Tuesday, April 23, 2024

A Recap Of The 2024 SXSW Film Festival

SXSW always features an exciting combination of buzzy Hollywood blockbusters and creative, low-budget independent projects. This year was no exception, as evidenced by Universal Pictures’ big-budget action-comedy extravaganza “The Fall Guy” premiering in Austin’s Paramount Theatre mere hours after the premiere of the completely off-the-radar (and completely off-the-wall) bowling comedy “The Gutter” from sitcom writers Isaiah and Yassir Lester. Regardless of their quality, the films I saw this year all came from unique points of view that made for an incredibly wide range of subjects and styles. Many of these films have yet to secure distribution, so keep them on your radar – SXSW 2023 standout “I Used To Be Funny” is only getting to theaters outside of the festival circuit now, a year later – and get ready for the hype.

7 KEYSThe premise – after discovering her hook-up has kept the keys to all the places where he used to live in London, Lena decides that they should visit them all and have sex in each one – sounds insufferable. Still, it’s clear from the super-stylish opening that Joy Wilkinson is not making a European art film. “7 Keys” practically hums with electricity, from the crackling chemistry between Emma McDonald and Billy Postlethwaite to the color-coded cinematography. With each key comes a new area of London, a new story, and a new level of intimacy between the characters that only gets more intriguing as it goes. This all gets upended by a plot development in the second half that sends it careening off the rails even as Wilkinson manages to maintain the disarming intimacy we share with the characters. The commentary about living in a major metropolis like London and how it makes those on the margins feel even worse off than they already are may be mostly subtextual, but it rings true—a sexy, smart surprise.

Grade: 7/10

ARCADIAN
Benjamin Brewer’s “Arcadian” opens with a stellar sequence, introducing us to its dystopian world. We never learn precisely what happened, but we see the devastation and the awful conditions that have forced Nicolas Cage’s Paul to scavenge for materials to keep his two baby boys safe. Some years later, the boys have grown into teenagers, helping their father work the land and prepare their country house against the monsters that now roam the night. The low-fi style can get a bit boring in the film’s first half, but things get a lot more exciting once it unveils some of the best creature designs of any recent horror film. The sound mix is tremendously involving, putting you right in the middle of every scene, but the scene where the monsters make their first appearance is the film’s best scene because it’s almost entirely silent. No spoilers here, but it’s one of the most excruciating examples of steadily escalating tension in any film so far this year. Unfortunately, if you wait to watch this at home on Shudder, you might not be able to see most of it, as the night scenes are incredibly dark. The character dynamics are weird, inviting questions about the world that the film isn’t interested in addressing. Still, that creature design is so incredible that this becomes a blast whenever the monsters are around.

Grade: 7/10

BABESBabesAs much as Adlon and the performers keep the film grounded, it should go without saying that “Babes” is incredibly funny. The opening sequence, in which Eden and Dawn go about their planned day even though Dawn is in labor, is a masterpiece of comic escalation, and Buteau’s fearless physical performance will have mothers of all ages wincing in recognition. All the jokes about parenthood and pregnancy have the sting of truth to them, as one would expect from the comedy club-trained creative team. Unfortunately, the structure of the film can leave it feeling a bit like a series of sketch comedy bits: a bit about lugging groceries upstairs while in your third trimester, another about the horror of breast pumps, one about how even luxury resorts don’t consider a woman’s pregnancy, etc. Because of this, every bit is ferociously funny, but “Babes” doesn’t feel like a narrative feature for long stretches. It’s a small price to pay for something as funny as this, but one can’t help but want a bit more connective material to connect these bits more smoothly.

Grade: 7/10

BACKSPOT
Backspot
D.W. Waterson’s lesbian cheerleading drama got a lot of buzz at last year’s TIFF, and it’s mostly deserved. You could compare it to a lot of other dramas about driven young people whose pursuit of greatness exacerbates their already precarious mental state, and it does suffer slightly in comparison to Lauren Hadaway’s recent “The Novice,” but “Backspot” has a different, much more positive outlook than most other such films. Devery Jacobs is dynamite as Riley, an anxious young cheerleader drafted alongside her girlfriend to an elite squad run by the badass perfectionist Eileen (Evan Rachel Wood). Wood’s all-business, no-losers-allowed, “don’t fuck with me, fellas” energy is on point, and Waterson makes judicious use of extreme close-ups and a thumping soundtrack to put us in Riley’s increasingly shaky headspace. Things wrap up too quickly, but the journey to get there is entertaining and offers a much-needed positive gay perspective on sports dramas.

