Around the world from the couch at the 2021 SFFILM Festival

Illustration of the Golden Gate Bridge over the San Francisco Bay, with silhouettes of film reels in the sky
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Want to brush up on your Spanish? There’s so much more to appreciate from the 2021 San Francisco International Film Festival, which put a spotlight on Mexican cinema, but the practice is a cherry on top of the lineup. Documentaries, as usual, were particularly strong, featuring some Sundance standouts — this year’s, among others, were “In the Same Breath” and “Writing with Fire.” Here’s the good, plus a little of the bad:

“After Antarctica”

After the rain comes the rainbow, and after the International Trans-Antarctica expedition came a bit of progress on the protection of Antarctica. “After Antarctica” catches up with expedition member Will Steger, who narrates the hazards he and the rest of the expedition endured on the half-year-long trek. Archival footage from the ’90s reveals an unforgiving continent, while incredible drone shots impart the beauty of the Arctic, which is fading with climate change. Tasha Van Zandt’s feature debut holds its own as one of the best world premieres of this year’s festival.

“Valley of Souls”

“Valley of Souls” is a slow burn with three w’s. Director Nicolás Rincón Gille’s narrative debut, part of the 2020 Flashback series, liquefies with a languid pace that melts in your mouth — drama few and far between so tender, it falls off the bone.

José (Arley de Jesús Carvallido Lobo, superb and given minimal dialogue) is a Colombian fisherman tracking down the bodies of his sons, who were killed by paramilitaries. José’s journey is an epic, a harrowing and broad saga of Tolkien-like traveling created by a feat of filmmaking. Above all, this is an unsettling vision of luck: of why José needs it and of those who make it necessary.

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It”

Fresh off the heels of “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” comes “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It.” These two may have lookalike titles, but their content is anything but. All at once, Rita Moreno’s life speaks to the experience of actresses, narratives about Latinx people and life as an American woman. “Rita Moreno” excellently tells all the barriers Moreno had to overcome before living comfortably in a Berkeley hills mansion. For all her success in America, though, we’re left to wonder if she got all she deserved. What would her life — and so many others’ — have been like without the obstacles?

“Tove”

By no means a conventional love story, “Tove” describes the formative years of Tove Jansson (Alma Pöysti), the multi-talented bisexual artist behind the Moomins. “Tove” is finely detailed with a script that mostly avoids the tropes of the works that have come before it — “Tove” focuses on a painter, but there’s no drawing scene. Director Zaida Bergroth’s biopic doesn’t rethink the period drama, but “Tove” poses complex questions about a person definitively herself.

“This is My Desire”

It’s a mystery why twin directors Arie and Chuko Esiri decided to bisect “This is My Desire” so aggressively. Their film starts out strong with Mofe (Jude Akuwudike), an engineer who spends his days doing endless repairs at a factory, nights fixing stuff people pay him to at his stall and the moments in between at home with his sister and her children.

Gutting tragedy strikes, but before “This is My Desire” can thoroughly explore it, the twins shift to Rosa (Temiloluwa Ami-Williams), another person in Lagos just trying to make ends meet. The film is functional as a study of everyday life, but the personal oomph is left hanging.

“Son of Monarchs”

Who knew gene editing could make for such romantic pillow talk? Mendel (Tenoch Huerta), who immigrated from Mexico to New York city after a tumultuous childhood, is telling his girlfriend how he uses CRISPR, the Berkeley-developed gene editing tool, to study the evolution of butterflies. “Son of Monarchs” is seemingly tailor made for Sundance’s Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, but with its overstuffed plot, the visually strong film buckles under a coterie of irrelevant, undefined characters.

“Homeroom”

“Homeroom” takes impostor syndrome to another level. The film observes a group of Oakland high school seniors from the class of 2020 who ignite a push to redirect millions of dollars from the police to schools. Despite capturing these students’ empowerment, Peter Nicks’s documentary is missing the personal connections to individual students. Still, “Homeroom” offers a withering, if not fully expanded critique of how those in power repurpose a movement’s energy to maintain their grip: The mayor of Oakland tells these students to claim their power without offering any real help.

“Supercool”

It has cops, it checks the crazy last night boxes and it gets better with time. If that sounded bad, “Supercool,” about two high school boys trying to become cool overnight, is worse. The film tries to walk the line between recognizing a social ailment and being crass, but often falls on the wrong side.

The film’s title clues you into the fact that “Supercool” is in the vein of “Superbad,” except it lacks the latter’s committedly coarse humor, relying on tasteless and hackneyed paws at social issues that ask the audience to fill in the irony. That’s asking far too much of us for a (funny) flick. It isn’t “Superbad,” but it isn’t super bad.

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