This year’s SXSW Film Festival marked the first in-person edition of the Austin gathering in two years, and it was filled with buzz for new movies and crowds eager to embrace them. From opening night entry “Everything Everywhere All at Once” to the meta Nicolas Cage comedy “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” SXSW was a satisfying platform for several upcoming releases.
But that’s only a small fraction of the lineup, which also includes a lot of smaller highlights that have yet to secure U.S. distribution. As usual, we’ve combed through the program and urge buyers to consider these gems as they look for new work to round out their slates.
Carlos Aguilar, Robert Daniels, David Ehrlich, and Kate Erbland contributed to this story.
Fresh from directing a few episodes of HBO’s “Winning Time,” Trinidadian filmmaker Damian Marcano’s first feature is a rascally and unpredictable stoner comedy about the efforts of a disillusioned weed dealer who tries to hawk his product by burying it in the cheese he makes at a dairy factory. In the meantime, he evades the advances of the pregnant woman he may or may not want to spend the rest of his life with and copes with the ongoing advances of the law. Strange visions and slapstick hijinks ensue, as the movie chugs forward with a goofy energy so infectious that even the subtitles have a tendency to dance around.
A welcome snapshot of an underrepresented society that enlivens a genre that needed the sprucing up, “Chee$e” is both an endearing romp and a serious look at one man eager to escape his insular island life at all costs, even if it destroys him in the process. The movie would be an easy win for a streamer looking to bulk up its library with original comedic voices, and since Marcano is planning a trilogy about his character, this is a good time to get into business with him. —EK
Sales Conect: Jim Ehrich/RBEL
The Grand Jury prize winner of the narrative competition is a typical SXSW breakout — an edgy, contained story steeped in personality and emotions. It’s also a very unsettling dark comedy about social media that makes “Catfish” feel like a warm hug. Writer-director-star James Morosini stars opposite Patton Oswalt in the story of an estranged father who attempts to reignite his relationship with his son by…catfishing him. As Oswalt’s character begins communicating with his depressed teen under the guise of a fake online romantic interest, “I Love My Dad” teases out the icky possibilities of its scenario beat by beat, even as it calls them out (often due to a hilarious Lil Rel Howery in a supporting role) in real time. Eventually, the pair go on an ill-fated road trip to find the object of the son’s attraction, while dad struggles to figure out how to get himself out of this jam.
The daring concept is aided by Morosini’s smart script, which uses inventive sequences to get inside the young man’s head as he envisions his ideal lover in the awkward form that his father presents her over DM. Despite some cringe-inducing moments, “I Love My Dad” builds to a poignant finale that proves the director doesn’t take the eyebrow-raising conceit for granted. Instead, it shakes up the genre and modernizes it with the radical suggestion that no measure of familial manipulation — or gnarly Facebook messages — can ruin the strength of family bonds. A true crowpleaser that should satisfy fans of Oswalt’s comedy and others keen on discovering a fresh young voice. —EK
Sales Contact: Ross Putnam and Amy Beercroft/Verve
David Dobrik was the biggest YouTube star in the world when sexual assault allegations against a member of his so-called “Vlog Squad” took him down. The saga of his rise and fall provides an ideal entry point for examining the initial enthusiasm for social media celebrity and the more complex, disturbing aspects of it that have become clearer in recent times. With all that in mind, there couldn’t be a better filmmaker to tackle this subject than Casey Neistat, a successful YouTube vlogger himself, who makes his feature directorial debut with his incisive look at the Dobrik story several years in the making.
Neistat followed Dobrik early in his career, then followed up with him after his scandal, and the result puts his success story in the modern historical context it deserves. A savvy distributor will lean into the potential to market “Under the Influence” to the very same young audience that initially fell in love with Dobrik’s fame and might see things differently now. —EK
Sales Contact: Kevin Iwashina/Endeavor
The latest lo-fi innovation from director Peter Ohs (“Everything Beautiful Is Far Away”) is a minimalist supernatural comedy that suggests early Jim Jarmusch by way of “An American Werewolf in London.” At its center is Jessica (Ashley Denise Robinson), a woman who escapes her stalker in the middle of the desert, only to find that his very annoying ghost (Will Madden) follows her there.
