Two old flames reuniting, a harried nursing home worker, and Dante Basco’s family affair mark SXSW’s Narrative Spotlight.
(This dispatch is part of our coverage of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.)
One year ago, the idea of doing a virtual version of the South by Southwest film festival would have sounded like an insurmountable task. Now, it’s just one more piece of “normal” life that we take for granted. For the second year in a row, SXSW has gone online and though that’s led to a lot of changes, that hasn’t altered the fact that the festival is still home to distinctly-rendered indie projects. Some of those films can be found in the Narrative Spotlight section of the festival, which kicked off with a trio of titles, including See You Then.
To quote a classic Staind tune, “it’s been a while” seen the lead characters of See You Then, Kris (Pooya Mosheni) and Naomi (Lynn Chen) have seen each other. Former lovers in college, Kris has since transitioned into a woman while Naomi has become a professor at their old university Reuniting for the first time in years, Kris and Naomi share a dinner that’s initially awkward before they become more comfortable around one another. But unresolved tension from their past is always lurking around the corner and threatens to upend their seemingly-repaired relationship.
A parred-down exercise like See You Then will live and die on its actors. Thankfully, Mosheni and Chen are up for the task of carrying the feature. Mosheni especially thrives in the optimistic role of Kris. It’s the kind of character that’s both interesting on her own terms and a welcome departure from the kind of personalities trans characters are usually forced into. She also excels in her complicated chemistry with Chen. This pair always leave you wondering how these two characters feel about one another. They manage to handle these always-shifting emotions with grace.
Writer/director Mari Walker (who penned the script with Kristen Uno) shows welcome restraint in keeping the gaze of See You Then just limited to the casual bar time interactions between two friends. This quality is reinforced by the film’s weakest segment, a climactic artroom confrontation between Kris and Naomi. Here, every pent-up emotion gets left out in the open through didactic dialogue. The screenplay is much more interesting when it’s suggesting conflict rather than beating you over the head with it.
Still, when it leans subtle, See You Then proves as interesting as it is realistically nuanced. If nothing else, it’s a splendid showcase for both Mosheni and Chen. They deliver superb work in capturing the finer details of navigating the rocky terrain of an unresolved relationship.
Ludi has enough material to make a component short film, but not quite enough for a feature-length project. This endeavor tells the story of a nursing home worker named Ludi (Shein Mompremier) trying to work as many shifts as possible so that she can get enough money to buy her cousin a glorious dress. To get that cash, she takes on an extra assignment of tending for a cantankerous old man, named George (Alan Myles Heyman), who decidedly does not want a nurse.
From there, it’s a two-person exercise, with Ludi trying her best to get this old man to cooperate. It’s a premise that might have had more urgency in a live theater format, but as executed as a film here, misses the mark. Part of the problem is that a limited setting doesn’t bring out much creativity in director Edson Jean’s filmmaking. He’s too in love with extreme close-ups, which quickly make these scenes visually repetitive. Meanwhile, the blocking is bog-standard and fails to reveal either new facets of the two characters or much visual ingenuity.
Jean shows much more ambition in recurring segments that reflect Ludi’s internal worldview played against her audio messages to her cousin. Told in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, these sections reflect a more dreamlike visual aesthetic compared to the rest of the movie. These are interesting scenes on their own merit, but they also provide a thoughtful window into Ludi’s wistful mindset. A woman who’s always running and running can finally slow down in these quick digressions.
The rest of Ludi falls short of that kind of specifically-rendered thoughtfulness. For much of the runtime, Jean settles for a bog-standard narrative that’s frustratingly predictable. That’s a shame since both Mompremier and Heyman show flashes of promise in their openly vulnerable lead performances. They’re clearly game for anything, so why doesn’t Ludi give them substantive material to work with?
Rufio from Hook is back, folks, this time in filmmaker form! Dante Brasco writes, directs, and stars in The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, which looks at four brothers, Dayo (Derek Basco), Duke (Dante Basco), David (Dionysio Basco), and Danny Boy (Darion Basco), in a large family. Each brother gets their own standalone segment primarily exploring their own lives and personalities. Dayo, for instance, goes to great lengths, Duke runs into an old High School flame while in Manilla while reclusive and heartbroken Danny Boy goes on his first date in two years.
The best parts of The Fabulous Filipino Brothers tend to be where the movie slows down and lets the easygoing rapport between its characters take center-stage. It’s a shame more of the movie isn’t dedicated to the brothers just bouncing off each other, because that’s where their individual personalities shine the most. Meanwhile, Danny Boy’s storyline registers as the best segment by far — he and his date, Theresa (Liza Lapira), have cute chemistry together and both performers are affecting rather than schmaltzy.
Unfortunately, naturalistic easygoing conversations aren’t The Fabulous Filipino Brothers’ primary area of focus. It also wants to function as a broad comedy, which leads to a lot of scenes full of chaotic noise but disappointingly few laughs. The worst of these comes in David’s storyline, which focuses exclusively on him and a lady at a party flirtatiously engaging in sex acts with food laid out on a table. It’s a sequence that just feels like a pale shadow of the supermarket scene from Ted, and the lack of real laughs makes it last forever.
Whenever The Fabulous Filipino Brothers slows down and just lets the characters breathe, it becomes quite charming. But the clumsily-executed comedy becomes an anchor that drags the whole production down.