Grade: 7/10

BLACK BOX DIARIESBlack Box Diaries (Credit: Tsutomu Harigaya)Shiori Ito’s documentary, “Black Box Diaries,” about her fight to get justice after being raped by a man with connections to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is probably the bravest thing anyone can possibly do, taking on entire governmental systems and structures of power, documenting everything on film in all its messy, frustrating glory. A journalist by trade, Ito begins the film by turning her past into a journalistic assignment, approaching it as she would any other woman with the same story. But the further down the rabbit hole of the Japanese legal system she goes, the more she realizes the damage she is doing by divorcing herself from her past in this way. The fact that Ito, who directed the film herself, allowed herself to be so profoundly vulnerable on camera speaks highly of her integrity, and the deeply affecting emotional journey will doubtlessly touch many. We can only hope that the Academy’s Documentary Branch takes note because this is easily one of the best documentaries ever made on this subject.

Grade: 8/10

DESERT ROADDesert Road” marks the feature debut of writer-director Shannon Triplett, who previously worked in visual effects. While there is little trace of VFX work in this film, Triplett’s assured visual sensibility helps provide clarity to her twisty screenplay. As our heroine slowly pieces together what’s going on, tiny visual cues from earlier in the film become important, and each one lands with the intended force, regardless of how fleeting they seemed when they first appeared. The story’s internal logic is complex, but it’s not incomprehensible, thanks to Triplett’s clarity with visual language. In fact, Triplett’s puzzle box is so ingeniously constructed that even though you probably could figure out what’s going on before it’s revealed, the solution is so original that it’s highly unlikely. The process is fun no matter when you figure it out, and watching our heroine use skills and resourcefulness she didn’t even know she had at the start makes the film an extremely satisfying watch.

Grade: 7/10

DÌDI
The buzz from Sundance was deafening, but Sean Wang’s feature debut lives up to it. This tender tale of a 13-year-old Taiwanese American boy desperately trying to find himself and fit in the Summer before starting high school hits all the right notes, seamlessly blending a mid-’00s coming-of-age story, a love letter to moviemaking, and an immigrant narrative to make a poignant portrait of that pivotal moment when you finally come to understand your parents. Young Izaac Wang gives a nuanced, layered performance in the titular role, believably fading into the background of any group scene even when the camera’s focus stays trained on his face as Chris (“Dìdi” to his mother and grandmother) longs to break into the popular crowd. The film’s heart, though, is with Chris’s mom, played with wondrous lightness and sensitivity by the legendary Joan Chen. If her late-film monologue about what she gave up by marrying and moving to America and how much she loves her children doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you may have a heart of stone. She absolutely deserves an Oscar nomination, and with Focus Features in the film’s corner, she just may have a shot.

Grade: 8/10

DOIN’ ITIt’s long past time to start the sex ed revolution, and Lilly Singh gives it quite the kickoff in this raunchily hilarious sex-positive comedy directed by Sara Zandieh. Singh is a natural on screen, and the plot is pretty smart: After getting caught in an embarrassing position in front of the whole school, Maya’s mother moves them both back to India so Maya can get a good, strict education. Years later, Maya brings her mom back home to look for funding for her teen-focused app but takes a job as a substitute teacher to research her target demo and make some money. The only problem? This thirty-year-old virgin got assigned to teach sexual education. Realizing that the kids in her class know more than she does and don’t buy the mandated abstinence-based curriculum, she decides to get herself a little sexual education and teach the kids something actually useful. The film’s message is powerful and put across well, shooting down the double standards and hypocrisy surrounding sex ed with ruthless precision, but it’s weirdly not as funny as you might expect. Make no mistake, the laughs that are present are enormous (a recurring bit with Maya’s mom mistaking her vibrator for a blender kills every time), but the film goes for long stretches without them, almost making the jokes secondary to the cultural commentary, which is only occasionally funny. Still, Singh and Zandieh nail the poignant bits between Maya and her students just as much as the gross-out humor, which is precisely what they needed to do for their argument to land. For her part, Singh is committed to the film’s message, hijacking the Q&A portion of the film’s SXSW screenings to ask the audience questions about their own experiences with sex and sex ed and giving out free sex toys to sweeten the deal. Here’s hoping “Doin’ It” finds the distribution it needs to bring this conversation to the forefront.

