Tales of poverty, paranoia, and adolescences framed by tragedy cap off SXSW’s Narrative Feature Competition.
(This dispatch is part of our coverage of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.)
The links between family and trauma are clearly on the brain with the second half of SXSW’s Narrative Feature Competition; children experience violence, trauma or poverty; parents struggle with the pain of loss or caring for the children they have; siblings clash over the confusion of their childhoods and strive to reconcile. And they do so in genres ranging from psychological thriller to indie dramedies to dark interpersonal dramas. Let’s take a look.
First, we start on a more bittersweetly funny note with I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking). It’s a slight but disarming debut from directors Kelley Kali and Angelique Molina, who translated their 2020 stimmy check into this COVID-set tale of a recently houseless, jobless single mother named Danny (Kali) and her attempts to raise enough money to afford the security deposit for an apartment for her and her eight-year-old daughter Wes (Wesley Moss) at the end of a sweaty Los Angeles day. The two have been holed up in a tent just off the highway outside Pacoima, and Wes just thinks they’ve been “camping” for way too long. Danny, meanwhile, makes the most of what she has — her wits, her mask, skill with Black hair, and a pair of leopard-print roller skates — to zip around town performing odd jobs to scrounge up the money she needs.
It’s a simple, but effective premise, delivered with the homespun charm of something like Sean Baker’s Tangerine, though not necessarily with the same impeccable level of filmmaking craft (understandable given its tiny budget; cinematographer Becky BaiHui Chen still soaks Danny’s journey in all the bright, Harris Dickinson colors of a hot summer afternoon). Still, it all holds up nicely thanks to a brilliant, bittersweet performance from Kali, selling the restrained frustration and resilience that comes from being a desperate mother trying to make ends meet. In her episodic travels, she argues with money-short clients, reconnects with old friends, and even evades a skeevy Deon Cole (who also produces) who tries to lure her into his Porsche with the promise of cash.
Despite these moments, it never gets all that dark, and rightly so; Kali and Molina instead focus on the tenderness, frustration, and resilience of Danny’s journey, which touches on everything from pandemic-era poverty to the struggles of single Black mothers to make ends meet. It’s a tale of plucky resourcefulness in the face of impossible struggle, not just in Danny’s story but in the filmmakers’ own ability to make lemonade from COVID-flavored lemons.
And I promise, that’s the last we’ll have to hear about COVID-set movies — though given the psychological torment at the heart of Stacey Gregg‘s Here Before, it’s tempting to want to run back to charming tales of pandemic anxiety. This Irish-set thriller follows Laura (Andrea Riseborough, queen of the spooky festival thriller after Possessor last year), the matriarch of a small Irish family living in the suburbs and still reeling from the death of their young daughter Josie years earlier in a car accident; father Brendan (Jonjo O’Neill) was driving. The family, which includes surviving son Tigdh (Lewis McAskie), is largely holding up fine considering their grief, but tensions flare when new neighbors move in next door — a young single mum (Eileen O’Higgins) and her daughter Megan (Niamh Dornan). Megan, who starts asking for rides home from Laura, starts dropping little hints that she may not be who she says she is; they’ll drive past Josie’s grave, and she’ll say “that’s where I was buried,” or will ask about tiny family dinnertime rituals they all used to share.
Is Megan playing tricks on this family? Or is she Josie resurrected? That’s the central question Gregg wants to drill into your head for the film’s brisk 82 minutes, and as a debut style exercise, it’s quite the feat. Director of photograph Chloe Thompson shrouds the Northern Irish setting in desaturated colors and thick fog, with haunting, dreamlike editing from Brian Philip Davis and Nick Emerson that grows ever hazier as the screws tighten on Laura’s understanding of her own reality. (Credit also goes to the sound design, with every squirt of ketchup and crunch of a bare foot on pavement adding to the unsettling nature of the affair.) As borderline-supernatural dramas go, it has the eerie coldness of a Scandinavian thriller, moody solemnity giving way to outrageously bone-chilling moments like a third-act nightmare sequence that will truly take you by surprise.
And of course, there’s Riseborough at the center, who never met a camera she couldn’t stare past with haunting intensity. Her Laura smiles through the pain, but digs at her suspicions about Megan like picking a scab; she knows it’s unhealthy, but can’t stop herself. Riseborough sells Laura’s paranoia with a litany of fascinatingly stolen glances and forced smiles, nervous laughter portending unhealthy obsessions. O’Neill is impressive too, especially in one frenzied argument with Riseborough about whether their suspicions are even real. “This is real life!” he screams frustratedly, as if to force out the impossible theories that have crept their way into his brain. Don’t expect easy answers out of Here Before, or even to fully understand the winding mysteries at first viewing. But its presentation and central performance will make you want to give it another look.
From the cold Irish hills to the equally-cold Windy City plains, we lighten things up with Chicago filmmaker Bradley Grant Smith‘s Our Father, a low-budget dramedy that doesn’t skimp on its pitch-black comedy, occasionally to a fault. The film follows a pair of misfit sisters — the businesslike Beta (Baize Buzan) and the acerbic, troubled Zelda (Allison Torem) — as they reconnect upon the news that their father has killed himself. As the rest of their family (of which they both count as the black sheep) immediately go about picking through his belongings, the two are drawn to an unlikely odyssey to track down their long-long Uncle Jerry (Austin Pendleton), who disappeared three decades ago to become a New Age cultist.
