Streaming on at SXSW 2021

Swan Song (courtesy of SXSW)

This is my fourth film festival of the quarantine year, and to be honest folks, I am tired. I keep debating if I would be more worn down had I actually flown anywhere—prepping, arranging, packing, flying, landing, taking off work, unpacking, debriefing, maybe working—but then again that’s a normal year, a brainspace I no longer float within. 

Instead I watched all the South-by-Southwest offerings the way Christopher Nolan intended: Via Google cast, projector, and laptop; wrestling a 20-pound beagle puppy to sleep with one hand and taking notes with the other on a couch in Seattle. There were days where I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be able to sit with loved ones and share these first-time viewings in real time, and others when the combination of quarantine cabin fever and less-than-stellar runs of films made it seem like everything would be mediocre. A privilege and, 32 movies, shorts, and episodes later, a pile-up.

But you’re not here to read about me, let’s get to the goods, of which there were many. In a world in which SXSW has to function without its legendary parties, et al., it seems enough to let the movies speak for themselves.  


I Want to Talk About These

My SXSW experience started off with a series of mundanities (more on that later), so many in a row that I was starting to think that the anniversary of COVID-19 might’ve taken some of the sparkle out of my shine. But then I happened on these ones, the “I know it when I see it” ones, the collection of films that warmed your heart or at least drew it in. 

The one I was most looking forward to was Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free, a documentary of mostly unearthed footage collected from Petty’s time recording Wildflowers. Unlike some of the other documentaries, no seismic shifts will be caused by this doc; we don’t really unearth any huge revelations about Petty, or his numerous bandmates. You get what you’re promised, which is a discussion of what it was to record Wildflowers. It’s a distinct period of Petty’s life: a solo album at 40-years-old, interrupted by lingering obligations to his former contract with MCA, a marriage slipping away. What Somewhere You Feel Free wants you to take away is a feeling of Tom Petty as an artist, and a magnanimous one at that (even as he bemoans publicity obligations; he says he “gets it” but has no desire to talk about himself all day). 

Petty’s commentary is the only completely bodiless one of the whole film. Even as we’re confronted with his image — smiling and singing, goofing and gabbing — we never see the interview he gave (or who he gave it to, or in what context) during the recording sessions. But still, the film does what good documentaries—what good stories—should do. It deepens the art, baking in new layers of understanding to every bit, illuminating pieces you’d never associate off the top of your head but instantly recognize, like the mournful horns on “Wildflowers.” It can be at times too fawning for a man who never seemed to have the taste for such fanfare, a little scattered as it tracks down every angle it can on the relative smooth-sailing of the process. But as it widens the scope on the band, the background, and the music itself, even the stray concert shots manage to capture the energy of the man, the myth, the legend. 

On the flip side of the band doc is Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil, a film so acutely aware of itself it’s almost impossible to tell which way is up. Within the bounds of the documentary, Lovato opens up with one reveal after another, detailing her sexual assaults, her overdose, her recovery, and her ongoing alcohol and weed use. It is inordinately brave, especially as she tackles the harm of the public eye—on her and others. 

In four episodes full of almost dizzying editing, the scenes that still linger with me the most aren’t always the heightened ones. It’s the smaller moments wherein Lovato assures a friend that now is the time to tell the difficult truth of her proximity to Lovato, or when she smirks hearing her neurologist confess that he didn’t know who she was. Everything about the documentary—about every celebrity documentary—exists to further a narrative; Dancing with the Devil just makes that slightly more explicit, letting speculation flood the gaps and tend to what we know. 

The Fallout is a film that came out of nowhere for me. I picked it out to watch late one night because Jenna Ortega has done so many amazing things in You and The Babysitter: Killer Queen; she did not disappoint, and neither did the film. As we follow Ortega’s Vada through the month after a school shooting, we get a glimpse into a world that is crushingly real and more common than ever. But The Fallout dodges any trite resolutions or easy communion; Vada’s post-traumatic world almost has the feel of a lazy summer day, with all its aimlessness and anxiety. Even surrounded by everyone saying the right things, she can’t quite verbalize and process what she’s been through. No one is sure what to do, and why should they be? 