Grade: 6/10

THE FALL GUYRyan Gosling in The Fall GuyThe problem with all this is that it’s a shiny piece of Hollywood product and, as such, feels more than a little synthetic. Its pleasures are real but fleeting and featherweight, created in a lab to elicit a specific response. Leitch and his crew have crafted the film strongly enough that it works. “The Fall Guy” is nothing if not a hilarious high-octane thrill ride, but it’s been precisely calibrated to elicit exactly those descriptors. It adheres so firmly to formula and executes it so flawlessly that it feels like both a promise and a threat: Movies are back, baby, and wouldn’t you rather see glamorous movie stars being larger-than-life movie stars for your entertainment than watch a genuine artistic statement? Luckily, the ace up the film’s sleeve is also a genuine artistic statement from Leitch about the blood, sweat, tears, and love that go into making shiny pieces of Hollywood product. Combined with the vibrant star power of Blunt and Gosling, “The Fall Guy” is as endearing as it is entertaining.

Grade: 7/10

GRAND THEFT HAMLETThe plays of William Shakespeare, revered today as masterpieces of the English language and elevated to the status of high art, were originally written for all audiences, combining highbrow themes and “low” humor that everyone could enjoy and learn from. Because of this, it’s easy to believe that the Bard would have absolutely adored “Grand Theft Hamlet,” the winner of this year’s SXSW Documentary Feature prize. Picture it: It’s January 2021, and the UK is in its third lockdown. Out-of-work actors and friends Sam Crane and Mark Oosterveen are blowing off steam by playing Grand Theft Auto Online when they happen across an empty amphitheater. They jokingly start reciting soliloquies using the game’s emotes for movement but quickly get serious – would it be possible to stage a production of “Hamlet” in this space? There’s no way to perform in the real world, and all the game’s anarchic violence offers an exciting challenge. And so they do, with Sam’s documentarian partner Pinny Grylls documenting the whole experience using only in-game captures. As the project grows to become more of a site-specific environmental production than a mere staging, they hold casting calls, go location scouting, and weather all sorts of setbacks, from having rehearsals interrupted by police raids to real-world situations affecting the performers’ availability. “Grand Theft Hamlet” is more in line with the SXSW ethos than any other film I saw this year, an inspiring ode to the unbridled creativity within us all. Wildly funny and surprisingly poignant, “Grand Theft Hamlet” is as entertaining as a documentary can get, with a performance finale so jaw-droppingly ambitious in its scope that you can only applaud.

Grade: 8/10

THE GUTTERComedy is the most subjective thing in the world, so your mileage may vary, but sometimes you just need something deliciously dumb, and “The Gutter” delivers. A supremely silly, wildly inappropriate sports movie spoof in the vein of “Happy Gilmore” and “Kingpin,” “The Gutter” was clearly made by a group of people who love nothing more than laughing at jokes among friends. Every second of the film seems to have been conceived by co-writer/director brothers Isaiah and Yassir Lester with the sole purpose of making it as funny as possible. Naturally, their tastes won’t be for everyone, but you know what you’re in for in the film’s opening seconds as Jackée Harry’s bowling lane owner Mozell raises an eyebrow at the resume of Shameik Moore’s Walt because half of it consists of the Wingdings font. The Lesters are way out on their own loopy level, but the cast of comics is right there with them, riffing with each other while ensuring the audience isn’t left on the outside looking in. Their raucous comic energy is infectious, especially the dynamic between Moore’s ultra-confident, PornHub sponsorship-courting Walt and D’Arcy Carden’s perpetually soused, washed-up former champion Skunk. With a too-cool-for-school Susan Sarandon as the antagonist, former champion Linda “The Crusher” Curson (“the Michael B. Jordan of bowling” according to Paul Reiser’s roaster of a sportscaster Angelo), and a string of hilarious cameos, this stacked cast throws everything they have at the wall, and almost all of it sticks. Continuity errors abound, especially in the bowling matches, but when the jokes are this funny, fast, and furious, who cares?

