Last week, the South by Southwest festival became the latest cultural institution to go the virtual route, presenting nearly a week's worth of music, comedy and movies in an entirely online format. I attended the film festival portion of SXSW, an activity that involved me barely leaving my couch for a few days, skimming through an on-demand platform that boasted 75 features and even more shorts.
Unlike with this year's Sundance, I didn't see anything that really blew me away, but there was still plenty of good stuff, especially in the realm of documentaries. Here are my favorites, all of which should be available to stream in the near future.
Director: Megan Park
The winner of the festival's narrative jury prize, this perceptive and quietly effective drama examines how a diverse group of teenagers transform in the wake of a school shooting. Former Disney Channel star Jenna Ortega plays a wallflower who ends up hiding in a bathroom with the most popular girl in school (Maddie Ziegler) as a gunman takes over the halls, and their friendship deepens as they work through what happened to them. Writer-director Megan Park, making her feature debut, avoids after-school special histrionics, adeptly exploring the isolation and dissociation that comes in the wake of trauma.
Director: Jasmine Stodel
This entertaining documentary focuses on Hayden Pedigo, 24-year-old musician in Amarillo, Texas, who dressed up in a thrift-store suit, posed as a prospective city council member and filmed an Adult Swim-style gag campaign ad with his friends. But once the video goes viral, Pedigo realizes he might have a political point of view that could actually benefit his community, and so he begins running his campaign in earnest. It's a minor film, running just over an hour, but Pedigo is an engaging subject, and the movie ends up having something to say about the insidious nature of corporate politics.
Director: Natalie Morales
Filmed in quarantine, this is a gentle character study about a Spanish teacher (Morales) and one of her adult students (Mark Duplass), whose relationship becomes more complicated after his husband dies. The structure becomes almost epistolary, as they send each other video messages and learn more about each other than they ever thought possible. Morales and Duplass are the only actors on screen, and though we've seen a few lame shot-on-Zoom films in the last year, this one avoids simple gimmicky because their performances are so rich.
Lily Topples the World
Director: Jeremy Workman
If you've ever been entranced by one of those internet videos of elaborate domino arrangements being knocked down, then this is the documentary for you. It's about Lily Hevesh, who has racked up more than a billion YouTube views with her intricate Rube Goldberg set-ups, and the film chronicles how a shy kid from New Hampshire became an internationally recognized internet personality doing her best to convince the world that playing with dominoes can be art. By the end of the film, which won the documentary jury award at SXSW, we're more than convinced.
The Lost Sons
Director: Ursula Macfarlane
Similar to the recent documentary hit Three Identical Strangers, this is a twisty true-life tale that involves a kidnapping, a fateful reunion and a case of mistaken identity. It centers on a man named Paul Fronczak, who discovered as an adolescent that he had been nabbed from the maternity ward mere hours after he was born, and wasn't found and brought back to his parents for nearly two years. When Fronczak becomes a father himself, he starts questioning who he really is, and the bizarre circumstances of his saga unfold like a great page-turner.
Director: Todd Stephens
The great Udo Kier stars as a flamboyant, long-retired hairdresser who learns that one of his best friends has died and that she wanted him to do her hair and makeup for her open-casket funeral. So he sneaks out of his retirement facility and makes his way to the other side of his tiny Ohio town, reuniting with estranged figures from his past and rediscovering his own purpose. The film lives and dies by Kier's performance, and it's a terrific one: He drolly chain-smokes, dispenses withering scorn and dances to Robyn. What more could you want?
Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free
Director: Mary Wharton
Tom Petty's 1994 album Wildflowers is one of the late musician's most serene collections of songs, and yet during its creation, he was fretting about the future of both his marriage and his band the Heartbreakers. The behind-the-scenes doc Somewhere You Feel Free uses archival footage and contemporary interviews to really dig into Petty's creative process, and though I can't imagine anyone outside the realm of die-hard fans finding much to enjoy here, it's great to see Petty back at work again. The music, of course, is also pretty excellent.
Under the Volcano
Director: Gracie Otto
Another compelling musical doc, this one is about legendary music producer George Martin and the famous recording studio he built on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. It was an idyllic place that attracted the likes of Paul McCartney, the Police, the Rolling Stones, Dire Straits and Elton John before being destroyed by a 1995 volcanic eruption that also took out most of the neighboring village. The film has a ton of old footage and photos and plenty of interviews, and it explores both the benefits and drawbacks of creating art in the midst of paradise. ♦