2021 SXSW Film Festival lineup touts scattershot narratives, solid documentaries

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While the 2021 South by Southwest, or SXSW, Film Festival didn’t see any “Booksmarts,” it wasn’t without its moments. Documentaries about musicians, such as “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free,” made a strong showing, and the narrative section was dotted with poignant dramas and timely comedy. Above all, this year’s festival celebrated the resilience of the independent filmmakers that triumphed over a season of uncertainty. Here’s some of what we watched. 

“Swan Song”

What an icon. That’s all you can say about hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier) and “Swan Song,” standouts of the festival. The former is due to Kier saddling a new role with unforgettable pizzaz. Kier is reliably cast in evil roles — a few Hitlers and that villain from “Bacurau” for starters — and a similar, lesser actor might be out of his depth in this story. Not Kier, though, who makes Pat his own with a flicky sass, unabashed flamboyance and subversive truth.

“Swan Song” is the kind of slow burn that demands rapt attention, and the devil is in the details — though Pat’s stumble to get a feel of a farmer hunk may not qualify as devilish. Pat takes that stumble on his walk from his nursing home to Sandusky, Ohio to prepare one of his best clients, a town socialite, for burial. This is an onion of a film: wittily comedic, but with an eye-stinging sadness that grows as the layers are peeled back until Pat is revealed in all his Elysian, heroic, chandelier crown-wearing glory. It’s a genial, breathy film that’s never haughty but floating on a summer day with teasing sexuality.  

The glaring problem? A squandered Jennifer Coolidge. 

“I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking)” 

This is a must see pandemic film, as much a work of history as of fiction. At a point when we see far less of the people and the world around us, “I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking)” recounts a story that needs to be heard, as writer-directors Kelley Kali and Angelique Molina create a poignant reminder that not everyone’s pandemic life has been work and school from the safety of home. 

Danny’s (Kali) life was going smoothly. But when the pandemic hit, her business as a hairdresser frayed and she lost her home. Recently widowed, Danny has to convince her 8-year-old daughter that they are just camping in a tent on the side of the road. Catching us up with an effortless speed, “I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking)” tails the roller-skating Danny over a marathon of a day and her race to put together the last $200 for the deposit on an apartment. Watching the film is a marathon, too. Not because of its runtime (90 minutes, well-bound), but because of all the twists writers Kali, Roma Kong and Molina weave in. 

“Violet” 

“Violet” clearly understands that anxiety is no laughing matter. The stoic film follows Violet (Olivia Munn) on her path to overcoming anxiety — more or less on her own. Violet is in a precipitous battle with the menacing voice in her head (Justin Theroux). An inventive twist scrawls Violet’s innermost thoughts across the screen in contrast to Theroux’s voice, and what “Violet” does best is identifying the anxieties running through someone’s head, extract them and strip away the rationalizations. Those thoughts often go by as feelings, ignored but not entirely sidelined. 

Director Justine Bateman recognizes them for what they are: overwhelming doubts, all lies. Theroux’s voice is overpowering, but it’s less the specific words that matter than the tone. The tone sticks in “Violet,” which also takes aim at sexual harassment in the workplace and brings Vi, and us, down. Anxiety’s toll is revealed with a harsh unambiguity, but “Violet” is ultimately about one woman trapped in her own head with an ending that falls short of the gravitas the rest of the film establishes. 

“Language Lessons” 

It hurts to watch a movie told entirely by video chat. “Language Lessons,” the story of Adam’s (Mark Duplass) budding friendship with his Spanish teacher, Cariño (Natalie Morales), is the cinematic edition of discussions by Zoom. They’re functional, maybe even OK, but they can never reach the quality of a good old-fashioned, shoulder-to-shoulder conversation. To give credit where credit is due is one thing — this film deserves applause for its adventurous aspirations — but to celebrate an approximation of the possible is another.

“Language Lessons” isn’t an approximation because it chooses such a style — that style is markedly inventive. But it is asymptotic to life, and director Natalie Morales’ film is contained, ultimately constricted to a digital keyhole. Placing the viewer within the screen comes off as a crutch for relatability instead of artistic trailblazing. “Language Lessons” can’t escape the two-dimensionality of the virtual world, dinging a drama that deserves a robust telling. 

Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].