The 14 Women Who Dominated the SXSW Film Festival

Women Standout at SXSW
Courtesy SXSW

The SXSW Film Festival has always been a launching pad for women in Hollywood — it’s where Lena Dunham premiered “Tiny Furniture” in 2010, and “Girls” in 2012; where 2011’s “Bridesmaids” debuted; and where Brie Larson became a star in 2013’s “Short Term 12.”

But this year’s SXSW had more girl power than ever before, from the female-driven comedies “Trainwreck” and “Spy,” to the work of breakout directors like Hannah Fidell (“6 Years”) and Shannon Sun-Higginson (“GTFO: A Documentary About Women in Gaming”). As Hollywood still has a weak track record of putting women in front of and behind the camera — last year, women directors made only 4.6% of studio films — it’s still a question if emerging talent at festivals like SXSW and Sundance can cross over into the mainstream. “Since the industry is run by men, men have a tendency to want to make stories about themselves,” Sally Field told Variety. “Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Hollywood should pay more attention to these 14 women who dominated SXSW.

1. Sally Field, “Hello, My Name Is Doris”
Field may have two Oscars on her resume, but she all too rarely gets a crack at substantial movie roles these days. So “Hello, My Name Is Doris” is notable for novelty value alone. But that’s not the only reason why SXSW audiences responded so warmly to Field’s subtly detailed, delicately balanced and altogether fearless portrayal of a sixtysomething office drone who develops a romantic fixation on a much younger co-worker (Max Greenfield). One wrong move on the actress’s part, and the character could have come across as absurdly silly or embarrassingly pathetic, or both. Not to worry: Field never takes a graceless step during her uncommonly graceful stride across the tightrope. — Joe Leydon

2. Amy Schumer and 3. Brie Larson, “Trainwreck”
Judd Apatow’s fifth feature is hardly the first movie to suggest that a woman can be as gloriously self-centered, sexually aggressive and commitment-phobic as any man. It is, however, the most explosively funny American romantic comedy in recent memory, thanks in no small part to Schumer’s razor-sharp script and her deft, big-hearted performance in the title role. Bonus points, too, for giving the actress such a subtly moving sisterly dynamic with Brie Larson (star of 2013’s SXSW champ “Short Term 12”). — Justin Chang

4. Taissa Farmiga, “The Final Girls” and “6 Years”
Farmiga headlined a double feature at SXSW as the star of the horror comedy “The Final Girls,” about a group of teenagers stuck in a ’80s slasher film (the crowdpleaser plays like a combination of “Scream” and “Pleasantville”); and “6 Years,” a drama about a young couple stuck in a toxic relationship (a la 2011’s “Like Crazy”). Farmiga, 20, carries both films — hitting the high and low notes of two physically draining roles without letting us see her sweat. — Ramin Setoodeh

5. Krisha Fairchild, “Krisha”
“Krisha” became SXSW’s breakout indie after it won the grand jury prize for narrative feature, and it will be one of the buzzy indies of 2015. Trey Edward Shult’s first feature (which was inspired by horror films of the ’70s and ’80s) centers on a woman with personal demons who visits her family for Thanksgiving dinner, and his leading lady — Fairchild — anchors nearly every scene. The unknown actress happens to be his aunt, but this is one of the rare cases of nepotism that pays off. Fairchild is such a revelation, she’ll give you goosebumps long after the film is over. — R.S.

6. Melissa McCarthy, 7. Rose Byrne and 8. Miranda Hart, “Spy”
If “Trainwreck” handed Schumer her star-is-born moment, then the superb action-comedy hybrid “Spy” confirmed McCarthy as the one-woman powerhouse that she is (and raised expectations appreciably for “Ghostbusters,” her next collaboration with director Paul Feig). And in a film with no shortage of terrific supporting players, among the most memorable were Rose Byrne, reliably hilarious as an imperious Bulgarian arms dealer, and British comedian Miranda Hart, making her first and certainly not her last appearance in a studio comedy. — J.C.

