A year on from the sudden and devastating cancellation of SXSW 2020, the festival returned last week with a virtual bang. The 2021 (online) festival was jam-packed with indie movie treats and I was delighted to make my way through their vast, varied programme. Their online viewing platform and scheduling tools were incredibly easy to use and made all aspects of the festival easy to navigate. Here are my top six picks from the SXSW 2021 film programme.
The Fallout (Directed by Megan Park)
Perhaps my favourite film of the year so far, The Fallout follows a self-assured teenager in the wake of a fatal high school shooting. It’s the feature debut from director Megan Park who has arrived with vision and purpose in the form of this well-rounded, highly emotional study of a traumatic event’s impact on your everyday teenager; the type of American students we don’t see on the news demanding gun reform. It’s lovely to see Jenna Ortega in a starring role that will no doubt catapult her right into the Hollywood spotlight. Her performance is raw and sincere whilst always appearing laid back and effortless. The film’s melancholy score is produced by Finneas O’Connell (the musician know just as ‘Finneas’ and famous for collaborating with sibling Billie Eilish) and captures the warmth of the Californian sun that laps at the film’s frame and the intense heat of the panic buried beneath the surface.
Introducing Selma Blair (Directed by Rachel Fleit)
Self-confessed supporting actor, Selma Blair takes centre stage in an intimate documentary that follows her through the brutality of a stem cell transplant, following her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in August 2018. Rachel Fleit clearly built up great trust with Blair who narrates us personally through most of the film and discusses the most painful aspects of her condition, from the physical frustrations to the emotional turmoil that it brings. It’s a stark portrait of a woman battling to keep her identity and independence whilst also coming to terms with the forced end of her career. Introducing Selma Blair reminds us why she was such a striking 90s movie presence and introduces the audience to a frank and fully dimensional account of living with multiple sclerosis.
I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) (Directed by Kelley Kali and Angelique Molina)
In some ways this is a modern retelling of The Bicycle Thieves, in which a down and out mother roller skates around on a blisteringly hot day in an attempt to secure a deposit on an apartment. Her and her daughter are currently residing in a tent in the aftermath of losing her husband and daughter’s father. The vibrant palette and maternal themes are reminiscent of The Florida Project. Whilst it’s a little clunky in places and the acting and script a little forceful at times, I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) is a charming indie piece with a DIY filmmaking feel.
Alien on Stage (Directed by Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer)
A group of bus drives from Dorset set about bringing Ridley Scott’s cinematic masterpiece to their local village hall. What could go wrong? Alien on Stage is a low-budget documentary telling the story of a group of colleagues on an unlikely mission. The film itself is not much to write home about but at its heart is a celebration of creative endeavour and what happens when you accidently stumble upon an unlikely but perfect audience. There is great hilarity in the film’s final chapter as a sincere amateur dramatics production finds a home in the hearts of a smitten London theatre audience.
Here Before (Directed by Stacey Gregg)
Andrea Riseborough proves ones again that there is nothing she can’t do in Here Before, an unnerving drama centred around a grieving mother and her increasing obsession with a curious child who moves in next door. Riseborough tells us so much with just her face and body language. Her performance is arguably better than the film itself which feels like it may have been more at home on ITV over a few nights. Here Before is nonetheless an intriguing, mysterious story where secrets and grief are buried side by side.
The Return: Life after ISIS (Directed by Alba Sotorra)
Alba Sotorra plants us in the centre of a Kurdish camp populated by former ISIS brides who previously left their native countries to join the extremist group. Their young children, who have never known anything different, run around the desolate camp, some spouting memorised fundamentalist propaganda. It’s a bleak setting, as are the probable futures of these women, long after their initial radicalisation. The women come from many different countries including Canada, Germany the Netherlands and the UK. Shamima Begum is among them, the school girl who at 15 left her home in London and travelled to Syria with two other friends (who have since died) to join ISIS. The film takes a sympathetic stance, viewing the women as victims of the cause they joined, adding traumatising first-hand accounts to the ongoing complex debate around the international treatment and citizenship of former terrorist aligned individuals who want to come home but whose homes have locked their doors.
Thanks for reading and let’s all keep supporting our beloved film industry.