This past week, I attended the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas virtually. For Sundance coverage, team members did individual reviews for each of the films they saw, but since I was the only one attending South By, I figured it better to sum everything up in two swift posts.
It is important for me to mention that although I am ranking these movies by my personal opinion for organization’s sake, I truly enjoyed each and every movie I saw at the festival. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was no film I actively disliked, so take all placements with that information in mind. Here is my countdown for all fourteen feature films I saw at SXSW (part 1).
14. Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil
Director: Michael D. Ratner
My first doc of the festival and one of the more exclusive screenings, Dancing with the Devil operates as a tell-all account of Lovato’s 2018 overdose and past traumas. Lovato’s candor in this four-part series is extraordinarily admirable and seeing her address her faults and shortcomings is a great reminder that the life of a star isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. There’s no remarkable finesse in the filmmaking (it’s being released into four parts on Youtube), but if it’s information about a pop star you like that you’re looking for, look no further. It is thoroughly interesting, and even if it somewhat serves as a commercial for her next album, the emotional beats resonate.
Streaming: March 23rd on Youtube Premium.
13. Fruits of Labor
Director: Emily Cohen Ibanez
Fruits of Labor is a documentary that follows a Mexican-American girl during her final year of high school. She fears becoming the principal breadwinner for her family, as undocumented immigrants face greater threats from ICE under the Trump administration. She works two jobs in addition to her schoolwork and is forced to grow up quickly. This is the first feature doc from director Ibanez, and its amateur nature does occasionally stick out: cheesy animated transitions, a score that doesn’t *quite* fit, and a lack of varied shot compositions. That said, the modesty of its subjects certainly makes for a lowkey, naturalistic appeal. The encouraging ending makes the journey worth the destination, and the humanity of the lens triumphs.
12. Potato Dreams of America
Director: Wes Hurley
This was my first film of the festival, and it was probably the most unusual one I saw. A unique combination of style and influences (Jojo Rabbit and Goodbye Lenin! come to mind), this true story about a young Russian boy coming to terms with his sexuality and relocating to the U.S. is vibrant and spunky. It is split into two acts: childhood in Russia (in which young Potato and his mother have American accents) and then adolescence in the U.S. (in which Potato and his mother, portrayed by different actors, adopt Russian accents). It’s hard to criticize the narrative progression, as, unbelievably, Wes Hurley is using 100% bonafide characters straight from his actual life. Seeing the pictures side by the end at the end of the movie is legitimately surreal. I am pretty positive this movie will gain a cult following at least within the queer community for its general effervescence and numerous references to Gregg Arakki’s The Living End. People will talk mainly about how Jonothan Bennet from Mean Girls literally plays Jesus Christ in this movie, but there’s much more to see here, and I hope it finds its right audience.
10. Soy Cubana
Directors: Jeremy Ungar & Ivaylo Getov
Soy Cubana follows a quartet of Cuban women, the Vocal Vidas, in the booking of their first U.S. concert venue. A rich exploration of cultural and language barriers, this documentary is driven by its music. I can’t even imagine the experience of seeing them live- hearing their voices on the computer was enough to leave me with chills. I will warn my readers that I saw this film very late at night and as a result probably lack genuine commentary on its progression, but it was a relaxing eighty minutes, and should it get distribution I will look to see it again. It was one of the most underseen at the festival (10 reviews total on Letterboxd), so I hope that any positive feedback is better than none.
11. Best Summer Ever
Directors: Lauren Smitelli & Michael Parks Randa
If you are looking for serotonin, look no further than this joyous and diverse movie musical that takes inspiration from the likes of Grease and High School Musical. The cast is comprised mostly of people with disabilities, and not once is that ever even mentioned in the film! People are just people, and love is just love. It’s corny and excruciatingly predictable, but in the best way. Original music, fun dance numbers, bright colors, an unexpected marijauna subplot- this movie is so fun. It must be such a win for the disability community, and I am crossing my fingers it gets a mainstream release.
9. The Fallout
Director: Megan Park
This movie won the big prize at SXSW this year, and while I’d like to be able to join the hype, I have a few more qualms than the average viewer. Films handling school shootings are always going to be delicate, and while I do not believe this to be an exploitative film in the least, there are some aspects of it that are slightly questionable to me. However, I am choosing to focus on the positives. Jenna Ortega is absolutely fantastic here in the lead role of Vada, and she’s proving herself to be a very capable young actress. Megan Park is a good director (pretty remarkable for a debut): she takes some stylistic cues in presentation from other coming-of-age movies like Booksmart, but it’s technically sturdy and uses, to great success, sunny natural lighting. The soundtrack is memorable, Park has a better-than-expected handle of Gen Z dialogue, and, quite frankly, it’s pretty funny. Funny? School shooting movie? Yeah- that’s where I was just a little bit confused. I won’t say too much more because I expect this to get a big distributor, but while I believe the pros outweigh the cons, I am a little bit hesitant to call The Fallout “great.”
8. Language Lessons
Director: Natalie Morales
The Natalie Morales movement is arriving! This is also her directorial debut, and written and filmed in the heart of the pandemic, it is the start of the Zoomovie (a film that takes place over Zoom). It honestly sounded horrible to me going in, but I have to give credit where credit is due: Morales is a good writer. While I will give the upper hand to Mark Duplass in the performance department, neither is complete without the other. If you aren’t prepared to watch two people talk on Zoom for ninety minutes, maybe wait until you have more patience to get around to it. Nonetheless, it is impressive for showing the capacity of a creative mind even when the world has seemingly ceased to turn. Morales has another film coming out this year with unknowns called Plan B, so keep your eye out for that.
Stay tuned for part 2, where I count down my top seven favorite movies of SXSW 2021.