9. Ava DuVernay, Keynote Speech
The director of “Selma” delivered a heartfelt keynote on Saturday about her journey making the 1965 civil rights drama — and she revealed that she was Paramount’s seventh choice for the job. Honest, vulnerable and emotional, DuVernay’s speech would have made her friend Oprah Winfrey proud. But DuVernay also highlighted a chilling reality: She’s taking a year off from directing features to work on TV (with projects for OWN and CBS), yet another troubling sign that the movie business is doing a lousy job of keeping female directors engaged. — R.S.

10. Shannon Sun-Higginson, “GTFO: Get the F% Out”
Director Shannon Sun-Higginson’s documentary could hardly have been more relevant for many attendees of SXSW, offering the perfect overlap between its film and interactive elements in scrutinizing the pervasive harassment of women in online gaming and the gaming industry. The film encompasses everything from the sexualized stereotyping of female characters in games to the rough and condescending treatment women players often experience in online and tournament play. The post-screening Q&A highlighted how absorbing an issue this is for audiences of both genders. — Dennis Harvey

11. Karyn Kusama, “The Invitation”
Taking a much more successful stab at the horror genre than she did with 2009’s “Jennifer’s Body,” Kusama delivered a continually tense and surprisingly moving psychological thriller about a dinner party gone horribly awry. Full of intelligent shivers and smartly acted all around, the result was an early standout in SXSW’s Midnighters section and easily represents Kusama’s finest work since her celebrated 2000 debut, “Girlfight.” — J.C.

12. Jessica Edwards, “Mavis!”
First-time doc director Edwards set spirits soaring at SXSW with “Mavis!,” a celebration of the life and music of living legend Mavis Staples. Artfully entwining archival material, newly filmed interviews and live performances, she fashions a fascinating in-depth portrait sprinkled with amusing revelations – Mavis indicates that, during their salad days as entertainers, she and Bob Dylan were more than good friends – and rich with historic detail. Mavis remains an electrifying force of nature, and it is very much to Edwards’ credit that “Mavis!” is a cinematic biography worthy of its iconic subject. –J.L.

13. Hannah Fidell, “6 Years”
Fidell, who had previously made the 2013 Sundance indie “A Teacher,” establishes herself as a writer-director with a distinct voice and authority in the relationship drama “6 Years,” about a battling young couple (played by Ben Rosenfield and Taissa Farmiga) on the verge of separating. Netflix acquired the global rights to “6 Years” as the first big deal out of SXSW, which means we’ll be seeing more of Fidell in the years to come. –R.S.

14. Janet Pierson, head of SXSW film
Festival director Pierson must have had herself cloned. She was omnipresent throughout Austin: introducing films, moderating Q&As, encouraging audiences to sample smaller gems and doling out advice on Twitter (she told her followers to find a theater manager if they saw someone texting during a movie). With this year’s festival, Pierson put together one of SXSW’s strongest lineups ever: a combination of big (“Furious 7,” “Trainwreck”) and small (“Krisha,” “Creative Control”) movies that are sure to be part of the conversation for months to come. –R.S.

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  1. Lisa says:

    Again, Variety, we have a total of four men writing this article, and not one woman. It’s rather patronizing. It makes women look like outsiders. You’re writing ‘about’ us not with us. Could you not ask ,at least one, of your female reporters to give comments? If you do, in fact, have any female reporters. Sheesh.

    • Pamela C says:

      It’s not been my experience nor is it evident from the history of journalism when women are promoted to positions where they can report on events, that they do much more than report what their superiors would be pleased to hear. With that in mind I write, Get somebody of either sex who can GD write about the position of women in the industry frankly and truthfully without depicting them face down or ass up, metaphorically of course.

  2. Honestly, anyone who even remotely suggest that Sally Field would come off as embarrassing or pathetic character or otherwise is demonstrating in his own words.

  3. Katterina says:

    I love this so much. So many great lady creators and supporters! This is wonderful.

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