As anyone who’s ever been to a film festival will attest, it’s impossible to see every film that is programmed. This list is a non-comprehensive and decidedly unscientific take on a collective 11 days at the 30th year of Austin’s premiere destination for weird, wacky and wonderful indies.
From the outset of this British comedy about two small-time crook sisters, Claire and Lisa Walker, you know you’re in for a handheld camera ride. But as quickly as you’re aware of cinematographer Ryan Eddleston’s shaky jolts and the rawness of the image, you’re also immediately drawn to the two women played expertly by Alice Lowe and Dolly Wells (most recently known in the States for her role opposite real-life bestie Emily Mortimer in HBO’s Doll & Em). The camerawork is beautiful and boorish, the execution is amateurish, but all is well because writer/director Jamie Adams’s ability to draw you close and make you feel as if you’re part of this rag-tag group erases any thoughts about just how much money was not spent on making the film.
Many directors spend years writing their first feature, but perhaps it was Greg Kwedar’s connection to the people in his story since his college days that allows him to combine an impressive attention to the tiniest of details with an empathetic insight not often seen in first-time directors. His film Transpecos—about one day in the life of three U.S. Border Patrol Agents—started under the radar at the festival, but it had an undeniable impact on fest audiences and critics, taking home the audience award for narrative features. The Hollywood Reporter called it “artfully made but wholly accessible for a mainstream audience.” Kwedar is careful and deliberate about his performances from veteran actors Gabriel Luna and Clifton Collins Jr. and even gives younger actor Johnny Simmons a great run in his first lead role.
Tatiana Maslany is well known for her role(s) on Orphan Black, having played 10 different characters over the course of four seasons, sometimes even interacting with her own self. At 30-years-old, she’s probably on her way to playing more parts than most her age, and to say she’s got a good head on her shoulders is an understatement. In The Other Half—which she and real-life boyfriend Tom Cullen co-star in and co-executive produced—she plays a young woman suffering from bipolar disorder. Maslany took a role that could have easily been played as just juxtapositions of manic and calm and gave it careful nuances and impenetrable truth.
Since Andre Royo (better known as Thirsty Rawlings on Empire) was awarded the special jury prize for acting, it seems we’re of the same mindset as the judges at SXSW. However, we’re compelled to hand the award in equal parts to George Sample III—who’s only acting experience by age 35 came in the form of Cronies at 2015’s Sundance. His role opposite Royo in what has been consistently rumored to be a fest stunner by audience members milling the streets of Austin was artfully done for someone with so little experience in front of the camera. Sample—a St. Louis native—has a very “exposed” approach to acting—it doesn’t feel like he’s working too hard at it. He’s what you’d call “a natural.”
While writer/director Anne Hamilton’s first feature American Fable isn’t quite a perfect movie, she may have gotten a near-perfect performance out of its young lead, Peyton Kennedy. Kennedy is only 12 (11 when the movie was filmed), but she’s pulls off a performance with ranges of angst, anger, bravery and depth like an old pro.
Aesthetic and concept meld together in the beautiful collective:unconscious. Combining the talents of five independent filmmakers (Lily Baldwin, Frances Bodomo, Daniel Patrick Carbone, Josephine Decker and Lauren Wolkstein), and tasking them with interpreting each others dreams, this omnibus film brings the viewer into a world that is familiar but can shift in unexpected ways. Unlike many films that attempt to recreate dreams, or other anthology films, collective:unconscious is able to capture the unique voices of each director while creating an interesting whole that feels like a dream both as you’re watching and long after. Whether your dreams consist of hilariously disturbing narratives, haunting landscapes, disjointed vibrancy or calm nightmares, this film has something for everyone that will linger long after the credits roll.
While narrative film often reflects our current lives in ethos and pathos, documentaries can put a spotlight on cultural happenings in a more direct way. Accidental Courtesy is not necessarily the smoothest doc at the fest, but Matthew Ornstein’s first film about musician Daryl Davis—who befriends KKK leaders—is just so timely and thought-provoking, considering the current climate of race relations in the United States, that it sits with you for days. It’s also presented in a fair-minded way—interviewing all sides of the equation, and even letting them duke it out on camera.
Sean (Ty Hickson) is living the hermit lifestyle in a run-down trailer with no one but his cat Kaspar and the occasional supply drop from his friend Cortez (Amari Cheatom). Studying alchemy and practicing magic, he’s willing to put everything on the line to achieve his dreams of fortune, but it’s easier said than done when evil forces are involved and soon he is faced with a terrifying reality. This is Joel Potrykus’ third film and another excellent example of his ability to balance humor, horror and silence in a way that many filmmakers cannot. While his other films hinted at or utilized horror themes, The Alchemist Cookbook delves deeper into the genre and creates a unique portrait of a man on the fringe of society, and himself.
How do you tell the story of a mass murder? While most filmmakers focus on the perpetrator of the violence, director Keith Maitland gives voice to those who are too often forgotten about—the victims. His documentary Tower, which won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary, is a moving look into the University of Texas Tower shootings. Maitland uses a mixture of archival footage, interviews and Rotoscopic animation to weave the untold stories of those who survived and witnessed America’s first mass school shooting. A moving and inspiring film that shows us how one event changed a nation.
Director: Calvin Lee Reeder
An extremely simple premise that keeps the audience equally dreading what’s about to happen next and laughing at what does, Calvin Lee Reeder directs this smart and hilarious minimalist short about a man undergoing an unusual and unwelcome procedure.
Eat My Shit
Director: Eduardo Casanova (Spain)
Samantha struggles to be like everyone else, posting selfies on Instagram that get taken down, eating at restaurants, having simple conversations. But it’s hard to do when everyone’s laughing at you. Eduardo Casanova’s gross-out comedy Eat My Shit has more depth than one might think when they hear it’s a film about a young woman with an asshole for a mouth. A truly unforgettable film.
A Reasonable Request
Director: Andrew Laurich
“What would you do for a million dollars?” is a common hypothetical asked at parties. But what happens when it’s not hypothetical anymore? What do you do when it becomes an actual proposition? Andrew Laurich’s extremely uncomfortable black comedy takes this idea to the extreme when a son reconnects with his estranged father to propose a rather unspeakable favor.
Jim Hoskings’ The Greasy Strangler (from Elijah Wood’s SpectreVision) is a beautiful ode to the weird and outlandish B-movie horror films of years past, with plenty of campy fun and quotable lines to keep viewers coming back time and time again. It’s the kind of film that offers nostalgia without losing itself in it. Sure to offend, the film is a natural fit for the midnight cult audience, and while it may be somewhat ignored or dismissed on its initial release, it will have a long shelf life. It’s the kind of film passed from friend to friend, discovered by those seeking out the unusual and disgusting.