Grade: 7/10

THE HOBBYThe Hobby (Credit: Jesse McCracken)When was the last time you played a board game? If you haven’t played since you were a kid, you might be surprised at the wide variety of games that have cropped up in recent years – more new board games were released last year than were released in total before 1990. “The Hobby” takes a holistic look at the culture of modern board gaming, following game players, creators, reviewers, and even philosophers. It’s a wide-ranging cast of characters, each of whom has a compelling narrative. However, it’s exactly what you’d expect for better and worse. The main interview subjects are lovely, engaging people. Still, only a couple put the lie to most people’s conception of board gamers as nerds and adult children, creating a disconnect between the film’s message and content. Still, it’s a nice, light watch that serves as a sweet reminder of how much play connects us to others, even as we grow older.

Grade: 6/10

I LOVE YOU FOREVEROne of the more interesting tonal experiments of the festival, “I Love You Forever,” is a drama about domestic abuse presented in the guise of a romantic comedy. If it doesn’t fully work, then at least give co-writer/directors Cazzie David and Elisa Kalani credit for the attempt. When the film does work, it’s incredibly striking, as we are right alongside Sofia Black-D’Elia’s Mackenzie as her dream guy Finn (Ray Nicholson) stalks her, verbally abuses her, and discounts her feelings while gaslighting her into thinking she’s the bad one in the relationship. It’s also clear why she stays with him as long as he does, given the absent-minded selfishness of her regular fuck buddy Jake (Raymond Cham, Jr.) in comparison to the love bombing Finn pushes on her. Much of this feels like it’s based on actual dating experiences, simultaneously making it more cringe-worthy and more impactful. While you can feel the influence of producer Diablo Cody in the tart dialogue, David and Kalani lack Cody’s masterful control of tone. The whiplash between the comedic and dramatic parts of the screenplay may be intentional as a way to align the audience more fully with Mackenzie’s ever-more-confused headspace, but it feels awkward in practice. That final beat is killer, though.

Grade: 6/10

I WISH YOU ALL THE BESTWhile Tommy Dorfman’s range as a director has yet to be seen, with her debut feature “I Wish You All The Best,” she has proven herself as a storyteller of unique sensitivity and grace. Adapting Mason Deaver’s novel about non-binary teen Ben de Backer, forced to move in with their estranged sister after their parents kick them out, Dorfman has created the film version of the Netflix series “Heartstopper”: An almost unbearably sweet coming-of-age romance with endearing leads that focuses on joy but never shies away from the darker aspects of coming out in today’s world. Corey Fogelmanis has a face made for film, with wide-open features that are able to distill any emotion to its purest form. In supporting roles, Alexandra Daddario finds new levels of soulfulness as Ben’s sister, Cole Sprouse, is an endearingly awkward “brother-dad,” and Lena Dunham brings surprisingly earthy energy to the role of Ben’s supportive art teacher. The generosity towards every character comes from the source material, but Dorfman finds a way to do so without stepping into overly treacly territory, acknowledging failings without absolving them. It can feel like hyperbole to say that a film will change lives, but “I Wish You All The Best” offers a heartwarming primer on the experience of growing up and coming out as non-binary, something no other film has done at this level. Assuming it gets the distribution it deserves, this will undoubtedly become a touchstone film for queer people of all ages.

