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SXSW Film: First Half Recap

As we enter the second half of SXSW Film, a look at the highlights of the first part of the film conference.

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A general view of atmosphere seen at STX Entertainment 'Hardcore Henry' screening at 2016 SXSW Film Festival on Sunday, March 13, 2016, in Austin, TX.
(Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for STX Entertainment/AP Images)

SXSW Film, like a football game or a marathon, is divided into halves. The first half is where most of the headlines are made—the biggest films tend to premiere during that stretch, and most of the filmmakers and stars show up for the early days. The second half, by contrast, screens many of the same movies in a much more relaxed environment. SXSW itself is a marathon stretching nine exhausting days, and the film conference is the only portion of the festival that covers all of it—sports wraps on Sunday and Interactive officially closes on Tuesday, while music doesn’t even rear its head until Tuesday. (Fun fact for music badge holders: From Tuesday on, your badge also gets you into all remaining film screenings.)

With that in mind, it’s worth breaking up any recaps of SXSW Film into two parts, just to capture the depth of the festival. In terms of headliners, Friday was the premiere of hometown hero Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some, while Saturday saw Austin’s fastest-rising star Jeff Nichols’s Midnight Special gets its coronation. But while the headliners were good (often very good, in the case of Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice), and occasionally bad (in the case of Joe Berlinger’s documentary Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru), the most interesting finds this year tended to be the undercards.

Miss Stevens, by first-time director Julia Hart—a filmmaker who emerged as a writer last year with the grim feminist Western The Keeping Room—premiered at the Vimeo Theater on Saturday afternoon to a packed crowd. The movie’s nominally a comedy. Or at least it’s funny, anyway, and it has familiar comedy faces like The Office alums Rob Huebel and Oscar Nuñez in it. But it’s also an uncomfortable look at things like growing up, caring too much, and recovering from trauma. American Horror Story‘s Lily Rabe stars as the titular Miss Stevens, a young high school English teacher who volunteers to take three promising students to a theater competition for the weekend—where she has to manage the inherent drama of youth, and her own pained emotional state following a recent heartbreak. Hart’s an adept enough writer and director to balance funny characters and situations with weightier themes in ways that make Miss Stevens captivating to watch, rather than inconsistent in tone. And her leads—particularly Rabe, as well as Homeland‘s Timothée Chalamet—do her work justice.

Great performances are also the key to Musa Syeed’s A Stray, which tells the story of a young Somali immigrant living in Minneapolis over the course of one frustrating night. Minneapolis is one of the better screen cities—it’s an underutilized location for some reason—but the lead performance from Captain Phillips’ Barkhad Abdirahman (not to be confused with his Captain Phillips co-star and Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi of a million “I’m the captain now” jokes) is often just the actor interacting with a dog for most of the picture. Abdirahman plays Adan, an immigrant who accidentally hits a dog with his car and—with a dog in tow—can’t find a place to sleep for the night. The film’s meandering script plays like a showcase of his talent as a screen presence, and of the cinematic look of the setting.

Boutique film distributor A24 picked up Chad Hartigan’s Morris From America at Sundance, which means that audiences will be able to see it in coming months. That is a good thing. The movie, which stars teenage newcomer Markees Christmas as the thirteen-year-old Morris, who moves to Heidelberg, Germany with his father (Craig Robinson), is one of the sweeter coming-of-age stories we’re likely to see this year. Christmas is terrific as Morris, who struggles with the prejudices of his classmates and teachers and the eternal challenge of fitting in as a young teenager (whether you’re in a foreign country or not), until he meets Katrin, a rebellious teenager who takes a liking to him. Robinson, who’s usually restricted to being the funny guy on the side in movies like This Is The End or Hot Tub Time Machine, gets a chance to show off how far-reaching his on-screen charms in a performance that—depending how Morris From America is released—ought to earn him awards consideration.

Filmmaker/comedian/This American Life alumni Mike Birbiglia had one of the festival’s headliners this year with the world premiere of Don’t Think Twice. That film brought together a cast of comedy world stars—led by Key & Peele‘s Keegan Michael Key and Community‘s Gillian Jacobs—for a bittersweet story about an improv troupe whose lives change when they get priced out of their theater space at the same time that one of their members (played by Key) gets cast on the film’s marginally fictionalized version of Saturday Night Live. Sad movies about comedians have been done before—think Punchline or Funny People—but there’s a heart to Don’t Think Twice that transcends those tropes. The themes of professional jealousy, committing to a team, and wondering if you’re making the right decision to continue chasing a dream are about more than comedy, and because Don’t Think Twice is often really funny while exploring them, the movie works on a few levels.

Documentaries in the first half of SXSW, meanwhile, were more of a mixed bag. Abortion law doc Trapped found compelling characters and a dramatic story to tell, while the true-crime documentary Beware The Slenderman from Academy Award-nominated director Irene Taylor Brodsky is a captivating look at the attempted murder of a twelve-year-old girl in Wisconsin by two of her classmates, who claimed they stabbed their friend more than a dozen times to impress the Internet’s mythical “Slenderman.”

Fellow Academy Award nominee Joe Berlinger—whose trio of films about the West Memphis Three, Paradise Lost, are some of the more important documentaries of the past couple decades—brought a decidedly more bizarre film to SXSW, meanwhile. Berlinger’s a fine documentarian whose best work (the Paradise Lost trilogy, the Metallica documentary Some Kind Of Monster) reflects his audience’s skeptical eye to the proceedings. But in Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru, Berlinger—who made the film after attending Robbins’ six-day marathon Date With Destiny” program a few years prior—leaves all skepticism aside to put out a film that plays like an infomercial for the self-help star. Berlinger’s documentary, which features unprecedented access to Robbins for a filmmaker, follows a handful of the attendees at the Date With Destiny seminar throughout their six days at the event. We see breakthrough after breakthrough for a small number of the 2,500 participants, and Berlinger offers a brief update at the end of the film via on-screen text to let viewers know that, yep, lives were definitely changed—but he doesn’t seem particularly interested in questioning Robbins or his methods, or in exploring the viewpoints of people who may not have had experiences as transformative as the ones he focuses on. The documentary makes Robbins look awfully compelling, but the real—albeit inadvertent—fascination that comes from I Am Not Your Guru may be seeing what happens when a filmmaker known for probing documentaries buys the pitch from a walking ball of charisma like Tony Robbins.

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