people to your pain.
Queendom is a verité documentary about a young queer artist and political activist in Russia. Although the film shows a lot of potential with regards to commentary on the stark reality of oppression and censorship in the country, Agniia Galdanova strangely pulls many of her punches and decides to go with a much more broadly tear-jerking approach. It’s still harrowingly effective at times — and the sequences showcasing the subject’s performances are gorgeous — but it feels like this could have been something more.
This World Is Not My Own
This World Is Not My Own desperately wants to be more than a conventional biographical documentary, and while it boasts impressively ambitious editing and technical aspects, it’s never able to overcome its somewhat standard storytelling. The story of artist Nellie Mae Rowe is interesting, and the use of animated sequences performed through voiceover and motion capture by acclaimed actress Uzo Aduba is intriguing, but it still feels like a somewhat bland overview of the subject’s life and career.
Rocio Mesa’s Tobacco Barns (also known as Secaderos in its original language) is a visually striking film, but it does little to impress from a narrative standpoint. Following a group of children growing up in an impoverished rural area of Spain filled with tobacco fields and barns, this feels like just another magical realism film about kids in poverty. In other words, it’s another movie that desperately wants to be Pan’s Labyrinth but doesn't quite capture what makes that film great. Although it’s hardly a bad film, the script certainly leaves something to be desired.
Until Branches Bend
Until Branches Bend played at last year’s TIFF, and reappeared at SXSW this Spring. And ultimately, it’s one of the most slept on films of the festival circuit. Although Sophie Jarvis’s psychological drama about a woman who her community refuses to believe suffers from some common first-time director pitfalls, it’s very compelling nonetheless, and there are some starkly affecting moments and imagery that will linger in viewers’ heads for a long time.
The Young Wife
Tayarisha Poe’s Selah and the Spades was one of the most kinetic directorial debuts in recent memory, so her sophomore feature — The Young Wife — was one of the hottest prospects of this year’s SXSW. Although Poe’s distinct style worked better in service of a high school melodrama than a more restrained character study, it goes a long way in making The Young Wife more captivating. It’s an imperfect film, but transfixing visuals and strong performances elevate the underdeveloped script.
The 2023 SXSW Film Festival ran from March 10-18 in Austin, TX.
The Snake Hole
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