Joining forces with an old friend and mystic (Callie Hernandez), Jessica does whatever she can to get rid of the nosey voice from the beyond, whose lisp gives the movie its title. The result is a distinctive funny-sad look at alienation and the extreme desire for companionship in the middle of an empty world — the ultimate pandemic movie, and the latest economic vision from a rising filmmaker well worth the attention. At just under 70 minutes, the movie would be an easy win for a streamer looking for playful genre content that doesn’t overstay its welcome. —EK
Sales Contact: Visit Films
“Darkness is my friend.” Those sober words by Black classical painter George Anthony Morton, the introspective subject of Rosa Ruth Boesten’s harrowing and spellbinding documentary “Master of Light” — which won the Grand Jury Award for documentary feature at SXSW — refracts the film’s title from an aesthetic ethos to a way of life. It paints Morton’s present mental health struggles — the obvious and unconscious reverberations of his socio-economic environment on his past and current life — and the seemingly inescapable cycles that still crush his family. The film considers the shifting definitions of success, opportunity, and responsibility. What real chance do you have when the deck is so often stacked against you?
“Master of Light” becomes not only a salute to Morton’s journey but a keen acknowledgment of the sharp twists and wrong turns that can make the road back so much harder to see. —RD
To deem Morrisa Maltz a spiritual disciple of revered master Terrence Malick may seem too facile a reference. Still, the evident links are all there: she’s from Texas and made a movie that traverses the Badlands of South Dakota for her heroine to get back to “The Lone Star State.” But while the stirring visual fluidity of “The Unknown Country,” her first fiction feature and a kindhearted triumph, provides further arguments pointing to Malick likely being an influence, what distinguishes Maltz’s approximation to that style of evocatively loose filmmaking is that it’s grounded on the personal victories of real individuals. Tana (Lily Gladstone), a seemingly reserved Native American woman, leaves Minnesota for a cross-country trip in her well-loved vehicle. But unlike countless other stories that take a character on the open road, here there are no major lessons to be learned or obstacles to overcome, just a map populated with instances of intimacy that are so delicately mundane, they could easily slip through the cracks of one’s modern everyday bustle. Yet, in the hands of this director and through the eyes of her actress, these human exchanges imbue a subtle sense of lyricism into the habitual.
With a philosophical foundation that derives from honest interest in the subjects portrayed, “The Unknown Country” feels more humanistic than the majority of Malick’s recent releases and perhaps more honest than “Nomadland,” though it’s closer to Zhao’s first feature “Songs My Brothers Taught Me.” Like that film announced Zhao’s voice as one to treasure, this one puts us in the presence of a major talent, bearing something profound in her artistic inclinations. —CA
Sales Contact: Jessica Lacy/ICM
First-time feature filmmaker Beth de Araújo isn’t messing around. From the start of her nerve-shredding thriller “Soft & Quiet,” it’s obvious something very wrong indeed, but the entire film is packed with nothing but surprises. First, we meet Emily (Stefanie Estes), a picture-perfect kindergarten teacher hiding some wicked secrets. Then, we meet her friends, a motley crew of both old and new pals. And then, finally, we realize what they’re up to: starting a wine-and-snacks group dedicated to white supremacy.
It’s a stomach-churning idea, and a horrifyingly timely one, and that’s before de Araújo and company get to the home invasion that flips everything on its head. Even in her most violent, sick, stupid fantasies, Emily could never imagine where this would actually go. De Araújo, however, possessing both incredible filmmaking acumen and some righteous anger, can.