As heavy as it sounds, The Fallout is, graciously, tonally all over the place, effective as it jumps from one moment to the next. After all, she’s a teen, and teen girls are never just one thing. While her friends each fall into more traditional coping methods, Vada’s coping casts about, taking many forms. Some are humorous, others starkly sad, but they always feel honest. Even as she struggles to connect to herself and those around her, there’s a beautiful sense of community, particularly among the teens who find ways to care for each other even as they’re struggling themselves. Director Megan Park astutely lets the camera pull in and out over time like deep breaths, giving Vada room to grow beyond the tragedy at the root of her story. 

Another film I didn’t think would stick with me so much is Language Lessons, a two-hander between Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass (who also co-wrote, with Duplass directing). After Adam (Duplass) loses his husband, Cariño (Morales) finds a different tone in their Zoom-based Spanish lessons, and an odd friendship forms between them. 

It’s more than likely that Language Lessons lingers with you because it feels the most reminiscent of current life. But if anything I think that gave it a harder bar to clear; it had to make me want to watch a series of Zoom calls, video memos, and technical glitches. Language Lessons wholeheartedly embraces the fits and starts of life, grief, learning, friendship, and growth happening between as they feel out a friendship. And with that comes a smart, naturalistic sense of how chat actually meanders and builds. In a world where we’re all figuring out how to let technology intermediate our relationships and wavering on whether it’s a net-strength or not, Language Lessons actually managed to make a compelling case for a friendship built over a series of video chats. It may be a little neat, but it’s cute as hell and we could all use a bit more friendship in our lives. 

Introducing, Selma Blair (courtesy of SXSW)

If you’re looking for something that eschews neatness, look no further than Introducing, Selma Blair, which charts Selma Blair attempting to adapt and reduce her life with Multiple Sclerosis. Director Rachel Fleit described the film as a “filmmaker’s dream come true, because nothing was off-limits,” which might sound exploitative had the subject been anyone other than Blair. Instead it feels like together they found something that is not just inspiration porn but actually frankness laced with sharp wit on the part of both the filmmaker and the subject. 

While many documentaries struggle with where to draw a boundary, Introducing, Selma Blair won’t budge from Blair. We see so many sides of her—silly, sad, overwhelmed, angry, scared, tired, weary, struggling, goofy, brash—that it’s impossible to reduce either Selma Blair or Selma Blair to any one thing. And amazingly it’s all encapsulated in the opening, as Blair gets glammed up for the interview, gabbing about inter-community conflict and which turban she needs, before strutting out in full effect with one of her favorite canes. 

Perhaps one of the weakest of this crop but still a strong doc unto itself, Dear Mr. Brody traces the unlikely story of a man who wanted to give away his money to anyone he could in 1970. The then-21-year-old “hippie millionaire” Michael Brody preached free love and mutual aid, before he also started preaching about how he could end the Vietnam War tomorrow and also some stuff about drugs that didn’t go over well with the press. 

It doesn’t take long to recognize that Mr. Brody is out of his depths, both in terms of his funds and his drive, but that doesn’t stop the thousands and thousands of letters that poured in pleading their case to him. Numbers jump up and down depending on which press conference he’s at. There is a yawning chasm of sadness in the range of possibilities and imaginations presented for just a small chunk of this man’s money, so it stings a bit even if you see the “too good to be true” thing coming. The greatness of this documentary comes from the team behind the scenes who worked to return these people’s letters to them. Seeded in their various responses is the same split as there ever was: Will money make you happy? Would it? Could it have changed your life? Each little chapter brings a remarkable clarity for both the writer and Brody himself, even if he never got to see where that generosity could’ve gone.

Perhaps the film I will think about most, cherish for those extra special rainy days when my heart can take it but also needs to weep a little bit like a frying onion, is Swan Song. The logline is both the best way to get at it, and also too flippant for something so lovely: Pat (Udo Kier holding nothing back) is an aging hairdresser who breaks out of his retirement home for a long walk across town to style a dead client’s hair for her funeral. It’s a fine enough description, it gets the job done. But it doesn’t quite capture the atmosphere of this ruminative gem, so considerate of the queer community in all our facets. This is the sort of film I stopped taking notes during because I just wanted to bathe it in as much as I could. 

With every step he takes Pat gets a little more alive and the world around him gets a little more different. That change is reflected in both the town he once knew and the LGBTQ+ spaces he helped build. But Swan Song has the same reverence for queer history as anyone I know, in awe of where it’s taken the community and where it once was. Every smart thing Todd Stephens, who wrote and directed, does (which is many) comes from knowing that it’s better to salute the past than it is to fight the future. What a darling. 

