Following our first recap of the first batch of films that we caught virtually during the online edition of SXSW Film Festival 2021, here is the second recap of all the pictures that we were able to catch. Find our capsule reviews posted below and stay tuned for much more in the ensuing days.
Recovery (directed by Mallory Everton + Stephen Meek)
Recovery isn’t the first COVID-centric film of the festival but it’s easily the best, using the insanity of our present reality to create some creative comedic chaos that had me laughing about as hard as I have about anything COVID-related that wasn’t out of pure delirium about our current hell.
We meet sisters Jamie (Whitney Call) and Blake (Mallory Everton, who also co-directs) at a party where they are excited for all their future plans. Only for the world to slap them with a cold reality in the ensuing days as COVID rears its ugly head and shuts it all down. What makes Recovery successful is not just the way it pokes fun of all the stuff we thought we had to do to stay safe during the early unknown days of the pandemic, but the way it is genuinely actually a funny good time. The sisters embark on a cross country road trip in order to save their Nana (Anne Sward Hansen) from the peril of her unstable nursing home.
Call and Everton, who both share the writing credits, who honed their skills at their sketch comedy show as students at BYU, make this puppy work because of some undeniable chemistry and the way they are able to find genuine humor in a situation and time that is the furthest thing from funny. While it may lose some stream towards the end, this is the best case scenario of this COVID-era films and the arrival of a pair of comedic voices that I can’t wait to hear more from.
Ninjababy (directed by Yngvild Sve Flikke)
We’ve seen a few enjoyable films so far during the festival but it’s safe to say that we have seen the first truly memorable one, dare I say great one, with Yngvild Sve Flikke’s Ninjababy. The Norwegian film is adapted from Inga H Sætre’s graphic novel Fallteknik about a Rakel (Kristine Kujath Thorp), a young girl that would rather draw, get drunk, or high, instead of worrying about real-life dreams or aspirations. That all changes when she realizes that she is pregnant with the child and assumes it is that of her most recent hookup, Mos (Nader Khademi).
Things get even nuttier when a checkup at the hospital reveals that she is too far along for the child to be Mos’. Instead, it must be of her longtime FWB hookup “Dick Jesus” (Arthur Berning), a nickname that you can use your imagination to figure out what it’s referencing. He is just as big of a stoner and slacker as Rakel, which makes the situation all the more less-than-ideal.
Like a Nordic combination of Juno and Knocked Up, Sve Flikke takes these familiar young/unexpected pregnancy ideas into a fresh direction thanks to its imaginative use of animation. Rakel copes with her new reality by discussing her thoughts with the animated titular Ninjababy, who she can’t stand at first but slowly comes to terms with. At first, it’s a jarring idea but as the story and her pregnancy get more real, it ends up packing a surprising punch.
Flikke manages to balance both the whacky comedic elements with the drama in a way that is invigorating, totally refreshing, and different from how a Hollywood director would handle it. Based on the high quality of the film, it’s only a matter of time until Hollywood remakes a lesser version of this little gem that is so far, a highlight of the fest.
The Fallout (directed by Megan Park)
The Fallout is a film that I urge each and every one of you to go into completely blind. I went in knowing literally nothing about the film and I can’t state how huge of an impact that this had on my viewing experience. It will understandably be tough to do so after the film garner’s its well-deserved acclaim but if you are reading this right now I would not be offended if you stopped reading right now and waited until your time comes to see it.
But if you’re still around, this is the directional debut of actress Megan Park, who also penned the screenplay. It is the look at the lingering effect of the trauma that high school student Vada (Jenna Ortega) experiences after a tragedy, as well as the shared trauma of those around her. This includes the social media famous student Mia (Maddie Ziegler), as well as the fracturing of her friendship with best friend Nick (Will Ropp) as well as the ever-lasting bond the event has with her and Quinton (Niles Fitch), a student she hardly knew before the events.
There’s also a good supporting turn from John Ortiz and Julie Bowen as her concerned parents, Lumi Pollack as her sister, and Shailene Woodley as her therapist. It’s a tough and unflinching look at someone struggling to deal with something that no one else can purely relate to on the same level as yourself, aside from a select few. And it causes a closer bond that comes out of a less-than-great reason and the fracturing it has of the relationships that you once held so dear. Not to mention all of this merging with her coming of age and figuring out who she is.
The film works thanks to the deft direction of Park, whose assured command behind the lens is impressive on any level, let alone from a first-time director, as well as the mighty performance from Ortega. The way she captures and channels the grief from an unimaginable, nearly unrecoverable situation, is powerful, raw, and totally unflinching. This is the film that will speak to a generation, one who desperately needs our help, yet it will not come because this country is sadly unable to change.
Language Lessons (directed by Natalie Morales)
With the age of technology, and the rise of Zoom due to the circumstances of the new normal that we have since found ourselves over the past year, there have been plenty of films that have used such technology to tell a story. Language Lessons, the directorial debut of actress Natalie Morales, uses the constraints of being stuck in front of our screens and gives it a clever construct to stand out above the rest – along with a hell of a co-star in the always charming Mark Duplass (who she co-wrote the screenplay with).
Adam (Mark Duplass) is surprised by his husband Will (Desean Terry) with Spanish lessons given virtually by teacher Cariño (Natalie Morales). Adam doesn’t have much interest in the lessons but does so as they are already paid for and he finds he enjoys spending time chatting with his teacher during a time when it turns out he can really use a friend, even if its one from afar. Something that we can all certainly relate to at this time. What starts out as funny and charming takes some surprising turns that gets heavy and emotional where you least expect it.
Morales and Duplass do so much with so little and prove what a well-written story and a little bit of charm can do to spark creativity and hook the audience in. It’s a film that won me over a few times and packed plenty of heart into a storytelling device that could of come off as cold, which is impressive in itself.
Violet (directed by Justine Bateman)
We are often our own worst enemies. Despite our best displays of confidence, our anxieties and self-doubt so often conflicting with our own happiness and success. This becomes crippling for Violet (Olivia Munn), a film development executive who is stuck at a company with a boss (Dennis Boutsikaris) that treats her like crap and a staff working under her that treat her like a peer rather than the head of staff. She’s the titular character of this challenging experimental debut feature film from actor Justine Bateman.
She wants to break free from the voice in her head (Justin Theroux) that literally contradicts the opposing thoughts of telling them all to piss off and to take the job offer given to her by the head of a rival firm (Jim O’Heir). She comes so close It bleeds into her personal life with her writer best friend Red (Luke Bracey), who should be her boyfriend, as well as telling off her ex-boyfriend (Simon Quarterman).
The voiceovers, as well as subtitle-like digital overlays, help combine the anxiety, dread, and self-doubt that Munn has. It’s an interesting, bold, and creative device, one that takes some time to get used to. I admire the uniqueness of it all but I never quite settled into it all and found it more tiresome and grating as it went along. I guess this is the point but as a cinematic experience, it left me both inspired yet often at arm’s length and sometimes cold. This is a shame as this is career-best work from Munn, who is absolutely terrific