For my top five films at SXSW, I wanted to describe their success in greater detail. My number five and four films are Everything Everywhere All at Once and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.
5. Everything Everywhere All at Once
dir. Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
This was the first film I saw at SXSW and was really the first widely-anticipated premiere I had ever been to. Lines of people wrapped around the block twice, the cameras snapped and flashed on the red carpet, the caravans of security shuttled celebrities from one point of entry to another. I’ve heard the term “media circus” before, and this certainly fits the description.
Once inside, we all scrambled for suitable seating in the crowded Paramount Theater. The best seat I found was unfortunately quite far from where Michelle Yeoh and the rest of the cast had their reserved seats, but I was able to cheer with the crowd when they and the Daniels’ walked out on stage to welcome us.
The film itself can be best described in one word: spectacle. And I mean that in the most positive way imaginable. Every scene – every frame – of the film features something eye-catching, breathtaking, or thought-provoking. The concept on its own – an immigrant mother struggling to pay her taxes must also struggle with the fate of the multiverse – sounds completely ludicrous, and in the wake of Spiderman: No Way Home and other insanely-budgeted films like the imminent Multiverse of Madness and Flash films on the way, the concept of the multiverse may sound like a cash grab on a popular trope. Not so here. Everything Everywhere is easily one of the most original films I’ve ever seen.
I have to dive into a couple of spoilers going forward. I urge you to skip this section and go watch the movie. It’s truly a great piece of film that deserves your full attention without knowing anything going in. That being said, if you have seen the movie (as it has already seen its wide release in many cities), you will understand that this film is so complex that I cannot hope to say everything I need to without citing a few spoilers.
The film follows Michelle Yeoh’s character Evelyn, a middle-aged Chinese immigrant who moved to the states with her husband (Ke Huy Quan). Together, they had a daughter (Stephanie Hsu), and they own a laundromat. Evelyn is struggling to balance the demands of her domineering father, her hapless but lovable husband, her daughter who is dating a woman, and her business’s tax audit. In the midst of the mess, she is confronted with a multiverse conflict confronting herself and her family, and, get this: she is the only hope of saving time and space.
Over the course of the film, Evelyn is forced to confront the various choices she has made in her life/lives, including but not limited to leaving China, divorcing her husband, and accepting her daughter as she is. As she gains knowledge and skills from her other versions, she grows in wisdom but also in internal conflict. She must stand against a dark force that she is in part responsible for creating, all while attempting to not ruin her life even more.
The highlight of the film, among many bright spots, is the cast. They are all absolutely killing it. Yeoh obviously stands out as the lead, and I haven’t even mentioned the excellent job Jamie Lee Curtis does as her IRS agent. Hsu is also amazing, genuinely selling the lost kid looking for love and guidance while also pushing it away because of past trauma.
The true hero of the cast, however, is Quan. Without giving too much away, the man has to play three separate characters, which, although sharing a face, have almost nothing else in common. I got to hear him talk after the credits rolled, and he spoke about hiring body language and voice coaches in order to portray all three as independent people.
All three characters are deserving of best supporting actor nominations in whatever contest you like. I’m so thrilled Quan came back to acting for this role, and I hope he sticks around for more work.
The story deftly balances the various worlds, characters and arcs it touches on. By the end, you really get the sense that it all could have happened. It does very occasionally become a little too complicated for its own good, which should only be expected from such an intriguing idea. There are also a few moments where the humor didn’t really click for me; one joke about a sex toy-shaped trophy drags on too long for my taste. But, for everything it packs into its parcel, reactions follow actions in a reasonable and compelling way.
The throughline of the chaos is the complex character dynamics. Yeoh does a great job playing a mother, a wife, and a daughter all at the same time; no relationship seems like an afterthought. The relationships with Quan’s various characters provide the skeleton of the story, motivating Evelyn in really believable and attuned ways. Meanwhile, the relationship between the overwhelmed mother and her aching daughter is the heart, giving the film its immense emotional weight, particularly in the third act.
Everything is brilliant. Editing-wise, it is nearly flawless, never allowing the viewer to become lost in the madness, and providing clear and obvious routes for the story to take. The visual effects are also impressive, forfeiting realism for effective, detailed storytelling that communicates to the audience what needs to be understood. The shot composition is at times mind-boggling, creating genuinely epic moments even when the characters are barely doing any acting at all. The choreography, the music, the sound design: everything falls into place.
This movie is bound to satisfy even the most skeptical of movie-goers. The story of a struggling mother is deeply relatable and the cocoon of simple-living and existential snippets delivers that message with sincerity. This is the kind of film you should see best picture nominations for and the like. Go see it.
4. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
dir. Dean Fleischer-Camp
I am not one to cry during movies. At the very least, the stories depicted in film that tend to make others cry do not usually affect me quite so much. That being said, the third act of this film brought me to tears twice. Believe it or not, this is the most emotionally impacting film I saw at SXSW.
The film follows Marcel, a shell with shoes, who lives in an Airbnb with his grandmother. The first act focuses on how a creature as small as Marcel, with all the intelligence of a human, survives in a world not built for his sized people. It is truly one of the most adorable things I've ever seen in my entire life. Marcel himself is designed to be cute, his tiny shell body fitted with oversized shoes and a delightfully childish voice. I’ve never seen an entire theater go “aww” all at once until I saw this movie.
The second and third acts investigate where Marcel’s family has disappeared to. This is where the film elevates itself from a cute and fun time to genuinely great filmmaking. Almost the entire film takes place in one house, but the expert use of scale makes the world seem massive and flush with life and character.
Marcel's intimate story is at times heartbreaking and heartwarming. If there was a thesis word for this film, it would be community. Primarily, it deals with the loss of community, as we see Marcel in the wake of his family's disappearance and later, with the disparity between celebrity and genuine connection.
As silly as it sounds, the movie is a compelling analysis of grief. Marcel deals with sadness in a very honest way, which is pretty commendable for a stop motion shell. As cute as the movie is, it all adds up to a truly heart-wrenching third act, which, without spoiling anything, tests Marcel’s resolve and positivity.
It’s worth mentioning the role that filmmaker Fleischer plays in the film. The movie has documentary-like qualities, and he acts as the omniscient off-camera narrator, providing the additional dose of sympathy that drives the film home.
The strange combination of elements just works. It’s a full cinema experience, and it isn’t asking you to suspend your disbelief. At its core, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is the story of a little creature looking for his parents and trying to understand his own identity in the process. It has all the emotional highs and lows of a big-budget film, but it is also uniquely earnest and kind. Without putting too fine a point on it, this is the kind of film I want to see more of. There is no jadedness or hostility, only a love for storytelling. Please make more movies like this.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On will be released by A24 later this year.
The final part of my recap will be released in the following days. You can check out my ranking of the first fifteen films I saw at SXSW here.