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10 Films To See At The 2021 SXSW Film Festival
by Erik Childress

The South by Southwest Film Festival, which I have attended every year since 2003, was abruptly canceled in 2020 less than two weeks before it launched over the growing concern of COVID-19. It was a strange, horrible period that mounted a lot of confusion over what we were all going to do next. Some films from last year managed to get covered, others made streaming deals and a few have even managed to last an entire year to save their debut for the 2021 edition. I have yet to see those but have gotten through more than a few handful of titles. So for those of you getting back on board for the virtual edition of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival, here are ten titles I am recommending you put onto your schedule.

A story that feels like you-had-to-be-there in the moment in occurred otherwise more surely would have heard more about it. But this flash-in-the-pan of insta-celebrity philanthropy probably never imagined the repercussions of false hope left in his wake. In 1970, Michael Brody Jr., heir to a margarine fortune, pledged to give away all $25 million of his inheritance to anyone who reached out. As you can imagine, the masses came out. Some looking for a handout, others for legitimate help. The influx of requests appeared to take a quick strain on the 21 year-old hippie and he retreated like a spoiled brat acting the part of a parent telling his pushy children no. The thing is that left a wealth of sadness in his wake. Some inflicted upon himself as well, but Keith Maitland's film is at its strongest when it focuses on the people behind the tens of thousands of letters left unanswered to this day in boxes and bins left with his own kin and even a major Hollywood producer. The phenomenon is well-documented and such a whirlwind that it may be surprising to discover just how quickly Brody's fifteen minutes dissipated. Film projects were even being developed around his story. The leeching of the powerful onto a story of giving for their own gratification is a great introduction to what is contained in those letters. Regular folks. Real help. It's the ongoing struggle that strikes an all-too-familiar chord in pandemic America before human beings were elected into the majority 50 years later. Maitland's last film, Tower, was the immensely powerful animated retelling of the University of Texas Tower Massacre. Brody is an interesting subject for his follow-up; albeit one who may never have understood the waste he laid to unsuspecting Americans while espousing empty platitudes about love. Frankly, I don't give a damn about or shed a tear for him, but Maitland and producer Melissa Robyn Glassman putting voices to the ink is the real story and it is an ongoing one for millions who never even had the illusion of a Michael Brody.

For the space geeks out there (of which I am one) there is a real treat waiting for you in Nathaniel Kahn's The Hunt for Planet B. Though it leans in the direction of the furthest reaches of our imagination, it is not merely a pandering one meant to leave the planet we live on in the dust. The catalyst of the film evolves around NASA's Webb Space Telescope, a Hubble-Plus if you will designed to gaze further into the cosmos to the formation of other galaxies and discovery of other planets. The Planet B of the title refers to the potential of finding another livable body that could mirror Earth, although not in a stupid Brit Marling kind of way. This rewards us the opportunity to meet some extraordinary women on the frontlines of this research. We get to learn about their histories but also have conversations directly tying into the struggle of our planet that serves as one of the big "why"'s on the importance of looking beyond our limitations. Congress can argue against the money and environmentalists may cry foul but there is tons of money elsewhere in lieu of abandoning these programs. Paraphrasing Carl Sagan it would be foolish to think the endgame will be found in our lifetime, but the search for life elsewhere does not mean forgetting about life here and this is a wonderful film about the things we can do if we just try.

In a nice little trend this festival, we're seeing some genre legends getting a chance to headline their own film after a notable career of memorable supporting parts. Barbara Crampton (who I once had the pleasure of serving on a Cinepocalypse jury with and doing movie karaoke with) is one such legend. The star of numerous Stuart Gordon/H.P. Lovecraft projects (Re-Animator, From Beyond) and recent horror favorites like You're Next and We Are Still Here, stars as Anne Fedder, the disillusioned wife to a pastor (Larry Fessenden) who may have actually saved her from a darker path. Her boredom leads her to a potential affair that unleashes an evil in their small town that she may be unwittingly connected to. Revealing more about the story would cheat a number of the fun discoveries in Travis Stevens' latest. He directed the 2019 SXSW premiere of Girl on the Third Floor (with wrestler CM Punk) and this one is less about the growing dread of the mystery terror and more about the characters' reactions oh how to stop it or fully embrace it. The film gets quite fun once the blood starts spewing in buckets and the married couple begin to work together while unsure of their ultimate endgame. Both Crampton and Fessenden are having a lot of fun and while I hoped there would be a little more exploration of Anne's growing wantonness to be her own woman, the joy of seeing Crampton explore it - especially with the best furniture arranging scene since Albert Brooks' Mother - is worth the view.