De Araújo and her cast and crew shot the film from start to finish four evenings in a row, with the filmmaker picking the fourth night’s version as the final film, with a handful of scenes from the third night’s shoot interspersed — seamlessly — into the final cut. The gambit pays off in a myriad of ways; not only does the real-time conceit keep the tension high, but its high-wire demands make clear just how talented of a filmmaker de Araújo is. Blumhouse boarded the film as producers just before the film premiered at SXSW, and that should give both audiences and potential distributors a sense of its horror bonafides. A similarly scary outfit should pick it up and market the hell out of it as exactly what it is: the most terrifying film of the year. —KE
Sales Contact: CAA
A first-person film that documents one filmmaker’s lifelong quest to reconcile ancient religious doctrines with the messy realities of modern life (translation: it’s about a guy from a strict Muslim family who wants to marry his secret white girlfriend), Ahsen Nadeem’s “Crows Are White” borrows its koan-like title from a story about a Buddhist monk who was taught never to question his teachers, even when they said things that were objectively wrong. Nadeem’s wonky but winning film, by contrast, invites people to pick it apart at every turn. “I’ll be honest with you,” he says at the top, “I’m a fantastic liar. But I’m trying something new here: I’m going to try to tell the truth.”
In this case, trying requires months spent at a remote Japanese monastery home to some of the world’s most punishingly masochistic monks, followed by years isolated in America because of the pandemic — all so that he can make peace with his faith and come clean to his parents. Thanks to Nadeem’s self-insistent but fiercely entertaining first-person approach (and his unexpected friendship with a heavy metal-loving monk), that journey is a riveting one. “Crows Are White” may be too messy and unorthodox for theatrical play, but it’s burnished with the confessional zeal that streaming audiences tend to eat up with a fork, and would be just as at home on a content farm like Netflix as it would be on a more curated platform like MUBI. —DE
Sales Contact: Amanda Lebow/CAA
Michael Morris’ “To Leslie” is a redemptive drama about a poor Southern white lady played by (a fiercely committed) Andrea Riseborough, who wins $190,000 in the state lottery and only learns the value of sharing after she’s drank all her cash away. But for a story that starts from such a digestible premise, Morris’ film is almost as slippery and elusive as the actress who plays its title role. But just when it seems like Ryan Binaco’s script might be as mixed up as Leslie herself, our heroine crosses paths with a character who helps crystallize the movie into something pristine.
Playing the lonely but large-hearted manager of a derelict motel, Marc Maron leverages his personal experience with loss and addiction (and the countless hours he’s spent talking about both) into the best performance of his career, rendering Sweeney with the kind of softly calloused empathy that almost died off with Falk or Cassavetes.
Riseborough might show more range in a single take than Maron has been able to muster across his entire career, but Morris’ decision to pit the most chameleonic actress of her generation against a guy who’s spent his entire life figuring out how to be himself eventually creates a friction strong enough to focus this shaggy movie into something more than the sum of its misshapen parts. A smart, patient distributor that knows how to build word-of-mouth and weasel small films onto “best performances of the year” lists would do well to take this project under its wing. —DE
Sales Contact: Alex Brunner/UTA
Whether profiling USA’s first Women’s Olympic Skateboarding coach Mimi Knoop (who didn’t see another female skateboarder until she was 23 years old), Cambodian skater Kouv ‘Tin’ Chansangva (now the local face of the NGO that gave her four wheels and a way out of poverty), or trailblazing filmmaker Lisa Whitaker (who created the Girls Skate Network to host video of female skateboarders around the world), Jessica Edwards’ kaleidoscopic “Skate Dreams” always returns to the core of why representation matters just as much on the halfpipe as it does in the arts: Even pioneers need to be able to see themselves in the world before they can change it.
A wild and woolly film that’s edited together with the casualness of a skate compilation video, “Skate Dreams” eschews conflict and competition in favor of focusing on the collective action required for women and non-binary people to create space for each other in the world. It’s fun, it’s fast, and most of all it’s completely inspiring. A platform release would be too restrictive, and dropping this directly to the Girls Skate Network would be too niche, but I would love to see an unexpected streamer with an impressionable young audience step up to the plate, get over its squeaky-clean image, and help connect this movie with the people who need to see it most. Here’s looking at you, Disney Plus. —DE
Sales Contact: Submarine