The South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival has certainly grown over its 25 years, with many movies that debut there now becoming Oscar-nominees and landing lucrative Netflix or Amazon streaming deals. Hollywood even goes to SXSW to sell a few big-budget affairs, and this year HBO even had a Westworld-inspired theme park to promote the sci-fi drama’s return.
Many conversations at this year’s SXSW revolved around gender equality and representation. 2018’s festival was a fantastic showcase for females, as a third of the feature-length films were from female directors. In the narrative competition, 80% of the selection were female-directed, which is up 10% on last year’s competition.
2017’s SXSW brought us notable films like Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, and James Fraco’s The Disaster Artist, so who will be the big discoveries at 2018’s festival?
Directed by Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect), this girls-behaving-bad-on-prom-night comedy is one of only three studio films to be directed by a woman in 2018 (the others being A Wrinkle in Time and The Darkest Minds). Many lines in Cannon’s movie were drowned out by laughter during the SXSW’s screening.
Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz star as parents who’ll go to any lengths to stop their daughters (Gideon Adlon, Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan) from losing their virginities. Produced by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen (Superbad), Blockers has been praised for its views on consent and parental angst, whilst never losing its sense of bawdy comedy.
The film sells itself as the progression of the American Pie sex comedy sub-genre, only this time the teenage women are in control of their bodies and sexual experiences. Despite being a very conscious, and often heartfelt movie, there are still bodily fluid-laden gags and parents trying to decipher sexting. Finally, a film that can have a feminist message and a joke about colonic irrigation using beer.
Premiere: 30 March 2018 (UK).
A QUIET PLACE
John Krasinski (The Office) delivers a high concept, anxiety-inducing, silent horror movie that had created online buzz before it even screened. Upon it’s SXSW premiere it received an impressive 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes, and now looks set to be one of 2018’s biggest horror films.
Krasinski directs and stars opposite his own wife, Emily Blunt, in a post-apocalyptic world where blind monsters cull humans, and those who’ve survived have to live in silence. When a couple find out they’re having another child, they must deal with bringing a newborn into the world where even the quietest sound can get you killed. A Quiet Place has been praised for being sensitive and emotional while still being terrifying and violent.
Premieres: 6 April (US), 4 May 2018 (UK).
Shana Feste brought a road trip vehicle to SXSW. Laura (Vera Farmiga) is forced to drive her pot-smoking father (Christopher Plummer) to his sister’s home after he’s kicked out of his retirement home. Laura can’t let go of her father, despite him constantly letting him down, and history is repeating itself with her son (Lewis MacDougall) and his father (Bobby Cannavale). When her teenage son is expelled from school, he bonds with Plummer’s character over his recent eviction from his care home.
Boundaries also features Kristin Schaal and Christopher Lloyd, who steals the show as an art forger. Little Miss Sunshine comparisons will be inevitable with misbehaving geriatrics and angst0ridden teenagers forced to travel across the US, but this films brings maturity to a well-worn genre. Writer-director Shana Feste (who made 2010 musical drama Country Strong), manages to create a soft-edged psychodrama road movie that doesn’t get bogged down with plot developments and senior citizen clichés.
Fritz Bohm’s debut stars Bel Powley and Liv Tyler in a dark fantasy about growing up. Anna (Diary of a Teenage Girl’s Bel Powey) has spent her childhood trapped in a locked attic by a man she only knows as ‘Daddy’ (Brad Dourif), on the pretence that outside is filled with ‘Wildlings’ and riddled with diseases. When Liv Tyler’s local sheriff releases Anna, she soon discovers there are much worse things to fear than the Wildling, as she attempts to grow into a mature young woman her childhood fears won’t let her go.
The Brothers Grimm and Roald Dahl’s influences loom over Wildling. The film grounds its dark fairy tale narrative in human psychology, jumping between horror a twisted thriller.
Premieres: 13 April (US), 20 April 2018 (UK, limited release).
Molly Shannon (Saturday Night Live) as Emily Dickinson might seem a hard sell, but there’s festival buzz around her performance as the late poet. For years many of us believed Dickinson was a reclusive spinster, but this film seeks to change audience’s perception of her.
Based on actual letters and poetic works from Dickinson, the narrative centres around her love affair with her sister-in-law Susan, a bond that lasted until Emily’s death. Shannon also makes Emily far more humorous and human than history ever gave her credit for. The film’s been compared to Drunk History, due to characters like the cat-lady sister and a mansplaining editor, who both seem more like sketch show characters than historical figures.
Director Madeleine Olnek purposefully presents the narrative as fiction; despite it looking like an authentic period piece, it’s littered with oddities — like when someone sits down to play piano the sound of a violin appears, and Emily’s sister pets a clump of fake fur that everyone keeps pretending is a cat.