When I was a kid I had both a Chain Lightning and a Domino Rally set. It was a fun hobby I drifted in and out of. Though I have certainly become more Holly Hunter in Broadcast News chastising the media for running the domino footage rather than more important stuff, it doesn't mean I still don't love a good domino fall. Over the years some of the most purely entertaining documentaries have premiered at SXSW channeling individual accomplishments and personal skills and that trend continues with Lily Topples The World. It features Lily Hevesh who has wowed people with her domino videos on YouTube and at the age of 20 has done more with her particular set of skills than most parents can imagine lamenting over their kids dream of focusing on what most would consider a hobby. She has worked on movies, television, music videos and the backstory with her parents is actually quite wonderful and moving. Lily herself is a smiling presence on screen and even provides some tips if you feel inspired to construct your own toppling architecture. There are plenty documentaries covering noteworthy, righteous issues and sad true stories at the festival, so this is precisely the kind of joyous experience moviegoers can just sit back and relax upon. Unless, of course, the sight of meticulously weaving throws rows and heights of dominoes trying not to knock them over won't trigger any spasms. To paraphrase Jane Craig, it may not be news, but it's fun. I like fun and you will too.

Here is another documentary on a story closer to home that I was never aware of. Probably because most believed the story ended in the 1960s. In a Chicago hospital a baby was kidnapped. For over a year local authorities and the FBI could not crack the case. Then over a year later, a child is abandoned in his stroller in New Jersey. When he is recovered, it is believed he is the stolen baby and returned triumphantly to his birth parents. As young Paul Fronczak grows up he discovers newspaper clippings in his basement about the kidnapping and as he gets older he sets out to learn the truth about what happened to him and if, in fact, he is his parents' true son. Thus begins a rabbit hole that starts like Clint Eastwood's Changeling and develops a bit into David O. Russell's Flirting with Disaster. While there are certainly quirky turns such as learning that Paul has been a movie extra (Rush Hour), a stand-in (Ocean's Eleven) and even an actor in an airport security commercial I have seen countless times in Vegas, this is the kind of bizarre twisting tale that even its subject admits would be ridiculous if it were a movie. Yet, for all the work that went into developing the Richard Brody story for the big screen, this is the one we can see being turned into a screenplay of some real depth about loss, identity and reconciliation. Not to leave behind a true crime story of some fascination, but the turns that Paul's heritage takes towards learning the truth of who he is leads to some real heartbreak, especially with the parents who have tried to leave this part of their history behind. The Lost Sons joins a growing sub-genre including Three Identical Strangers and Where She Lies about self-exploration and a reinvention of everything one knows due to circumstances formed before one's formative years. Director Ursula MacFarlane (who also did Untouchable detailing the Harvey Weinstein scandal) will have you considering the closeness of your own relationships and making sure you reach out to them before its too late.

There is some part in all of us that has to love a film that threatens to turn into a road trip movie that never quite actually gets there. The setup for Bradley Grant Smith's film has a familiar ring. Two adult sisters, Beta (Baize Buzan) and Zelda (Allison Torem) still feeling their way around the next step on their paths get the news that their father has died. Upon meeting with the family they are told what will be left in his sparse will is going in part to an uncle they believed was also dead. In trying to seek him out they learn the proverbial truths about themselves and each other. Or do they? The first scene between the sisters that Smith stages establishes the kind of tragicomic tone that often whiplashes us (in a good way) between hilarious, sometimes vulgar, observations and a reality where true happiness feels like this far away illusion that we are always chasing. This is certified by one helluva turn from Torem giving a performance as if she walking on eggshells between a thick humorous defense and a full-on breakdown. Watching her is like an exercise in observing someone just on the brink of falling and all you want to do is wrap her up and pull her back. It's a standout piece of work. Though Buzan mostly has to be reactionary and withhold her fears, she also does fine work especially in a key, climactic scene with the great Austin Pendleton that is very moving and beautifully shot. While there is sadness that often rises to the surface, Our Father is also full of some very big laughs and strange supporting characters. Itís the type of movie I always love to discover coming out of SXSW.

Speaking of road movies, the only other genre that festivals probably lead less of now is the COVID movie. The jokes have been flying for months from critics that the fests of the world were going to bombard us with coronavirus rom-coms, dramas and horror movies. Yet as much as that too-soon familiarity is becoming a pandemic onto itself, Mallory Everton, Stephen Meek & Whitney Call's Recovery may just be the best version of this genre that we could hope for at the moment. Call (also co-writer) and Everton (co-writer & co-director with Meek) star as two sisters navigating the early days of the COVID pandemic. Opening with a very funny prologue on how the sky's the limit as one of them turns 30, Recovery jumps headlong into the uncertainty of hand-washing, masks and gatherings but purely with genuine laughs. When they discover there may be an outbreak at their grandmother's nursing home, they jump in a car to risk their lives to save her. The documentaries will tell us everything we need to know about the failures and the tragedies of the past year. While I appreciated Doug Liman's Locked Down more than most for putting a fun spin on the concept, Recovery is one that deals directly with the anxieties (real and absurd) that we have all faced over the past year. They address all the obvious ones about social distancing and spraying down our packages (plus really hammer home on the ignorance of those who blew off all the warnings.) But the further the trip goes the more we realize just how naturally funny these two women are and if we are forced at any time to take a COVID road trip with anyone, this is not a bad place to start.

