From blood-soaked horror sequels to probing documentaries, this year’s fest has a lot to offer.
If this year’s Sundance marked the full return of film festivals to their pre-COVID glory, SXSW’s return as a full-fledged festival cements that assertion. Every year, thousands flock to Austin, TX for the food, the music, and — crucial to our interests — the 2023 SXSW Film Festival, celebrating a new crop of independent films and the artists who make them. We’ve got standup comedians in their directorial debuts, long-awaited sequels to legacy horror reboots, two(!) Rachel Sennott vehicles, documentaries about everything from deepfake porn to building an ark in your backyard, and much more.
The pickings are overwhelming, so let us give you a taste of what’s to come (and a few titles we’ll review here on this here website) from March 10th-19th. Get your tickets here.
The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster
Bomani J. Story’s directorial feature debut takes on the specter of Black trauma through the lens of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and it’s effective enough that Shudder’s already swooped it up for distribution. Fed up with the omnipresent shroud of death that surrounds her family, a young teenager (Laya DeLeon Hayes) chooses to find a way to reanimate the corpse of her recently-killed brother, with all the existential terror that follows. It’s a potent tale reckoning with the systemic violence that plagues the Black community from drugs to gangs to poverty, and the way even good intentions can make you lose your innocence.
Participants in the discourse around deepfakes would do well to heed this haunting documentary from Sophie Compton and Reuben Hamlyn, which follows the efforts of a college student to track down who might have created deepfake porn of her and spread it across the Internet. What starts as a fascinating screens-based detective story turns into a terrifying rumination on how easy it is for online misogyny to find purchase and ruin real lives; an early rug-pull in the opening minutes makes the ubiquity of this kind of technology even more concerning.
The Arc of Oblivion
Executive produced by Werner Herzog, the newest doc from Ian Cheney (The Search for General Tso) asks a fundamental question about our being: How do we keep our memories alive? As such, his project to build an ark outside his parents’ country homestead in Maine turns into a more all-encompassing thesis on the ways we preserve and archive our identities and memories — hard drives, photographs, seed vaults, you name it. It’s bittersweet and disarming in that classic Ian Cheney way, with a welcome cameo from Mr. Herzog himself to lend his philosophical musings on the nature of our own impermanence.
Shiva Baby director Emma Seligman returns for another high-tension cringe comedy with Bottoms, the tale of two awkward high school seniors (Shiva Baby star Rachel Sennott, who also co-writes, and The Bear‘s Ayo Edebiri) who start a fight club so they can get a shot at their local school’s cheerleaders. Sennott and Edebiri had crackling chemistry in their 2020 Comedy Central miniseries Ayo and Rachel Are Single, so it’s a treat to see their combined comic timing back on screen again.
Confessions of a Good Samaritan
We at The Spool love the works of Penny Lane, who’s grown from her more essay-like films about Richard Nixon and 20th-century goat-nut hucksters to inventive spins on more traditionally-formed docs about Satanists and Kenny G. Her latest is her most uncomfortably personal, as she documents her experiences as an “altruistic donor,” i.e. someone willing to donate her kidney to a complete stranger. From there, she explores the nature of altruism itself, both as a way to inspire others to do the same and figure out her own complicated feelings about the sacrifice she’s chosen to make.
A Disturbance in the Force
In the age of Disney, I’m hard-pressed to say that the dismal 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special is even the worst thing to come out of that franchise anymore. But it remains a piece of cult ephemera, a miscalculated attempt to squeeze a galaxy far, far away into the limited confines of 1970s variety television. Directors Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak dig into how George Lucas’ vision ended up in the hands of Bruce Vilanch and a confused Bea Arthur, and how that dissonance ended up making for one of nerddom’s most highly sought-after curios.
Evil Dead Rise
The fifth entry in the Evil Dead franchise isn’t another adventure for either version of Ashley Williams (Bruce Campbell or Jane Levy from the 2013 Fede Alvarez reboot), but a standalone adventure concerning two estranged sisters (Lily Sullivan and Alyssa Sutherland) who come across the Necronomicon during one fateful visit. Bodies get possessed, blood pours out in rivulets, and we’re sure writer/director Lee Cronin (Hole in the Ground) will offer up some decently atmospheric chills.
Molli and Max in the Future
What if When Harry Met Sally… took place amid the existential confusion of a Futurama-like galaxy? That’s the premise behind Michael Lukk Litwak’s charming lo-fi indie Molli and Max in the Future, a relatable rom-com set among the stars. When a chance meeting thrusts commitmentphobe Max (Aristotle Athari) and neurotic magic-user Molli (Zosia Mamet) into each others’ orbit, they spend the next decade and change navigating the swings and roundabouts of romantic relationships, as lovers and friends and somewhere in between. Oh, and there are space cults, mecha fights, trash dimensions, and quantum realms that literalize the very concept of will-they-won’t-they. The film’s quirky combo of green-screen Volume sets, stop-motion animation, and more pair perfectly with Litwak’s acerbic Ephron-in-space script.
Dry your tears from the undue cancellation of Los Espookys, dear reader; creator Julio Torres is bouncing back quickly with his feature debut as a writer/director, with Tilda Swinton in tow. His surreal sensibilities are in full force as a Salvadoran toy designer who teams up with an erratic art-world outcast (Swinton) to keep his work visa and realize his dreams. If Espookys and his standup are any indicator, ready yourself for plenty of unconventional inventions and bone-dry wit to accompany them.
The Wrath of Becky
2020’s Becky was quite the surprise: A darkly funny home-invasion thriller that doubled down on the murderous instincts of its vindictive tween protagonist, played to devilish effect by Lulu Wilson. But ripping up a Neo-Nazi played by Kevin James just wasn’t enough; this sequel, courtesy of The Open House directors Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote, sees the murder machine trying her best to stay off the grid with a helpful older woman (Denise Burse) who’s taken her in. Unfortunately, she just can’t seem to stay off the radar of asshole white supremacists (led by a menacing Seann William Scott), requiring her uniquely murderous set of skills once again. With the original’s tongue-in-bloody-cheek tone and howling Nima Fakhrara score intact, it’s a welcome second course of Becky for anyone who adored the first.
The Young Wife
“Once upon a time, a woman was becoming a wife.” Following up her incredible debut Selah and the Spades, writer/director Tayarisha Poe returns with a winsome fairy tale about a 29-year-old (Kiersey Clemons) panicking on the day of her “non-wedding.” Audacious in its form from the opening minutes, it’s an invigorating look at the expectations heaped on a young Black woman over the course of a single day; fans of Everything Everywhere All at Once will appreciate its approach to sifting through the overwhelming noise of our lives, from meditation apps to Roombas to overly-chatty influencer besties. And all of it filtered through colorful, near-future costuming and a buzzy, crunchy score from Terence Nance.