Best of SXSW 2021

From properly good Covid comedies to an epic folk-horror doc and an Indigenous feminist Western, the Letterboxd Festiville team reveals their ten best of SXSW Online.

We dug out old lanyards to wear around the house, and imagined ourselves queuing up the block from The Ritz (RIP). We dialled into screenings and panels, and did our level best to channel that manic “South By” energy from our living rooms.

The SXSW festival atmosphere was muted, and that’s to be expected. But the films themselves? Gems, so many gems, whether shot in a fortnight on the smell of an oily stimulus check, or painstakingly rotoscoped over seven years.

When we asked SXSW Film director Janet Pierson what she and her team were looking for this year, she told us: “We’re always looking for films that do a lot with little, that are ingenious, and pure talent, and discovery, and being surprised. We’re just looking for really good stories with good emotional resonance.” If there was one common denominator we noticed across this year’s SXSW picks, it was a smart, tender injection of comedy into stories about trauma, grief, unwanted pregnancy, chronic health conditions, homelessness, homophobia and, yes, Covid.

It’s hard to pick favorites, but here are the ten SXSW features and two short films we haven’t stopped thinking about, in no particular order. Capsule reviews by Ella Kemp, Selome Hailu, Gemma Gracewood, Leo Koziol, Aaron Yap and Jack Moulton.


Recovery

Directed by Mallory Everton and Stephen Meek, written by Everton and Whitney Call

“Covid 19 is in charge now” might be the most hauntingly funny line in a SXSW film. In Recovery, two sisters set out on a haywire road trip to rescue their grandmother from her nursing home in the wake of a severe Covid 19 outbreak. There’s no random villain or threat, because isn’t being forced to exist during a pandemic enough of a threat in itself? If ever we were worried about “Covid comedies”, SXSW managed to flush out the good ones. (Read about the Festiville team’s other favorite Covid-inflected comedies, including an interview with the directors of I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking).)

Alex Marzona praises the “off-the-charts chemistry” between leads Mallory Everton and Whitney Call. Best friends since they were nine, the pair also wrote the film, with Everton co-directing with Stephen Meek. Every laugh comes from your gut and feels like something only the cast and crew would usually be privy to. “You can tell a lot of the content is improvised, which just attests to their talent,” writes Emma. Recovery doesn’t make you laugh awkwardly about how awful the last year has been—rather, it reminds you that even in such times there are still laughs to be had, trips to be taken, family worth uprooting everything for. Just make sure you’ve packed enough wet wipes for the road, and think long and hard about who should babysit your mice. EK

The Spine of Night

Written and directed by Morgan Galen King and Philip Gelatt

Don’t get too attached to any characters from its star-studded cast—nobody is safe (or fully-clothed) in The Spine of Night’s raw, ultra-violent and cynical world. Conjured over the last seven years, directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King’s rotoscoped epic recaptures the dazzling imagination and scope of their influences Ralph Bakshi and Heavy Metal. Approaching an anthology-style structure to explore how ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’—a proverb more potent now than when Gelatt and King began their project—the film packs a franchise’s worth of ideas in its 90-minute runtime. Though the storytelling justifiably proves itself overly dense for some, it will find the audience it’s after, as other Letterboxd members have declared it “a rare treat” and “a breath of fresh air in the feature-length animation scene”. For sure, The Spine of Night can join Sundance premieres Flee and Cryptozoo in what’s already a compelling year for unique two-dimensional animation. JM

Kambole Campbell caught up with Gelatt and King (who are also Letterboxd members!) during SXSW to talk about animation inspirations and rotoscoping techniques.

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson

Written and directed by Leah Purcell

Snakes, steers and scoundrels beware! Writer-director-star Leah Purcell ably repurposes the Western genre for Aboriginal and female voices in The Drover’s Wife. Molly Johnson is a crack-shot anti-heroine for the ages, in this decolonized reimagining of a classic 1892 short story by Henry Lawson. And by reimagining, we mean a seismic shift in the narrative: Purcell has fleshed out a full story of a mother-of-four, pregnant with her fifth, a missing husband, predatory neighbors, a mysterious runaway and a young English couple on different paths to progress in this remote Southern land. Purcell first adapted this story for the stage, then as published fiction; she rightly takes the leading role in the screen version, too.