Grade: 8/10

IMMACULATEThe last scene of “Immaculate” will undoubtedly divide audiences. At once an act of righteous reclamation and an act of violence so brutal that Mohan won’t even show it, it’s an uncompromising, bold statement to end on. The scene rests entirely on Sweeney’s performance, and the actress digs deep inside herself to deliver the best performance of her young career. Regardless of one’s feelings about what happens, Sweeney’s talent and commitment are impossible to deny, as every difficult, painful decision plays out across her face in one unbroken take. It’s a stunning scene, made all the more stunning as the culmination of her performance across the entire film. She brings an extremely pure quality to Cecilia that makes every emotion land in a big way without ever feeling over the top. Her innocence at the start gives way to confusion when the men of the convent are grilling her about her pregnancy, which melts into a surprising mixture of sadness and fear when she accepts it as fact. As the horror escalates and Cecilia learns the convent’s hidden secrets, the fear deepens into desperate terror, finally leading to a formidable resolve. It’s an awe-inspiring display of range that will hopefully lead to even bigger and better things for the actress. Without her, “Immaculate” would be little more than a “Rosemary’s Baby” riff set at a convent. With her, it’s a bold and bloody ride that will leave your soul shaken.

Grade: 7/10

MONKEY MANMonkey ManMonkey Man,” the first feature from actor Dev Patel, is a classic revenge tale told in a bold, exciting way. For his first feature as a director, Patel has fashioned a remarkably ambitious screenplay (alongside co-writers Paul Angunawela and John Collee) that weaves in religious and class commentary, mythological subtext, and an exploration of childhood trauma, all while being an unrelenting, pulse-pounding actioner. And on top of all that, he also stars as the titular character. The nod to Batman in the title isn’t a coincidence, as the film feels like a superhero origin story at times, never more so than during a bravura training montage set to a traditional drumbeat that steadily increases in intensity as Patel and editor Dávid Jancsó connect political and religious rhetoric to violence against women and the poor. In one sequence, Patel conveys the mental and physical lengths Kid has to go through even to be ready to take on his mission, why Kid is so devoted to his mission, and how this isn’t an issue that affects just him. This sequence is emblematic of the film as a whole in that it does so much more than it has to. While this isn’t always to the film’s advantage, it definitely works in its hard-hitting action sequences.

Grade: 8/10

MÚSICA
Dev Patel wasn’t the only talented multi-hyphenate premiering a wildly ambitious first feature at this year’s SXSW. Former Vine superstar Rudy Mancuso’s debut, “Música,” is a semi-autobiographical film about a young man named Rudy (Mancuso) who can’t quiet the music in his head. Every day, sounds become rhythms he can’t escape, visualized as vivacious, cacophonous musical numbers happening around him. The distraction costs him his white girlfriend, much to the delight of his Brazilian mother (Maria Mancuso, Rudy’s actual mother), but soon after, he meets cute with Isabella (Camila Mendes) at the local fish market. After going on a couple of dates, it’s clear that Isabella is good for Rudy, helping him quiet the music and supporting his dream of creating a successful puppet show. What will Rudy do when his ex sees his happiness and wants him back? Nearly every scene is overflowing with ambitious creativity, nowhere more than during a jaw-dropping oner that follows Rudy as he lies to every woman in his life and tries to date both Isabella and his ex. Mancuso makes incredible use of puppets as both an extension of Rudy’s musical talent (sample song about Starbucks: “It’s expensive”) and an extension of his personality (as in a texting scene where Rudy’s puppet gives him “advice” on how to communicate with his ladies). Full of quirky humor, vibrant cinematography, and original spins on movie tropes, “Música” was the festival’s biggest, best surprise.

Grade: 8/10

MY DEAD FRIEND ZOEInspired by director/co-writer Kyle Hausmann-Stokes’s own experience with fellow vets dealing with PTSD and suicidal ideation after returning from tours in the Middle East, “My Dead Friend Zoe” stars Sonequa Martin-Green as Merit, a veteran mandated by the court to participate in a therapeutic program run by Dr. Cole (Morgan Freeman). She looks like she wants to speak up, but whenever she tries, she’s stopped by Natalie Morales’s embodiment of her dead best army friend, Zoe. When her veteran grandfather Dale (Ed Harris) starts exhibiting signs of mental decline, Merit moves into the family lake house to care for him. While there, she finally begins the journey of moving forward with her life, even if it means having to say goodbye to Zoe for good. The passion from everyone involved in the film is palpable throughout, with all the actors giving rich, lived-in performances that elevate the often on-the-nose script. Martin-Green, in particular, is fantastic, sensitively tracking Merit’s internal battle with heartbreaking, honest vulnerability. She builds believable rapport with both Harris and Morales, the latter of whom brings depth to Zoe’s caustic humor, especially during the flashbacks to Afghanistan. The good intentions of all involved do a lot to paper over the overly manipulative score and screenplay, making this an emotional watch for anyone living with (or close to someone living with) PTSD.