While that’s the logline, Our Father is demonstrably more about its journey than the destination, which never strays far from its droll, deadpan leads and overcast Chicago climes. Both sisters are in disparately dire straits: Beta is living out of her car, claiming that she’s headed off to grad school in Connecticut, but the sadder circumstances aren’t revealed to us later. Zelda, meanwhile, is broke and living in a boarding house while struggling with a string of bad influences and a penchant for self-harm. As different as they are, though, they’re immediately allied against their unfeeling stepmother (they’re the only two children of a short affair their father had before returning to his original family) and blustering stepbrothers, which leads them along the expected, though not unwelcome, road to healing.
The ‘estranged family members learn to reconcile along a road-trip-like adventure’ yarn is well-worn at this point, and Smith struggles to find unique ways to really shake up the formula. But within it, there’s charm to be had in Torem and Buzan’s assured performances; both, along with Smith, are fixtures in Chicago theater, and Our Father functions best when it lets the two women bounce off each other. Buzan gives off the kind of quirkly vulnerability of Alison Brie, while Torem’s chaotic snark evokes Lizzy Caplan, and both find appropriate grace notes among the deadpan charms of the film’s framework.
Smith’s script, while hardly laugh out loud, offers plenty of moments for droll humor, chiefly thorugh Zelda’s no-shits-given attitude. “He’s cute. I wanna stomp on his dick,” she says of a hot guy that passes, one of the few who doesn’t creep on one or the other over the course of the film’s runtime (Smith’s dead-set on skewering toxic masculinity, leaving few dudes in the movie who aren’t weirdos or pervs). But underneath Torem’s wry performances is a curious well of tragedy; “I feel like I’m trespassing just by being alive,” she tells Beta at one point. Whether it’s due to her mental illness, or the unrelenting barrage of attention (both positive and negative) she receives from men, it’s a powerful moment.
The presentation is charming, but far from flawless. Cinematographer Nate Hurtsellers does the best he can with a limited budget and Chicago’s characteristic grimness, but it’s undercut by shoddy effects moments like a CGed-over piano store banner disappearing a millisecond before cutting away, revealing the store’s real name. Those are minor concerns, though, and one hopes that Smith and crew can take the positives from Our Father and strengthen them into a brilliant second feature.
Capping the category, though, is Megan Park‘s The Fallout, a bracing and observational drama that elevates the aftermath of a school shooting beyond its after-school special potential into a riveting tale of adolescent trauma. In the opening minutes, we get the briefest of moments to get to know young, plucky high schooler Vada (Jenna Ortega) before a chance trip to the bathroom saves her life in the midst of a school shooting — which Park renders hauntingly through the pop of gunfire and a camera held on Vada’s face and that of the others hiding in the stall with her.
In its wake, we don’t learn much about the shooting itself — who did it, what the motives were — but Park knows that’s less important than following Vada and her friends in the wake of such unthinkable tragedy. Her friend Nick (Will Ropp) instantly turns his grief into calls for action, becoming a David Hogg-like media figure calling for gun control and social change. Vada, meanwhile, retreats into herself, skipping school for weeks to the consternation of her mother (Julie Bowen) and father (John Ortiz). Her little sister (Lumi Pollack) is just as bratty to her as she was before, but Vada has even less patience for it. Her therapist (Shailene Woodley) can’t get through to her; the acerbic Vada’s always ready with a quip, a comeback, a distraction. Anything to avoid having to truly process the pain of what’s happened to her.
The only solace she really gets is from the unlikely friendships she forged with the two kids she shared a stall with that fateful day: popular IG influencer-wannabe Mia (Sia muse Maddie Ziegler, in a role she’s far more suited for than the odious Music) and Quinton (Niles Fitch), who lost his brother in the shooting but no one asks him about it. Mia, with her palatial California home and seeming absence of any parental guidance, makes a particularly alluring escape for Vada; the two while away the afternoons drinking her parent’s wine, trying drugs, and floating in the pool.
But all this distraction is merely a front for Vada’s survivor’s guilt, the traumatizing unknowns when you survive something nobody (much less children) should have to see in their lifetimes. That’s what Park is most interested in (and most successful at) exploring, The Fallout working wonders when it focuses on Vada’s struggles to carry on after what happened. Ortega’s simply magnetic, all bottled-up pain channeled through zoomer defensiveness, conveying volumes of confusion through impressive physicality. It’s a killer breakout for her. Ziegler matches her energy as well, playing off a too-cool-for-school maturity that belies deeper insecurities.
The kids speak naturalistically, but the parental units often struggle through schmaltzier, more contrived moments — one late-film bonding session with Vada and Ortiz’s character, where they literally shout their frustrations into the California hills, reads as hokey as the characters know it is. Still, amongst those moments of artifice (and some less-than-perfect use of a fake CNN to convey the political dimension of the school shooting issue), there’s a deep well of emotion conveyed by some talented young actors and Park’s assured, lyrical direction. It’s messy and offers no neat answers, but instead offers up a searing acknowledgment that (until the political winds shift enough to actually enact real change, best of luck Nick) we have to sit with the world’s evils and simply find a way to weather them.