Anyone paying attention to the SXSW Film Festival — or, for that matter, the American independent film scene — will recognize plenty of names in this year’s lineup. Standup comedian-turned-filmmaker Mike Bibiglia follows his breakout hit “Sleepwalk With Me” with “Don’t Think Twice,” the story of an improv group facing big changes, with a cast headlined by Keegan-Michael Key. Horror maestro Ti West returns to the festival that first showcased his eerie ghost story “The Innkeepers” with a change of pace, the western “In a Valley of Violence,” which stars John Travolta. And Austin’s biggest source of pride, director Richard Linklater, opens the festival this year with his “Dazed and Confused” riff “Everybody Wants Some.”
But like the feisty crowd that crams the downtown streets in mid-March, SXSW owes much to the youthful energy of newcomers in its lineup. Here’s a look at some of the more promising titles that may not immediately stand out but are just as worthy of anticipation over the next few weeks.
“The Alchemist Cookbook”
Grand Rapids-based filmmaker Joel Potrykus erupted onto the SXSW scene two years ago with his deranged character study “Buzzard,” which went on to find international acclaim on the festival circuit and develop a cult appeal. Following his debut “Ape,” the movie was another twisted look at a disgruntled young man fed up with society and on the verge of losing his mind. While Potrykus’ usual leading man Joshua Burge is moving up in the world (he recently had a bit part in “The Revenant”), Potrykus has remained in Grand Rapids, making movies that are proudly off the beaten path. His new SXSW entry, “The Alchemist Cookbook,” has been programmed in the festival’s edgy “Visions” section, which sends a message in itself. “It’s very different from ‘Buzzard,'” SXSW producer Janet Pierson told Indiewire. “He’s a hands-on filmmaker working out of the midwest, and we just love that.” The story of a “self-made chemist” who lives in a trailer in the woods dreaming of affluence, “Cookbook” promises a story that’s uniquely odd and quite possibly very dark. It may be different, but it still sounds like typical Potrykus.
“Alive and Kicking”
Susan Glatzer may be a relative newcomer on the filmmaking scene, but she’s not a fresh face in the industry. For years, Glatzer worked at a variety of film production companies, from Paramount Pictures to now-extinct October Films. Perhaps unsurprisingly given her background, her new documentary (playing in competition at SXSW) has already lined up major financial support from Blumhouse Productions, the horror company that has recently ventured into the non-fiction arena with unorthodox portraits such as HBO’s Robert Durst exposé “The Jinx.” Glazer’s movie promises an insider look at swing dancing through the experiences of people drawn to the hobby as a means of improving their lives. That may not sound like the most exciting hook on its own, but the background on this one suggests a truly original look at an American pastime.
“Before the Sun Explodes”
Debra Eisenstadt has technically been making movies for over a decade, starting with 2001’s “Daydream Believer,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance. But she hasn’t directed anything for over five years, and now she returns to the game with a film in the narrative competition of this year’s SXSW. The story focuses on a comedian whose wife kicks him out of the house, at which point he develops a peculiar relationship to a woman dealing with a stalker. That mysterious premise could go a lot of different ways, but one source associated with the film has described it as “a feminist take on ‘After Hours,'” which is a pretty good selling point.
“Jean of the Joneses”
Writer-director Stella Meghie’s first feature revolves around the troubled Jones family, one of whom dies at the start of the movie, leading the paramedic who answers the 911 call to develop an attraction to the rambunctious Jones family member Jeanie. Apparently, the courtship goes south during the funeral. With “Hit the Floor” star Taylour Paige making her big move into a leading role, “Jean of the Joneses” is poised to offer more than one breakthrough in a dark comedy that seems like just the right fit for the SXSW crowd.
“The Master Cleanse”
SXSW has frequently programmed acclaimed short films from directors who have gone on to make features with similar results. These include early work by last year’s grand jury prize winner Trey Edward Shults (“Krisha”) and the two-person directing outfit known as the Daniels — Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — who recently won the best director prize at Sundance for their outlandish feature-length debut “Swiss Army Man.” Now it’s Bobby Miller’s turn to transition into features.
A few years back, Miller’s SXSW-premiering short “TUB” shocked and amused audiences with its bizarrely unsettling tale of a guy who masturbates in the shower and inadvertently gets it pregnant. (You read that right: The shower gives birth to his baby.) Miller’s narrative competition entry “The Master Cleanse” promises a similarly devious plot surrounding a despondent man who embarks on a spiritual retreat and attempts the eponymous cure-all, only to find that it has weirder results than he expected. A weird and potentially shocking character study with a strong vein of black comedy? Sounds like SXSW.
Zach Clark has quietly become one of the more exciting voices in the American underground film scene. With the outrageous, kinky B-movie pastiche of “Modern Love is Automatic” and “Vacation!”, Clark set the stage for the more dramatically complex “White Reindeer,” a wondrous black comedy about a woman dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s murder. With narrative spotlight selection “Little Sister,” Clark seems to have embarked on another irreverent dramedy about troubled families, with the story of a nun returning to her family. Not much is known about the movie, which co-stars Addison Timlin, Ally Sheedy, Keith Poulson and filmmaker Peter Hedges (in his first acting role). But given Clark’s track record, there’s no doubting it will deliver something completely different.
Logan Kibens has been developing a steady career as a screenwriter, having participated in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and worked on a number of HBO shows, including “True Blood” and “The Newsroom.” She graduates to the feature-length directing arena this year with “Operator,” which is described in the official announcement as “a dark comedy about love, technology and what can’t be programmed.” More specifically, it focuses on the relationship between a computer programmer and a standup comedian whose romance crumbles when their work lives overlap. With a cast that includes Martin Starr and Nat Faxon, “Operator” sounds like an ideal humorous mixture of contemporary challenges and intimate conundrums that fit right in at SXSW.