This year’s 2016 SXSW Film Festival featured a lot of new work worthy of anticipation, from a work-in-progress screening of the raunchy animated comedy “Sausage Party” to another party movie from Richard Linklater. There were some appealing television offerings (get ready for “Preacher”), some unorthodox studio projects (hello, “Keanu”) and a peek at the future of storytelling. But all of these instances are almost certainly going to be available to most people soon enough. That’s not the case for many of the other highlights from the program, which entered the festival without theatrical distribution and have left it the same way. Here’s a look at some of those notable titles, in the hopes that someone will do what it takes to get them out there.
Musa Syed’s tender look at a Somali refugee community in Minneapolis puts a human face on the immigration crisis through the exploits of Adan (Barkhad Abdirahman), a young man adrift in his solitary world. Kicked out by his mother and unwelcome at the local mosque where he tries to crash, Adan meets his only source of companionship in a stray dog he finds wandering the streets. Alternating between social outings and job prospects, Adan’s struggles never strain credibility, even when an FBI agent tries to wrestle control of his situation to turn him into a spy. Shot with near-documentary realism, Syed’s insightful portrait of his forlorn character’s life recalls the earlier films of Ramin Bahrani (“Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop”), which also capture an oft-ignored side of modern America. With immigration stories all too frequently coopted for political fuel, “A Stray” provides a refreshingly intimate alternative, which should appeal to audiences curious about the bigger picture — or those who can relate to it.
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“Best and Most Beautiful Things”
The story of a young blind woman attempting to achieve her dreams could risk mawkishness, but “Best and Most Beautiful Things” mercifully avoids condescending to its subject. Garrett Zevgetis’ involving portrait focuses on 20-year-old Michelle Smith, who’s both legally blind and autistic, as she attempts to figure out young adulthood. Rather than exploring her story from her parents’ point of view, Zevgetis stays with his young heroine, as she develops an S&M romance that liberates her from the reductive sympathies of the other adults in her life. Even as she has a rough time figuring out her career, and faces the lingering wounds of her parents’ divorce, Smith’s attitude remains defiant. Studios would be wise to adapt this non-fiction material for the YA crowd that flocked to “The Fault in Our Stars” last year. Whereas that story revolved around a young woman making the most of her limited time, “Best and Most Beautiful Things” focuses on the discovery of boundless opportunities in a society designed to suggest otherwise for those facing Smith’s plight.
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Writer-director Josh Locy’s first feature provides terrific material for under-appreciated character actor Andre Royo (“The Wire”) as the alienated Ashley Douglas, who’s fresh out of a three-year prison stint and stuck at his mother’s house. Approaching middle age, Ashley can’t seem to find his place anywhere: His ex-girlfriend has moved on and he doesn’t have a job. Struggling to set up a ramshackle career selling discarded refrigerators, Ashley joins forces with a young sidekick in his aimless pursuit of restarting his life. Both gently amusing and melancholic, Royo’s performance is matched by Locy’s astute direction, which make its beleaguered anti-hero’s series of dead-ends into a kind of lower class adventure tale. While set in a struggling African American community, “Hunter Gatherer” exists a world away from the simplified portraits found in countless other dramas with similar settings. It’s also got one of the most charming ex-cons to grace American screens in some time.
The obnoxious man-child is a common trope in American comedies, but few recent examples can match the hilariously unsettling presence of Donald Treebeck, the obnoxious central figure played by writer-director Kris Avedisian in his effective black comedy “Donald Cried.” Avedisian’s feature-length debut builds on the distinctively off-putting persona first seen in his short film, a bespectacled pariah stuck in perpetual arrested development. While hardly reinventing the wheel, “Donald Cried” spins it faster than usual, taking cues from its memorably irritating protagonist. Beneath its entertainment value, the movie also hints at the tragedy of aimless adulthood.
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John Carchietta’s edgy debut is equal parts erotic thriller and coming-of-age drama. The story finds alienated teen Annie (Nichole Bloom) befriending naughty classmate Jules (Fabianne Therese) as the pair develop a clandestine romance. Initially, they plot a reckless escape plan from their boring lives. Then they find something more profitable: the murky field of webcam modeling, which eventually finds them receiving propositions from some of their online clients — taking them into more dangerous territory. With yet another creepy performance from the great Pat Healy (“Cheap Thrills”), “Teenage Cocktail” starts off like “Virgin Suicides” and winds up in “Heathers” territory, hitting a lot of appealing genre buttons at once. Despite the plot’s erratic twists, however, “Teenage Cocktail” is grounded in the deeply involving performances of its two young leads, who imbue the increasingly absurd developments with a legitimate air of excitement — and, eventually, dread.
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The winner of SXSW’s grand jury prize for best documentary is a radically fresh approach to the history of mass shootings in America. It focuses on one instance in particular: the events at Austin’s University of Texas Tower in 1966, when 25-year-old engineering student Charles Whitman opened fire on the campus square with a sniper rifle, killing 14 people and injuring scores more. Those horrors continue to haunt the city where they take place, but director Keith Maitland doesn’t take them for granted. Instead, “Tower” recreates the drama with a mixture of animation and contemporary interviews, imbuing the catastrophe with renewed immediacy. More than just another harrowing reenactment, “Tower” actually turns the material into a bracing suspense film before putting it in context. No matter where you fall in the debate over gun control, Maitland’s approach offers a thrilling entry point.