Grade: 6/10

OMNI LOOPBernardo Britto’s time loop dramedy doesn’t lean on the comedy nearly enough for a film that stars two uniquely gifted comediennes like Mary-Louise Parker and Ayo Edebiri. Nevertheless, both performers still spark in their scenes together. The film’s high concept is pretty irresistible, as Parker’s Zoya is diagnosed with a black hole in her chest that will kill her in a week, lives that week, and takes a pill that sends her back to the time of her diagnosis. She’s done it so often that she doesn’t even know how many pills she’s taken, but they never run out, and she can’t figure out what they are. Everything changes when she meets Edebiri’s Paula, a student studying time at the local college. Britto fills the film with lots of lovely ideas and visual grace notes to hammer home his theme of accepting the sum of your life in the face of death, and Parker, who hasn’t had a role this good in ages, nails Zoya’s arc. Unfortunately, the film’s ending only works because of Parker’s performance. After a largely comedic opening, the film slowly reveals its true nature over its ever-more-slowly paced 107 minutes, tossing out red herring after red herring until it’s up to Parker to tie everything together in the film’s final sequence. She’s a wonder, the rare actress who can make the act of thinking look interesting onscreen, but not even she can make the ending feel like a part of the same movie “Omni Loop” began as. It’s trying to do too much, and while every individual element intrigues, the whole ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

Grade: 6/10

THE QUEEN OF MY DREAMSWriter-director Fawzia Mirza shows complete control over her story and how she wants to tell it. The transitions between the two timelines are wonderfully edited, using specific images and music to make it easier to follow and differentiate between them. Fantasy sequences recreating Azra and her mother’s favorite old movie flawlessly capture the look and feel of old Bollywood films. Most impressive, though, is Mirza’s ability to delve into her characters without ever overstating the parallels between Azra and her mother. This creates empathy for both women as we observe how much more similar they are than they believe themselves to be. When the reason for Mariam’s embrace of traditional values finally comes, it creates even more empathy, driving home the love both women have for their family. Their embracing of each other at the film’s end feels equally joyous and sad, as the film never forgets that the impetus for this deeper connection is Hassan’s death. Mirza’s faultless control over the film’s tone, even as it ping-pongs back and forth between the two timelines, proves vital to the film’s emotional success.

Grade: 8/10

ROAD HOUSEGyllenhaal is far and away the best thing about the film, with his charm and overly casual line deliveries wringing as much humor as possible out of the dialogue. He’s bringing genuine movie star heat, and cinematographer Henry Braham shoots him like one, lighting Gyllenhaal’s jaw-droppingly chiseled torso to gleam in practically every shot. With rippling abs, rock-hard biceps, and that diamond-cut jawline, Gyllenhaal looks goddamn majestic in some shots. The supporting cast is full of fun performances – Williams is so natural onscreen she’s impossible to resist, Daniela Melchior can make even this underwritten love interest interesting with her mere presence, Magnussen is a perfect, privileged douchebag, and Arturo Castro is hilarious as the nicest of Brandt’s henchmen – but none of them can compare to the charisma grenade that is Conor McGregor. Strutting around like a peacock among pigs and tearing into dialogue like a hungry lion, McGregor is obviously having the time of his life every second he’s onscreen. It’s not a good performance by any measure, but it is a compulsively watchable one.

Grade: 6/10

SMUGGLERSSmugglersRyoo Seung-wan’s groovy seventies-set heist flick ain’t no “Ocean’s Eleven,” but it’s all the better for it. This tale of a group of women divers smuggling foreign goods into South Korea has all the requisite twistiness for the genre. Still, its emphasis remains firmly on character throughout, creating an emotional connection to the characters that results in a supremely satisfying fist-pumper of a finale. Suppose the tremendously exciting underwater sequences don’t quite do it for you (the natural slow-motion of underwater movement does dilute some of the adrenaline that usually comes from such action sequences). In that case, a fight in a hotel suite goes harder than it has any right to, and several scenes that thrill just from watching the characters bounce off of each other. “Smugglers” is a supremely well-crafted film with an entertaining story populated by interesting characters. What more could you ask for?