That similarly sums up my opinion for Inbetween Girl, which is charming at every point. Angie Chen, played by clear breakoutEmma Galbraith, finds herself drawn to Liam, her hot carpool buddy who refuses to acknowledge her at school and especially around his Instagram influencer girlfriend. So perhaps unsurprisingly, she’s delighted to start something up with him on the side, even if it’s way on the DL.

Beyond being just an eminently loveable film, skillfully broaching Angie’s growing anxiety about her Chinese background, her parents’ divorce, and herself, Inbetween Girl also gets the complications of sex, with all its knotty, beautiful, fun, terrible, messy sides. It’s nuanced without being in your face, thoughtful without being painful. I wish Galbraith and Angie nothing but the best, and I look forward to revisiting them both in the future.  

As we follow the four strands of The Fabulous Filipino Brothers (one for each of the titular brothers) there is only one that doesn’t quite hold up for me. But three out of four ain’t bad, especially when it comes to watching four brothers seek out love in all its forms. What helps the weaving of Fabulous Filipino Brothers is that it’s not just a story of finding love, it’s about four men out to “get it, keep it.” There’s a range of specificities reflected in there that radiates outward. 

The movie is an assured directorial debut from Dante Basco (with a kickin’ soundtrack) and its simple, visual language, captures just enough of the world in the frame for every shot to speak volumes. It manages to be a pure window into different flavors of devotion, and with only one major structural misstep (no spoilers, I’m sorry, but even clipped love stories still have people that have to answer for them) it’s a lovely one at that. 

Now that We Work: or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn has hit Hulu it has been met with wave after wave of Takes™️ and Discourse™️, as it always seemed it would. I am tired already, so I will just say: it’s a comprehensive overview of the (ongoing) We Work disaster. It’s shrewd in its use of b-roll and savvy about calling up technical things on-screen, like pertinent emails or articles. 

The weariness you are reading in my voice is mostly hedging—I don’t think this documentary is perfect by any means, but it was certainly enlightening in its own way, a solid presentation of the case against the company and the dismal culture that birthed it. Brick by brick, it tears down the We Work wall of it all, showing how a downfall wasn’t just tragic but inevitable for a company that reached for such highfalutin and objectively disingenuous goals around attaining a better life through work and human connection. At times it reaches for a cultural relevance it doesn’t need—We Work as a place to gather in a world in which we cannot—and it’s at its best when wrestling with the constant push and pull of the company’s grandiose talk vs. its actual day-to-day. As one person in the documentary so cannily puts it: “I mean for god’s sake, they’re renting fucking desks.” 

There’s Something There

As anyone who has attended a film festival knows, it’s often a numbers game. Unless you only plan on seeing known quantities (hell, even then) you’re gonna get a mixed bag. 

Digital SXSW offered few films that felt wholly objectionable or grossly overrated. Rather, there was a whole category that I mentally sorted as “grab bag.” There was something of note about each of them, but as a whole, they left something to be desired. 

Recovery, the very first film I watched at the festival, almost a year to the day after I first entered my apartment never to return to a normal world, captured the very mania of life under quarantine. Blake and Jamie go from making a very on-the-nose list of activities to do after a birthday milestone to stress-driving across the country to rescue their grandma from an outbreak-ridden nursing home. Their journey is filled with unpredictable laughs, the sort you can never anticipate and which yield little to no actual development in their lives. As a reflection of what the March That Would Not End of 2020 felt like, it’s pretty apt; as a piece of film, I hoped for a little more. 

Potato Dreams of America (courtesy of SXSW)

There’s a similar energy to Potato Dreams of America, a film that does all it can to feel conventional for some reason. The titular Potato grows from a young, closeted young boy in Russia to, well, a closeted teen boy in America, thanks to his mother’s efforts to leave the 1980s USSR (adapted from writer/director Wes Hurley’s real-life experience). The whole film has a delightful playhouse feel, creatively using the space and imagination of Potato to do weird things like making Jesus (played by Aaron Samuels himself) Potato’s live-in couch hog. But ultimately, even a musical number from the Virgin Mary can’t keep this movie from hammering a traditional arc through a round hole; with no angle it can’t lay on too thick, it gets relegated to the “there’s something here” category. 