This movie excels in showing how Emily Dickinson was ahead of her time, but the male-dominated literary world weren’t interested in keeping up with her. She wrote over 1,800 poems, yet only 11 were published while she lived, and of many of those were reworked my male editors.
Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is both blessed and cursed with supernatural powers in this fugitive sci-fi drama. The kinetically-powered ex-addict is on the run across a dustbowl US, where it hasn’t rained in 8 years and water costs as much as a hotel room. Director Julia Hart wrote the film alongside her writer husband Jordan Horowitz (La La Land), with the intentions of turning the spotlight on a new type of superhero. The film celebrates both women of colour and mothers, whom Hart considers superheroes in their own right.
Ruth’s supernatural abilities lead to a government agent (Christopher Denham) hunting her down, but this is more a character-driven drama about Ruth’s home being the only place she has to hide. Dormant yet tortured family history comes to the fore, as three generations of women must fight to confront their destinies.
The film has been compared to Logan (2017) and described as the closest we’re likely to get to an X-Men spin-off for Storm. Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) recently endorsed the movie, describing it as being like Rocky III for black women. In a post-Black Panther world, this film is sure to turn heads.
Dave Franco is no stranger to SXSW, where he’s appeared in the likes of Bad Neighbours and The Disaster Artist, but 6 Balloons shows a darker side to the actor. Franco plays a heroin addict and father to a young girl, with Abbi Jacobson (Broad City) playing his sister. There’s something extra harrowing about seeing two usually cheeky comedic actors playing such dark roles.
Marja-Lewis Ryan’s 6 Balloons, which will debut next month on Netflix after its world premiere at SXSW, deals with how hard it is to love an addict and how that’ll always define the relationship. The film has a lot to say about the US healthcare system, and the cost of addiction both economically and emotionally. At times it’s hard to watch, with the younger Franco turning in a star-making performance as Seth, his downfall watched by a small child.
Premiere: 6 April 2018 (Netflix).
This is a drama about a police officer from Middle America, trying to raise his young daughter amongst a marriage breakdown and an imploding career. Jim Cunnings — who wrote, directed, and stars in Thunder Road — won the top prize at SXSW for best narrative feature.
This film rips the band aid off middle class middle America, as Jim comes to terms with his mother’s death, his unwholesome ex and her new partner, and the possible loss of his daughter. Thunder Road has the potential to be this year’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — it’s darkly funny and cathartic while also being a heart-breaking look at broken dreams.
Cummings’s 2016 short version of Thunder Road was compared to the BBC’s The Office, with its portrayal of human train wrecks trying their best despite their dreams being constantly destroyed.
THE BREAKER UPPERERS
Kiwi comedians Madeleine Sami and Jackie Van Beek’s debut has been cited as the best new edgy comedy of the festival season. Written, directed, and starring the duo, it was named as one of 17 movies in the Narrative Spotlight section. Produced by Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), a friend and longtime collaborator of the pair, The Breaker Upperers has been compared to fellow Kiwi’s Flight of the Conchords brand of humour, in which Waititi was also heavily involved in producing.
The pair play Jen and Mel, cynical misfits who earn a living by breaking up unhappy couples. As they hit their late-30s, business is booming but they’re struggling to keep their cynicism alive and not get involved in romance themselves.
Sami and Van Beek have been called the female versions of Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement, with the familiar dogged naivety, nervous politeness, and trailing thoughts. It’s a terrific showcase for New Zealand’s comedy scene, which appears to contain a rich source of young talent untapped by Hollywood.
Andrew Bujalski’s drama puts the long awaited spotlight on Regina Hall. Support the Girls primarily takes place over the course of one hectic day, focusing on restaurant manager Lisa (Hall), her staff (Haley Lu Richardson, Shayna McHayle, AJ Michalka, Dylan Gelula, and others), and the demanding owner (James Le Gros).
The Hooters-inspired bar plays off the odd yet distinctly American mix of raunchiness and comfort. In some ways this is a workplace comedy; a story about how jobs come to define people’s sense of life and how money matters. Lisa tries to help raise money to help one of her employees much to the disapproval of the owner who tries to shut their fundraiser down.
Hall’s rich performance, off the back of runaway smash Girls Trip (2017), has been universally praised. This film showcases her range in dipping between light comedy and emotional naturalism, with a performance described as bringing grace and sensitivity to a character who wouldn’t be blamed for abandoning both. While the film isn’t universally adored, Hall’s performance as a woman who’s longed stopped believed in happy endings could be a star-making turn.