As a debut feature director, Purcell (Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri) already has a firm grip on the macabre and the menacing, not shying away from violence, but making very careful decisions about what needs to be depicted, given all that Molly Johnson and her family are subjected to. She also sneaks in mystic touches, and a hint of romance (local heartthrob Rob Collins can take us on a walk to where the Snowy widens to see blooming wildflowers anytime). Judging by early Letterboxd reviews, it’s not for everyone, but this is Australian colonization through an Indigenous feminist’s eyes, with a fierce, intersectional pay-off. “Extremely similar to a vast majority of the issues and themes explored in The Nightingale,” writes Claira. “I’m slowly realizing that my favorite type of Westerns are Australian.” LK, GG

Swan Song

Written and directed by Todd Stephens

Udo Kier is often the bridesmaid, rarely the bride. Now, after a lifetime of supporting roles ranging from vampires and villains to art-house muse, he finally gets to shine center-stage in Swan Song. Kier dazzles as a coiffure soothsayer in this lyrical pageant to the passage of queer times in backwater Sandusky, Ohio. “He is absolutely wonderful here,” writes Adrianna, “digging deep and pulling out a mesmerizing, deeply affecting and emotionally textured performance, proving that he’s an actor with much more range than people give him credit for.”

A strong supporting cast all have melancholy moments to shine, with Linda Evans (Dynasty), Michael Urie (Ugly Betty) and Jennifer Coolidge (Legally Blonde) along for the stroll. Surreal camp touches add joy (that chandelier, the needle drop!) but by the end, the tears roll (both of joy and sadness). Writer-director Todd Stephens ties up his Sandusky trilogy in this hometown homage, a career peak for both him and Kier. Robert Daniels puts it well, writing that Swan Song is “campy as hell, but it’s also a heartfelt LGBTQ story about lost lovers and friends, vibrant memories and the final passage of a colorful life.” LK

Leo Koziol spoke with Todd Stephens and Udo Kier during SXSW about Grace Jones, David Bowie and dancing with yourself.

Islands

Written and directed by Martin Edralin

Islands is a Mike Leigh-esque story that presents a Canadian Filipino immigrant family full of quirk and character, centered around Joshua, a reticent 50-year-old homebody son. The story drifts in and out of a deep well of sadness. Moments of lightness and familial love make the journey worthwhile. “A film so Filipino a main plot device is line-dancing,” writes Karl. “Islands is an incredibly empathetic film about what it’s like to feel unmoored from comfort. It’s distinctly Filipino and deals with the psychology of Asian culture in a way that feels both profound and oddly comforting.” In a year in which we’ve all been forced to physically slow down, Islands “shows us how slow life can be,” writes Justin, “and how important it is to be okay with that.” Rogelio Balagtas’s performance as Joshua—a first-time leading role—won him the SXSW Grand Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance. LK

Ninjababy

Directed by Yngvild Sve Flikke, written by Flikke with Johan Fasting and Inga H. Sætre

Ninjababy is as ridiculous as its title. When 23-year-old Rakel finds herself accidentally pregnant, scheduling an abortion is a no-brainer. But she’s way too far along, she’s informed, so she’s going to have to have the baby. The ensuing meltdown might have been heartbreaking if the film wasn’t so damn funny. Ninjababy draws on the comforting and familiar (“Lizzie McGuire if she was a pregnant young adult,” writes Nick), while mixing shock with originality (Erica Richards notices “a few aggressive and vulgar moments [but] somehow none of it seemed misplaced”).

An animated fetus in the style of Rakel’s own drawings appears to beg and shame Rakel into motherhood while she fights to hold onto her confidence that not wanting to be a mother doesn’t make her a bad person. Ninjababy’s greatest feat is its willingness to delve into that complication: yes, it’s righteous and feminist and 21st-century to claim your own body and life, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to turn away from something growing inside of you. It’s a comedy about shame, art, finding care in unlikely places—and there’s something in it for the gents, too. The titular ninjababy wouldn’t leave Rakel alone, and it’s unlikely to leave you either. Winner of the SXSW Global Audience Award. SH

The Fallout

Written and directed by Megan Park

Canadian actress Megan Park brought the youthful wisdom of her days on the teen drama series The Secret Life of the American Teenager to her first project behind the camera, and it paid off. Following the scattered after-effects of a school shooting, The Fallout may be the most acute, empathetic depiction of childhood trauma on screen in recent memory. “It sneaks up on you with its honesty and how it spends time with its lead, carried so beautifully by Jenna Ortega. Even the more conventional moments are poignant because of context,” writes Kevin L. Lee. Much of that “sneaky” honesty emerges as humor—despite the heavy premise, moments of hilarity hang on the edges of almost every scene. And Ortega’s portrayal of sweet-but-angsty Vada brings self-awareness to that humor, like when Vada’s avoidant, inappropriate jokes with her therapist reveal her desperation, but they garner genuine laughs nonetheless.

