For a second consecutive year, South by Southwest (SXSW) has gone virtual due to the ongoing global pandemic. For movie, music, and technology conference enthusiasts around the world who have never been able to attend in the past, this actually works out nicely. For SXSW Film, this means opening up one of the world’s best-curated festivals to a wider audience that can enjoy films from the comfort and safety of their homes.
So while traditions like red carpet premieres and packed theatrical screenings were missing, 2021’s film selections definitely stayed true to the spirit of SXSW – offering an inclusive mix of stories from innovative filmmakers around the globe covering genres from documentaries to horror to heady drama. After streaming nearly 70 hours of programming, these were our 15 favourite discoveries from this year’s line-up.
Synopsis: “When Rakel (23), way too late, finds out she’s six months pregnant after a not-so-romantic one-night stand, her world changes. Her boyfriend, who’s not the father, is kind of ok with her having a baby. But Rakel is absolutely not ready for being a mother. Since abortion is no longer an option, adoption is the only answer. That’s when Ninjababy, an animated character who insists on making Rakel’s everyday life a living hell, turns up. He climbs out from her note book, jumps into her tea cup, and tells her what a bad person she is.”
Our take: Based on Inga H Sætre’s graphic novel Fallteknikk (which amusingly translates as “Fail Technician”), Norwegian filmmaker Yngvild Sve Flikke’s Ninjababy is a raucous, rude and ultimately poignant pregnancy comedy with lots of heart. Alternately funny and insightful, imaginative and unsentimental – the movie offers a fresh, femisnist embrace of a “selfish, shitty” protagonist who makes no apologies for her chaotic approach to life-changing decisions.
Synopsis: “When executive Ricardo is found shot dead in the seat of his car without suspicion, Inspector Espinosa and police officer Daia are in charge of the case and soon begin to investigate the people closest to the victim. But when everyone involved in the case mysteriously disappears, the situation takes on unexpected proportions.”
Our take: This was the most impassioned, invigorating and inventive film at SXSW this year. Lazaro Ramos’ Executive Order takes place in a dystopian Brazil where all citizens of African descent are being shipped to Africa, an executive order passed by government officials to “make Brazil pure again.” This is a heart-pounding and disquieting cautionary tale that explores race relations and political corruption through a fascistic alternate reality.
Synopsis: “When a recently widowed mother becomes houseless, she convinces her 8-year-old daughter that they are only camping for fun while working to get them off of the streets.”
Our take: Set during the COVID-19 economic crunch, Kelley Kali and Angelique Molina’s micro-budget debut is one of the best narratives about pandemic hardship put to screen thus far. I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) eloquently tackles modern maternal challenges with a film full of heart, humor and homespun charm – spotlighting the enduring spirit of what a mother would do to make the world a better place for her daughter.
Synopsis: “British bus driver’s amateur stage show of Ridley Scott’s Alien, accidentally makes it to a famous London theatre! With awkward acting and special effects requiring more luck than judgement, will their homemade homage be alright on the night?”
Our take: If we didn’t know any better, we would have assumed that this was a Christopher Guest mockumentary. But Alien on Stage is a real-life documentary that charmingly chronicles an amateur dramatics company from Dorset, made up of bus drivers (as well as supervisors and engineers), as they try to put low-budget production of Alien for a charity fundraiser. From amazing feats of technical ingenuity to actors who’d rather be at the pub than learn their lines, Alien on Stage captures lighting in a bottle to deliver one of the funniest documentaries in ages.
Synopsis: “High schooler Vada navigates the emotional fallout she experiences in the wake of a school tragedy. Relationships with her family, friends and view of the world are forever altered.”
Our take: Megan Park’s directorial debut unpacks the tragedy of a school shooting to craft one of the most sensitive, piercing and defining Gen Z films ever made. From the gloss of social media to the lasting traumas of the survivors, The Fallout is an unflinching look at shell shocked children, grounded in a bravely authentic and realistic portrait of teen life. Emotional, lively, intelligent and lyrical, this film is a gut-punch you won’t soon forget.
Synopsis: “An aging hairdresser (Udo Kier) escapes his nursing home and embarks on an odyssey across his small town to style a dead woman’s hair for her funeral, rediscovering his sparkle along the way.”
Our take: Legendary German actor Udo Kier is a revelation as Pat (based on a real-life person), a flaboyantly queer hairdresser who has hit his glamourless rock bottom. Kier fully embodies the role, imbuing him with a mischievous charm and a poignant soulfulness, while giving a deliciously dry edge to the delivery of the script’s sharp humour. Funny and bittersweet, Todd Stephens’ Swan Song is a tender comedy of emotional self-reflection.
Synopsis: “Luchadoras portrays the courageous female wrestlers of Ciudad Juárez, a city known for its high murder rate against women – who in the ring and in their daily lives fight to redefine the image of what it means to be a woman in Mexico.”
Our take:Luchadoras – and its powerful female collective – fights outward appearances on two fronts, by raising awareness of the alarming rates of abuse and femicide in Mexico as well as what can be done to combat these issues and how women protect themselves. Paola Calvo and Patrick Jasim’s intimate documentary focuses on the life and experiences of three female pro wrestlers who not only celebrate the strength of Mexican women but also challenge the social injustices they face and the labels that define them.