Violet is perhaps the film I wanted most to move out of this category. The film is instantly recognizable, visceral (I imagine) to most people I know: Violet (Olivia Munn) wakes up one day and realizes the voice in her head doesn’t actually know what’s best for her. Reading that logline you might expect something cheeky, even magical realist. Instead, we just watch Violet slog through one of the best personifications of anxiety I’ve ever seen.

Because it’s Olivia Munn—Olivia Munn!—you find yourself caught up with how effortlessly cool she looks in her minimalist fashion before you even register the voiceover (Justin Theroux) telling her that she’s in the way, that she’s a pig, that no one wants her there. Off-setting that abuse is some loopy writing that captures her inner confidence, begging to date who she wants, say how she feels, take up space in the world. The whole conceit of it all never evolves as much as you’d want, but (as the title of the section suggests) there’s something there. My favorite detail is how the feeling of freedom she hopes to get back to isn’t a virtuous one; it’s when she was a kid who said she’d help her friend with his chores, then biked home when she realized what she actually wanted to do was not that. Sometimes your choices aren’t certified fresh, but they’re still right, maybe. 

Nestled in the opposite end of the spectrum is Ludi, a high-concept story about a nurse (Ludi, played with grace by Shein Mompremier) trying to make some extra money to send home to her family in Haiti. I would (and have) described this film as something small and lovely, but which falls just barely short of novel. It is deceptively complicated as a story, with Mompremier carrying every moment, communicating so much even when she can express so little. Ludi’s tight camera is her greatest co-star, communicating so much about her relationships, access, and devotion as it crowds in on her world. She is not so much a saint as out of options. Stuck in a gentle story full of people giving her advice but not help, it’ll be exciting to see what Mompremier gets to carry next.

Ludi shares a melancholy spirit with The Lost Sons, the kind of documentary that’s so full of twists and turns it feels much stranger than fiction. It’s likely better to know less than more — picture a Three Identical Strangers or The Imposter for tonal comparison. Suffice it to say Paul Fronczak attempts to track down his birth story — a plot that involves a kidnapping straight out of Jane the Virgin — pulling at a thread that unravels more than you’d expect. It flirts with deeper themes, but can’t quite embrace them as it is (understandably) engrossed in the mystery at the heart of it all.

The Oxy Kingpins is another documentary that does a good job on some things (surveying the complicity and accountability that perpetuates the opioid crisis in the U.S.) and a merely serviceable job on others (it’s often scatterbrained and can’t quite figure out how to clearly pull the viewer through all the various factions). It takes a clever multifaceted approach, examining the world from the vantage point of a dealer, a lawyer, a buyer. It grants each of its subjects a sort of legitimacy by just providing them a floor, a small dignity in a harsh world. But because it tries to be a fly on the wall it often tries too hard—we watch a lawyer call his client and have them recount their case just because we need to hear it, maybe? As one person I watched with described it, The Oxy Kingpins has the look of “History Channel, Pawn Shop reality TV.” 

Lastly we have Ma Belle, My Beauty, which I missed at Sundance and was glad to catch here. The story of a surprise reunion between two women who were polyamorous lovers, Ma Belle manages to thread the needle on relationship dynamics without feeling exploitative, voyeuristic, or even particularly forced. As it meanders its way through love and creativity, it asks a lot of questions it doesn’t answer. I don’t think it needs to, but I think the movie is still lacking in something. 

Shorts and Episodes

What is SXSW if not an exercise in cross-platform presentation? I was unable to take advantage of any of the VR experiences, but at-home South-by does present the opportunity to pop in a quick bite during a lunch break. Here’s the skinny on the smaller options from SXSW: 

Chad: Who knew Nasim Pedrad could play a 14-year-old boy, and make it seem so natural and funny? But apparently she can’t do anything wrong. The first two episodes are pure middle school cringe commentary, and while there are a few off points the whole thing has a pretty good sense for where the line should be.

The Girlfriend Experience: I’ll confess that while I’ve seen all of this show it’s always felt a bit too intent on sterility. The latest episodes, this time anchored by The Affair’s Julia Goldani Telles, seems to have loftier goals than just “sex” and “power,” but having only seen two episodes (and if you’ve seen any part of Girlfriend Experience, you’ll know how limited that window can be) it’s hard to say if it’ll stick the landing.