Grade: 8/10

TIMESTALKERAlice Lowe’s long-gestating follow-up to the deranged “Prevenge” fully cements her place as one of our most exciting independent filmmakers. A ribald takedown of romantic tropes throughout the ages, “Timestalker” follows a woman named Agnes (Lowe) as she falls in love with the wrong man, dies a horribly violent death, and is reincarnated a century later, when the same thing happens again. The opening scene that establishes the pattern features one of the most shocking laughs of the festival, and Lowe doesn’t let up from there, scattering sly, side-splitting jokes throughout the film (1980s Agnes’s tossed-off declaration that she’d “rather be a slave than a lesbian,” being the most viciously biting). Every time period is designed to recall tropes from the romances of the period, and Lowe savagely dissects each of them from the inside out by playing every version of Agnes as an increasingly delusional believer in the power of love over all. Bedecked in over-the-top wigs and costumes (the pink heart-shaped wig in 1793, described by one of the male characters as looking “like an ass” is hilariously on-point) to emphasize the ridiculousness of the words coming out of her mouth, Lowe has a sardonic tone and unique point of view, sending up women who believe everything is a sign pointing towards romance as well as men who believe love allows them to own a woman (Nick Frost is hilariously unctuous as her dog-like husband in 1793). Between this and “Prevenge,” Alice Lowe has proven herself as one of the most original, vital voices in cinema. “Timestalker” feels destined to become a cult classic, so here’s hoping some enterprising distributor picks it up!

Grade: 8/10

WE CAN BE HEROES
We Can Be Heroes (Credit: Peter Alton)
At The Wayfinder Experience in upstate New York, teenagers from across the country gather for week-long sessions culminating in a two-day Live Action Role Playing game, or LARP. These kids, mostly nerdy, neurodivergent, and queer (or some combination of the above), learn the value of community and creating inclusive spaces while also using the experience of improvisation and role-playing to learn more about themselves. Alex Simmons and Carina Mia Wong’s “We Can Be Heroes” gleefully embraces the spirit of play at the heart of Wayfinder’s “Adventure Game”: The role-playing sequences are shot in cinematic widescreen, framing the kids as the magical heroes they play, shooting their battles with foam swords and shields as though they were in the latest Hollywood epic. You may want to check your pulse if these scenes don’t inspire the kid inside you. The kids themselves are refreshingly open and honest and represent a whole range of issues: the young Cloud is obsessed with being “the best at swords,” anxious Dexter just wants to get the phone number of his red Converse-wearing crush, and Abby has to carry around a backpack connected to a feeding tube that goes up her nose because of her recent MSA diagnosis. The camp counselors also get a spotlight, showing how their passion helps the kids through not just the adventure game but issues in their own lives. Whether you’ve been to sleepaway camp or not or played tabletop adventure games, there’s so much to connect to in this generous, warm hug of a documentary. Watching these kids chant “let us play” and go into character, only to learn more about themselves while doing so, is the kind of magic that movies can uniquely showcase. “We Can Be Heroes” is a moving testament to the power of play and inclusive spaces.

GRADE: 8/10

Y2K
For all the hilarity on display throughout “Y2K,” Mooney and co-writer Evan Winter have some trenchant things to say about technology and how we have let it take over our lives and divide us into factions ready to go to war with each other at any moment. The only way to go through this is to remember our shared humanity, and the fact that somebody dislikes something you like isn’t negating you as a person (at least when it comes to pop culture; politics is a separate discussion almost wholly avoided here). The film also serves as a somewhat prescient warning against the dangers of AI, the usage of which has grown rapidly since Mooney and Winter began writing the screenplay. Mostly, though, “Y2K” is a hilariously unexpected, wild cinematic ride. Even those audience members who weren’t teenagers at the turn of the millennium will be thrilled by the creativity on display. Still, the painfully accurate period details may make this a cult classic for those who lived through it.

GRADE: 7/10

Which films are you most looking forward to from this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW)? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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