Introducing, Selma Blair
Synopsis: “Introducing, Selma Blair is a deeply intimate and raw portrait of the actress after she is diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and makes a valiant, risky effort to try to slow the progression of her disease. For the acclaimed, yet often supporting actress, her starring role has finally arrived – she just has to show up and fully embrace herself.”
Our take:Introducing is a remarkably moving portrait of a 40-something woman forced to reevaluate her relationships and her sense of self in the face of a chronic illness that leaves her sometimes unable to speak or control her movements. Director Rachel Fleit does an exceptional job at capturing everything with a compassionate lens, offering an unvarnished look at Selma Blair’s experiences in a way that will educate many on the effects of MS.
The Spine of Night
Synopsis: “This epic begins many years ago when an ambitious young man steals forbidden knowledge from a sacred plant and, as he falls to its darker temptations, unleashes ages of suffering onto mankind. As his power grows over the years, there are many who stand against him. Among them are a daring tomb-robber, star-crossed lovers, a maniacal necromancer, winged assassins, and an undying guardian.”
Our take: Written and directed by Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King, The Spine of Night is a breathtaking accomplishment of hand drawn animation, unfurling a meditative and existential tale of ultra-violent high fantasy. Aided by a talented voice cast that includes Richard E. Grant, Lucy Lawless, Patton Oswalt, Joe Manganiello, and more – it’s hard not to be awed by sheer artistry and brazen ambition of this grisly anthology.
Synopsis: “The death of punk icon and X-Ray Spex frontwoman Poly Styrene sends her daughter on a journey across the world and through her mother’s archives to reconcile their fraught relationship.”
Our take: Poly Styrene was the first woman of color in the UK to front a successful rock band. As the frontwoman of X-Ray Spex, the Anglo-Somali musician was also a key inspiration for the riot grrrl and Afropunk movements. But the maverick didn’t just leave behind an immense cultural footprint. She was survived by a daughter, Celeste Bell, who became the unwitting guardian of her mother’s legacy and demons. This documentary is a moving study of a fraught mother-daughter dynamic, mental health and a seminal artist way ahead of her time.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror
Synopsis: “Woodlands Dark Days and Days Bewitched is the first feature-length documentary on the history of folk horror, from the 1960s to today.”
Our take: In her feature debut, writer-director Kier-La Janisse dives deep into the world of folk horror, delivering a dizzyingly comprehensive documentary that approaches the subgenre’s history with a wide-reaching critical perspective. Featuring interviews with filmmakers like Robert Eggers and Alice Lowe, alongside authors, critics and academics – this three-hour film explores the cultural origins and stylistic evolution of the subgenre throughout America, Asia, Australia and Europe.
Synopsis: A decade after abruptly breaking up with Naomi, Kris invites her to dinner to catch-up on their complicated lives, relationships, and Kris’ transition.
Our take: See You Then is, almost in its entirety, focused on a single night where two characters meet up for dinner, drinks, and a stroll around the city, and in that stead it evokes both the easy charm and underlying suspense of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset. Mari Walker’s feature directorial debut is a dialogue-driven masterclass buoyed by conversational explorations of sexual identity, relationships and human compassion – alongside compelling performances from Pooya Mohseni and Lynn Chen.
Synopsis: Nanfu Wang’s deeply personal In The Same Breath recounts the origin and spread of the novel coronavirus from the earliest days of the outbreak in Wuhan to its rampage across the United States.
Our take: Derived from Wang’s courageous undercover reporting in hospitals, homes, and morgues, In The Same Breath is filled with shocking revelations on both a close-up, experiential level and on the level of overarching statistics and trends. From capturing the anguish of patients, to following the Chinese government’s bungling cover-up across the sea to America, this documentary sheds light on how a culture of disinformation exacerbated a global crisis.
Synopsis: “A state of secrets and a ruthless hunt for whistleblowers – this is the story of 25-year-old Reality Winner who disclosed a document about Russian election interference to the media and became the number one leak target of the Trump administration.”
Our take: The conviction of Reality Winner, who alerted the world to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, leads to an intrepid investigation of other systems of concern in Sonia Kennebeck’s new documentary. Terrifying and enraging, United States vs. Reality Winner asks thoughtful questions about patriotism in its profile of a brave whistleblower who has been imprisoned and vilified for trying to expose the truth.
Synopsis: “A psychedelic journey into the heart (and bank account) of Michael Brody, Jr, the hippie-millionaire who offered the world peace for the price of a postage stamp.”
Our take: In January 1970, hippie-millionaire Michael Brody Jr., the 21-year-old heir to a margarine fortune, announced to the world that he would personally usher in a new era of peace and love by giving away his $25-million inheritance to anyone in need. In a frenzied few weeks, Brody and his young wife Renee ignited a psychedelic spiral of events. Instant celebrities, the Brodys were mobbed by the public, scrutinized by the press, and overwhelmed by the crush of personal letters responding to this extraordinary offer. 50 years later, an enormous cache of these letters are discovered unopened. Documentarian Keith Maitland reveals the incredible story of Michael Brody Jr. – and the countless struggling Americans who sought his help – to create a deeply moving meditation on desire, need, philanthropy and love.