Made for Love: Like a sophomore slump, there was no way for Made for Love to really be as perfectly indelible as I hoped it would be based on Cristin Miloti once again going sci-fi, this time running away from a husband who put a chip in her head. But instead I think it’s something better, a little knottier and less clearcut than it could’ve been. Which is all to say: It’s a lot of fun, it’s very smart, and it deepens on rewatch. Miloti is of course perfect, pure righteous fury able to handle everything that comes her way, and Billy Magnussen manages to dial into the sweetness of his role which adds an uncomfortable layer of complexity.

For the Record: I am no stranger to the way grief and hurt, particularly when mixed with a breakup, can make people act in odd ways. I just wish For the Record did a better job establishing why it’s worth it to this couple to fight over a single record that could be found at Urban Outfitters. Yes, it’s the principle of the thing, but a driving thrust shouldn’t feel so immediately remediable, and I fear it reflects a series without a real point of view, either on music or relationships.

Puss: A fever dream borne of the greatest chaos of all: trying to get laid in a global pandemic. I found this one a bit too jumpy for my taste, but it’s certainly fun and expressive in the way short films should be. 

Sales Per Hour: Seven minutes might sound like too little to really tackle the weight of sexual assault and bystander intervention, and yet that’s the point of Sales Per Hour. Everything in this flurry of a short film is about the lack of choice, time, and distance to properly deal with any of these things.

Don’t Peek: The sort of short film you stumble across on Tumblr at 10:39 p.m. with a million notes that makes your stomach turn and the singular light source of your laptop feel like the only thing between you and certain death. It got me.

Sisters: A film as much about reveling in the details of sisterhood (sometimes told only as a tale of definition in opposition) as it is about the nitty-gritty of after life care. 

Soak: It is a tough stalemate when a parent needs to grow and feels like they can no longer do that within the confines of the parental role. Soak gets that, expertly balancing it with the point of view of a daughter whose feelings are treated as an inconvenience secondary to her mom’s journey. Short and bittersweet, it packs a lot more of a wallop than you’d think it could. 

I Also Watched:

I am not one for trumpeting about things I don’t really like, but apparently this is what some people read criticism for, so I will wedge them in here in brief little spells. 

U.S. vs. Reality Winner plays some smart games with its audience, hiding the face of Reality Winner — one of the whistleblowers who leaked information about Russia’s 2016 election interference — to make her ongoing captivity palpable in the bounds of the movie. Unfortunately, the documentary doesn’t have much to say beyond that, so agonizingly slow and deferential that it bypasses the interesting opportunities it had. 

See You Then suffers from a sort of staginess, lurking behind every pointed monologue that should feel more like a bountiful diversion. By the time the two exes have finished dancing around their lingering issues, the viewer deserves more than some tossed-off hurt and glancing growth. 

The psychological thrills of Here Before are thick, like wildfire smoke covering the sky. There’s a constant sense of foreboding, of rules changing beneath you. As we follow Laura’s efforts to make sense of her connection to the young girl next door after her own young daughter’s death, we get memories and flashes of a past, a different reality entirely. It captures a mindset with the best of them. And then it moves on. 

Broadcast Signal Intrusion was perhaps my least favorite of the bunch, a man trying to solve the mystery of who was behind a series of pirated broadcasts. A lot of wasted potential!

I had never heard of Bruce Mau before I turned on the documentary devoted to his life’s work, Mau. But after watching, I wish it had anchored itself more in his modern philosophies, not just surveyed his career. Mau appears to lead his life with design as his dogma. He is no doubt a challenging nut to crack. And yet, for all we get of him as a true believer in the cause, Mau treats him with kid gloves, rarely confronting him (or the viewer) with what his dogma actually means. 

Set in a modern world where witchcraft is real and also outlawed by the government, Witch Hunt doesn’t have to look far to fulfill its allegorical role. It’s alternatingly clumsy and astute in its worldbuilding, but ultimately it collapses a bit under the weight of all it’s trying to do. 

Gaia is the best of this crop of films, an ambitious eco-horror film about a park ranger who stumbles upon a father and son living in South African woods. It makes the absolute most of its world (it probably has only a handful of filming locations and you never once care), crafting visuals from the environment that could compete with the best of them. But when all is said and done, it conflates its natural order with spirituality and muddies its own concept.

Gaia is a step up from The Feast, the story of an ill-fated gathering hosted by a rich couple who have recently taken to mining their land. It’s got a luscious and stark visual language, so American Psycho in its beauty and foreboding as it slowly unfurls beyond your comprehension of the gruesome scene. But by the end I found its story a little scant for such vivid images.