With Sundance behind us, the next major American festival is waiting in the wings. The SXSW Film Festival lineup has landed, and there’s a lot to dig through.
Unlike Sundance, which attracts a lot of industry attention around a handful of high-profile titles, SXSW is more about discovery. As usual, there are a lot of compelling possibilities in the program, from the newcomers in its competition sections through the more peculiar and surprising offerings in the Visions section. IndieWire got a few tips from SXSW Film director Janet Pierson and extracted these promising possibilities.
Small Stories, Big Steps
The festival’s narrative feature competition is often the place where filmmakers on their first or second feature get a sudden boost. It was there that Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” and Destin Cretton’s “Short Term 12” both took off. This time around, Pierson said a lot of the movies operate on a similar small scale. “We have several films that are just people talking in a room, and they’re all super-compelling — funny, scary, intellectually provocative,” she said. “They all have different tones.”
Although the section doesn’t focus on veterans, there are a few filmmakers with track records at the festival this year. That includes Laura Terruso, the writer-director of “Fits and Starts,” who makes her directorial debut after writing the screenplay for SXSW breakout “Hello, My Name is Doris” a few years back. Pierson called “Fits and Starts,” the story of a struggling writer who lives in the shadow of his wife’s success, “a big step up” for Terruso. With a cast that includes Wyatt Cenac alongside cringe-comedy fixtures Alex Karpovsky and Onur Tukel, this one’s got plenty of potential.
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Then there’s “The Strange Ones,” the first feature from Laura Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff, based on their SXSW-acclaimed short. The feature stars Alex Pettyfer and James Freedson-Jackson as brothers on a vacation that leads them toward a dark confrontation. It’s exactly the kind of minimalist family thriller that tends to get a boost at SXSW (think “Sun Don’t Shine” with siblings instead of a couple on the lam).
But the narrative competition section doesn’t only feature first-time directors. Co-directors Julia Halperin and Jason Cortlund’s tender relationship drama “Now, Forager” was a sleeper hit on the festival circuit in 2012; the couple make their SXSW debut with their sophomore feature, “La Barracuda,” a Texas music drama about estranged relatives feuding over their musical heritage. “There’s something really cool and authentic about the milieu,” Person said, noting that revered Texas musicians such as Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock surface in the cast.
SXSW’s documentaries don’t often veer into the political arena, instead focusing on smaller, more intimate stories. But at this particularly divisive moment in American society, the programming team has found plenty of relevant non-fiction efforts. In the documentary feature competition, Erik Ljung makes his feature-length debut with “The Blood is at the Doorstep,” which follows the family of an unarmed schizophrenic black man killed by a Milwaukee police office as they search for justice. “It’s very much a film about people having to step up when violence occurs to them and their families,” Pierson said. “It’s really beautifully done.”
Along similar lines, she also mentioned Jason Pollock’s “Stranger Fruit,” which reexamines the immediate aftermath of the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown through his family’s testimony. “It’s the Ferguson story from a different lens than what’s been examined before,” she said.
Other topical issues tackled in this year’s lineup include intellectual property, which is at the center “Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web,” the story of the German internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom and his decade-spanning efforts to fight charges of online copyright infringement. “It’s almost like primer on the way the world changes today,” Pierson said. She also singled out “Meth Storm: Arkansas USA,” which digs into the problems of meth addiction plaguing the deep south. Pierson called the film, directed by Craig and Brent Renaud, “brutal in the way it looks at how the meth epidemic impacts an entire town. It shows you the devastation from top to bottom.”
But some documentaries explore relevant issues even if a basic summary of their subjects don’t suggest as much. That’s the case with the Australian effort “Barbecue,” which the official synopsis describes as “about more than grilling a piece of meat. It’s a ritual performed across the world.” This deep-dive into the art and culture of BBQ promises to go down well with Texas audiences, but its global scope suggests it could generate a lot more attention further down the line as well.
Over a decade ago, SXSW showcased two young filmmakers who held plenty of potential: In 2005, Joe Swanberg’s “Kissing on the Mouth” brought his ruminative, improv-heavy approach to festival audiences for the first time, while the next year found Aaron Katz’s poetic look at youth culture in “Dance Party, U.S.A.” to the same crowd. Both directors have continued to develop their careers in substantial ways while maintaining their own individualistic styles. Now they’re both in the narrative spotlight section with movies that show just how far they’ve come.
Swanberg will premiere “Win It All,” the story of a Chicago gambler that he co-wrote with star Jake Johnson, which Netflix will release later this year. Pierson pointed out that even as the festival has supported Swanberg over the years, they don’t show all of his movies. “It’s not like there’s a Joe spot,” she said. “But I’m a genuine fan of how he’s run his career, and he’s made a lovely film.”
Meanwhile, Katz returns with his first movie since 2014’s Sundance discovery “Land Ho!”, this time working with biggest cast to date. The ensemble includes Lola Kirke and Zoe Kravitz in the story of an assistant to a Hollywood star who uncovers the details of a crime. If Katz’s playful detective story “Cold Weather” is any indication, “Gemini” seems likely to break formula rather than playing into it. “It’s very beautiful and kind of mysterious,” Pierson said.
While he hasn’t been quite as prolific, actor-director Kentucker Audley (“Team Picture,” “Open Five,” “Christmas, Again”) is another perennial SXSW figure who acts and directs countless low budget efforts. This time, he surfaces in the Visions section with “Silvio,” which he co-directed with Albert Birney. Pierson called it “this beautiful little gem — a tiny, really moving piece.” And yet the premise invites double takes galore: This story follows an actual gorilla who joins a television program and deals with a series of setbacks. (It may nor may not feature an actor wearing a gorilla costume; the jury’s still out on this one.)
Another SXSW discovery was “Cheap Thrills,” the 2013 effort from Evan Katz about a pair of desperate men willing to take on a series of absurd dares to make some fast cash. Katz is back at the festival with “Small Crimes,” a crime caper about an ex-cop fresh out of jail and stuck with the fallout of his previous misdeeds. Katz co-wrote the project with Macon Blair, the actor-turned-director who recently won Sundance’s grand jury prize for his debut, “I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.”
Bring on the Weird
With its lively crowds always ready to party, SXSW is a good showcase for wacky movies readymade to push boundaries and entertain audiences willing to be shocked as well. (Think “Buzzard.”) This time around, that task may fall to “Assholes,” the first feature from actor Peter Vack. The movie focuses on a pair of recovering addicts who fall in love, relapse, and cause a whole lot of problems as they wander throughout the city together. “It’s beyond edgy,” Pierson said, “but it’s fucking hilarious and has SXSW written all over it.”
Then there’s Bob Byington, the Austin local who has steadily found his groove with the deadpan comedy of “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and “Seven Chinese Brothers.” Pierson called his latest, “Infinity Baby,” a personal favorite. The movie, a black-and-white romp featuring Kieran Culkin, Nick Offerman and others, revolves around the exploits of a grown man who acts like an infant. “He’s an acquired taste, but I wholeheartedly enjoyed this one,” Pierson said. It’s a safe bet that plenty of SXSW audiences will feel the same way.