In this debut, Park shows an unmatched understanding of non-linear ways that young people process their pain. Sometimes kids try drugs! Sometimes they scream at their parents! But more often than not, they really do know what they want, who loves them, and how much time they need to grieve (see also: Jessie Barr’s Sophie Jones, starring her cousin Jessica Barr, out now on VOD and in theaters). The Fallout forsakes melodrama to embrace confusion, ambiguity and joy. Winner of both the SXSW Grand Jury and Audience Narrative Feature Awards, and the Brightcove Illumination Award. SH

Ludi

Directed by Edson Jean, written by Jean and Joshua Jean-Baptiste

When Ludi begins, it’s quiet and dreamy. The film’s opening moments conjure the simple pleasures of the titular character’s Haitian heritage: the music, the colors, the people. Ludi (Shein Monpremier) smiles to herself as she starts her morning with a tape recording her cousin mailed from Haiti to Miami, and listens as her family members laugh through their troubles before recording an upbeat tape of her own. But that’s where the dreaminess ends—Ludi is an overworked, underpaid nurse picking up every shift she possibly can in order to send money home. Writer-director Edson Jean fixates on the pains and consequences of Ludi’s relentless determination, which comes to a head when she moonlights as a private nurse for an old man who doesn’t want her there.

Ashton Kinley notes how the film “doesn’t overly dramatize or pull at false emotional strings to make its weight felt. The second half of the feature really allows all of that to shine, as the film becomes a tender and empathetic two-hander.” George’s (Alan Myles Heyman) resentment of his own aging body steps in as Ludi’s antagonist. Jean throws together jarring contrasts: George throwing Ludi out of the bathroom, followed by Ludi’s memories of home, followed by another lashing out, followed by a shared prayer. The tension is unsustainable. By interspersing the back-breaking predicament of a working-class immigrant with the sights and sounds of the Caribbean, Ludi elegantly, painfully reveals what the cost of a dream can be. SH

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror

Written and directed by Kier-La Janisse

Building on the folk horror resurgence of films like The Witch and Midsommar, Kier-La Janisse’s 193-minute documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is a colossal, staggering undertaking that should school even the most seasoned of horror buffs. “Thorough is an understatement,” says Claira.

Combining a historian’s studied, holistic patience with a cinephile’s rabid, insatiable thirst, the film, through the course of six chapters, broadens textbook British definitions, draws trenchant socio-political and thematic connections, debunks myths and transports viewers to far-flung parts of the globe in a way that almost feels anthropological. As Jordan writes, “Three hours later and my mind is racing between philosophical questions about the state of hauntology we generationally entrap ourselves in, wanting to buy every single one of the 100+ films referenced here, and being just a bit in awe of Janisse’s truly breathless work.” An encyclopedic forest worth losing yourself in—get ready for those watchlists to balloon. Winner of the SXSW Midnighters Audience Award. AY

Introducing, Selma Blair

Directed by Rachel Fleit

There’ll likely be some level of hype when this intimate collaboration between actress Selma Blair and filmmaker Rachel Fleit comes out later in the year on Discovery+, and that’s okay, because that is Blair’s intention in sharing the details of her stem-cell transplant for multiple sclerosis. There’d be little point in going there if you are not prepared to really go there, and Introducing, Selma Blair is a tics-and-all journey not just into what life is like with a chronic condition, a young son, and a career that relies on one’s ability to keep a straight face. It’s also an examination of the scar tissue of childhood, the things we are told by our parents, the ideas we come to believe about ourselves. “I almost felt like I shouldn’t have such intimate access to some of the footage in this documentary,” writes Andy Yen. “Bravo to Selma for allowing the filmmakers to show some truly raw and soul-bearing videos about her battle with multiple sclerosis that make us feel as if we are as close to her as family.” GG

Femme

Directed by Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping

I May Destroy You fans, rejoice: Paapa Essiedu, who played Arabella’s fascinating best friend Kwame, takes center stage in Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping’s intoxicating short film Femme. It’s a simple premise—Jordan, a femme gay man, follows his drug dealer (Harris Dickinson, mastering the sexually repressed brusque young man like no one else) home to pick up some goods on a night out. Except, of course, it’s not that simple. The co-directors build a world of danger, tension and electricity, with lusciously lensed scenes that lose focus as the threat rises. Frankie calls it “hypnotizing and brutal and gorgeous” and we couldn’t agree more. A crime thriller wrestling with hyper-masculinity seen through the eyes of an LGBTQ+ character, with a sucker-punch ending to boot, the world needs more than twenty minutes of this story. EK

Play It Safe

Directed by Mitch Kalisa

If you (unwisely) thought that the vulnerable, progressive environment of drama school would be a safe space for Black students, Play It Safe confirms that even a liberal bunch of actors (and their teacher) are capable of being blind to their own egregiously racist microagressions. Mitch Kalisa’s excellent short film explores structural prejudice head-on, in an electric acting exercise that rests on where the kinetic, gritty 16mm camera is pointing at every pivotal turn. At first, we’re with Black drama student Jonathan Ajayi as he receives the assignment; then we are with the rest of the class, exactly where we need to be. “Literally in your face and absolutely breathtaking,” writes Nia. A deserving winner of the SXSW Grand Jury and Audience narrative shorts prizes. GG


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