While we did see all the Midnighter and genre entries for SXSW 2021 and are working to catch up on coverage for that, we did also explore several other films in the fest. I thought I would give my thoughts on each of the non-Midnighter/horror screenings I attended at SXSW 2021, including the pros and cons of each film.
Potato Dreams of America directed by Wes Hurley
“After reading Nietzche again I didn’t know who I was…”
Synopsis: An autobiographical dark comedy about a gay boy growing up in the Soviet Union, his mail-order bride mother and their adventurous escape to America.
Pros: Has some warm and wildly funny moments, especially Jonathan Bennett (Mean Girls) as young Potato’s imaginary version of Jesus to help him navigate puberty and morality. Potato discovering his sexuality to JCVD’s Bloodsport is a gutbuster.
Cons: The film has some issues with tonal whiplash at times in the harshest sense. You’ll go from a hilarious bit to another sign of the constant oppression facing Potato and his mother several times during the film, and it makes for an emotionally confusing experience.
Clerk directed by Malcolm Ingram
“Only reason you cats liked my movies was ‘cuz of me being myself, so I’m going to go be me for the rest of my life now.”
Synopsis: A documentary on the career and life of filmmaker and raconteur Kevin Smith. (World Premiere)
Pros: Has some great coverage of Smith’s early career (even Mallrats, surprisingly!) and gets heartwarming and reflective towards the end. Kevin Smith willingly acknowledges the Weinstein situation on camera since many of his early films were distributed by the company and shows how he’s working to undo the harm Weinstein’s caused, even though Smith himself was never directly complicit.
Cons: Films from Cop Out on are skimmed. There are several scenes about a Smith collaborator just being sort of burnt out with work, then going on to travel the world for years afterwards to balance that out, along with photo montages. Good for him, but it offsets the “working guy from Jersey” image that Smith often tries to portray, especially in a year where 95% of (likely homebound or quarantined) audiences don’t have that level of privilege to not work and travel for a year plus.
Violet directed by Justine Bateman
Synopsis: A film development executive realizes that “guiding voice” inside her head has been lying to her about everything.
Pros: I can honestly say this turned me around on Olivia Munn as a performer. I had always thought her a little stiff in her performances before, but she shows emotional nuance and vulnerability here. The work subplot is the strongest of all of Violet’s sub-stories. Bateman uses visual panache to display the emotional distress of the protagonist, be it through the erratic onscreen cursive or fade to deep red in tense situations.
Cons: The Voice feels like generalized negativity, even though the editing makes it seem like Violet has some sort of trauma or anxiety disorder. Every single story ending positively for Violet seems to clash with the claustrophobic and painfully anxious energy of the majority of the film, and isn’t quite the earned release from it that the film probably thinks it is.
Swan Song directed by Todd Stephens
Synopsis: A formerly flamboyant hairdresser takes a long walk across a small town to style a dead woman’s hair.
Pros: This is my personal favorite non-Midnighter entry in the festival (My favorite Midnight feature, by the way, is the animated film The Spine Of Night – read my review here). Udo Kier is equal parts hilarious, heartwarming, and heartbreaking as Pat “the Liberace of Sandusky” Pitsenbarger, navigating his old hometown on his own gay Odyssey of sorts. The film explores both the triumphs and losses of the LGBT community that have come before, and what their sacrifices have brought to the modern generation with plenty of laughs along the way.
Cons: The film does have a slow and dry pace about it at times, but once you can sort out the trajectory, it’s worth taking the ride.
Best Summer Ever directed by Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli
Synopsis: A fresh and exhilarating take on the beloved teen musical genre featuring eight original songs and a fully integrated cast and crew of people with and without disabilities.
Pros: Love to see the inclusivity in front of and behind the camera. As the wonderful final scene above shows us, this film was crafted by a crew with and without disability, and that’s remarkable. The lead villain, a devious goth cheerleader played by Mumu, is a ton of fun to watch in a scenery chewing way, and both of the romantic leads are very likeable. The film deserves an extra round of props in my opinion for never making the disabilities themselves ever a joke, unless it is 110% on the actors terms (and on these instances, they’re usually caught laughing about it themselves, on camera, adding a peculiar charm to the joke).
Cons: The script is rather tropey, playing like a hard PG-13/light R Disney Channel Original Movie musical or Hallmark if they discovered the F bomb.
Ninjababy directed by Yngvild Sve Flikke
Synopsis: When Rakel, way too late, finds out she’s six months pregnant after a not-so-romantic one-night stand, her world changes. Her boyfriend, who’s not the father, is kind of ok with her having a baby. But Rakel is absolutely not ready for being a mother. Since abortion is no longer an option, adoption is the only answer. That’s when Ninjababy, an animated character who insists on making Rakel’s everyday life a living hell, turns up.
Pros: Kristine Kujath Thorp is wonderful as Rakel. I see a lot of other critics compare her to Seth Rogen’s character in Knocked Up, a hedonistic party animal just looking to get laid or score some drugs or booze, which is somewhat close, but doesn’t quite capture it in my opinion. I feel like there’s a lot more nuance with Thorp/Rakel that gets explored here, and covering this story from an exclusively female lens is creative and interesting.
Cons: For every bit of horny silliness and heart the film has, there is unflinching realism behind it all. Frank topics like abortion and inability to be a parent are discussed in full here. I appreciated it but it may be a lot for some audiences.
This wraps up my thoughts on all of the non-Midnighter films I watched at the SXSW 2021 Film Festival. Have you seen any of these films? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!