Every time a new video involving a police officer's use of force (deadly, unnecessary, or otherwise) hits the airwaves you can feel the national unease spike. Left and right factions run into their corners. Activists and racists all have their own interpretation of the video, which occasionally tell the whole story but more often do not. Before any further interpretation is offered about that sentence, I hope everyone will get the opportunity to see Garrett Zevgetis' exceptional documentary, Spring Valley, to understand precisely what I mean by that. The film chronicles the 2015 incident at a South Carolina high school where an SRO (School Resource Officer) is shown to have wrestled a 16 year-old black girl from her desk and dragged her across the floor until she was handcuffed for "disturbing school." The video as seen is horrible to watch and our shock leads to instant strong feelings. While arguments will range from the behavior of the student to the level of force used in response, as always the answer is not so simplistic and hardly begins or ends with the moment captured. Zevgetis culls together a remarkable cadre of people talking about the history of the law that was disrupted (enacted in 1919 as a pushback against a rise in flirting at a white women's college) but also all the issues that surround how something like this can happen, how it is perceived and the aftermath of those involved. Remarkably the officer involved, Ben Fields, is heard on camera throughout the film defending his actions (not always well) and putting him in rooms with both activists and supporters. The scenes with the former are some of the best in the film (and we wish they would go on even longer) as they talk about implicit bias, the nature of police tactics taught and how everything continues to get escalated until it is seemingly beyond our control anymore. It is easy to put these daily horrors into a television segment and get our blood boiling. Zevgetis confronts all angles and forces us to think about the how and the why of it all. It is the best documentary I have seen playing at SXSW so far this year.

Udo Kier has over 260 credits to his name. By the time I finish with this it may be over 300. The German actor who has graced our presence in everything from Hammer Films to My Own Private Idaho to Ace Ventura gets a long overdue center stage role in Todd Stephens' loving tribute to his charisma. Kier plays Pat Pitsenbarger, a former hairdresser spending his days in a nursing home when he gets an offer from the lawyer of an estranged client to do her hair in time for her funeral. Reluctant at first over a personal gripe with her, Pat picks up and escapes the home and begins making a walk through the nearby town on the road to fulfilling her final wish. It's a unique twist on the road movie that is punctuated by Pat's Straight Story-like interaction with the various people he meets from the town as he searches for the right materials to do the job properly. Kier, with those magnificent eyes that can either embrace or kill you has just the right touch on when to embrace the characters' flamboyance and go deeper into the pain he has carried with him for so many years. There have only been a few moments here and there along the virtual festival road since we have been on since the pandemic that I would have loved to see with an audience. But I could hear the Austin crowd applauding along a legend as he takes the stage during a showstopping moment, even a literal one for the character. Years ago, SXSW audiences were the first to see the opening three episode of Lena Dunham's Girls which closed with a great moment set to Robyn's Dancing On My Own. They are about to see another one.

The story of Reality Winner is not one filled with the usual deep twists and turns of an espionage drama. Her story is actually very straightforward which allows us to feel and formulate our own thoughts on what she did without having to absorb a conspiratorial labyrinth. She was a former air force pilot working for the government who came upon a piece of information revealing further complexities into the Russians attempting to hack into our voting systems for the 2016 election. She sent it to the press - the wrong press it turns out - she was caught and sent to jail as just the 8th person ever to be charged under the Espionage Act since its inception in 1917. Director Sonia Kennebeck not only had upfront access to the Winner family in the time leading up to the impending trial but received access to the FBI recordings of the actual interview at Reality's home. The filmmaker also talks to previous whistleblowers about the nature of the crime including many thoughts from none other than Edward Snowden (practically looking like a Bond villain himself.) While Reality's family fills in a few blanks to her state of mind, much is left to us to decide if the punishment really fit the crime or was this a shot across the bow for anyone who may further put the screws towards Donald Trump. Kennebeck sidesteps many of the questions as to why the document would ever be considered a threat to people's lives in the first place but gives The Intercept and its reporters a good lashing for not protecting their source. This is a quietly infuriating piece of work that is a stark reminder of how many secrets are probably still out there from the past five years. [br]

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originally posted: 03/15/21 08:36:00
last updated: 03/16/21 01:52:07
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