SXSW Bites: Snap Judgments on 11 Fest Pics

With 78 features world premiering at SXSW this year, Variety couldn’t possibly get to everything. Here are quick takes from senior film critic Peter Debruge on a handful of deserving films that didn’t receive full reviews.

A Standard Arts presentation of a Calavera production in association with Act Zero Films. (Sales: Traction Media, Los Angeles.) Directed, written by Carlos Puga. Running time: 81 MIN. 

Three damaged-goods siblings (Christopher Abbott, Gaby Hoffman and Dan Bittner) are thrown for a loop by the reappearance of their estranged father (Christopher McCann), who denies them the catharsis and apology they all seek. With a strong cast (the ensemble earned a special SXSW jury citation) but a so-so script, this dysfunctional family indie will have a hard time rising above snappier, more clever competition. Still, it took courage for first-timer Puga to resist neat genre conventions.

(Docu) A TCB Films production. (Sales: Preferred Content, Los Angeles.) Directed by Malcolm Ingram. Running time: 89 MIN.

A natural extension of Ingram’s “Small Town Gay Bar,” this saucy trip back to more closeted times blends talking-head footage of various Continental Baths insiders (founder Steve Ostrow, DJ Frankie Knuckles, etc.) with archival photos and vintage porn, designed to suggest the kind of action found at the fabled New York bathhouse, circa 1969. Less titillating — but also more educational — than it might sound, the LGBT fest-ready pic also recalls how the venue helped launch Bette Midler (not interviewed), Labelle and others.

(Docu) A Busca Vida Films presentation. (Sales: Wide House, Paris.) Directed by Petra Costa. Running time: 81 MIN.
A ghost story, but not in the conventional sense, this haunting visual essay delves into the disappearance of the helmer’s older sister, Elena, who left Brazil for New York with dreams of becoming a star but instead found tragedy. A mix of personal memories, homemovies and snatches of letters home dictated by Elena, the docu interweaves its various fragments like gestures in a modern dance — an experimental offering for fans of intimate, arty pics like “Tarnation” and possibly even “Pina.”

An Ornana Films presentation. Directed by Danny Madden. Screenplay, Madden, Benjamin Wiessner. Running time: 53 MIN.

Even at 53 minutes, this tedious student film-style exercise in audio trickery overstays its welcome, shadowing a pimply high school student as he experiments with a new digital recorder. Collecting noises from nature, the supermarket and his surroundings, the character becomes increasingly reliant on the device, to the point he can no longer hear a pretty classmate (Maria Decotis) when the batteries fail. Ironically, for a film obsessed with sound, d.p. Jonathan Silva’s visuals are its strong point.

“Everyone’s Going to Die”
A JonesFilm production in association with Bobo Kaminski Film. (Sales: Arclight Films, Los Angeles.) Directed, written by Jones. Running time: 83 MIN.

A curious debut from a U.K. directorial duo who call themselves “Jones,” this hipster romance is thin on concept — an underemployed German lass (Nora Tschirner) and reluctant hit man (Rob Knighton) cross paths in a seaside town — but strong on tone. One minute, the two are making stilted Wes Anderson-style conversation; the next, they’re stealing toothpaste and sprinting through the streets like French New Wave renegades. A bit too enamored with mid-’90s indie cinema, Jones could click once they find their own voice.

“Good Ol’ Freda”
(Docu) A Tripod Media production. (Sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York. International sales: Ro*Co Films, Sausalito, Calif.) Directed by Ryan White. Running time: 87 MIN.

“Who would want to hear a secretary’s story?” asks Freda Kelly, who served as Brian Epstein’s assistant while running the Beatles fan club from 1962 until the band broke up. After keeping her silence for decades, Kelly shares sentimental memories of the boys — intimate but hardly earth-shattering revelations. Beginning with a rare Beatles Christmas recording (in which a shout-out by the band gives the docu its title) and featuring four of the band’s signature tunes, this demure artifact was intended for her grandson, but will mean more to those of Kelly’s generation.

“I Am Divine”
(Docu) An Automat Pictures production. (Sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York.) Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz. Running time: 90 MIN.

Fifteen years after “Divine Trash” paid deference to John Waters’ bad-taste oeuvre, the “Pink Flamingos” star Divine gets her own well-deserved spotlight. As Waters, Tab Hunter and others entertainingly explain, Glenn Milstead was everything drag queens weren’t supposed to be: an outrageous jumbo-sized cross-dresser who made no attempt to pass as a woman, but desperately wanted to be taken seriously as an actress. Interviews with Milstead’s mother lend emotional resonance to this slick package, assembled by EPK samurai Jeffrey Schwarz.

A Boy in the Castle Pictures presentation. (Sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York.) Directed, written by Jonathan Singer-Vine. Running time: 97 MIN.

Without the benefit of a Bart shooting to give it emotional resonance, this surprisingly arty portrait of Oakland gang-bangers looking for redemption has a tougher road ahead of it than Sundance favorite “Fruitvale.”  Still, writer-director Jonathan Singer-Vine shows promise, delving beyond stock urban stereotypes in this street-level drama, which stars an impressive cast of mostly first-timers (lead Stanley “Doe” Hunt is a standout). The title is slang for liquor stores, as a botched stickup sets the story in motion.

(Docu) A Wild Shot Films production in association with Pilot, Post Factory Films, The Group Entertainment. (Sales: Cinetic Media, New York.) Directed by Jillian Schlesinger. Running time: 81 MIN.

Compressing a history-making 519-day voyage into a tight 81-minute highlight reel, this inspirational true story vibrantly captures the personality of its determined Dutch protagonist, 16-year-old Laura Dekker, who holds the title as the youngest person to sail around the world solo. Teens should be especially receptive to Dekker’s story, told mostly through video-diary footage she shot along the way. Though short on narrative suspense, the pic won the audience award in SXSW’s Visions category (arguably the fest’s most interesting section).

“We Cause Scenes”
(Docu) A Deverge presentation of a Lyle Hayes Prods. production. Directed by Matt Adams. Running time: 85 MIN.

If the Dadaists had had YouTube, their shenanigans surely would’ve gone viral, inspiring imitators as far away as South America and Japan — at least, that’s the impression one gets watching Matt Adams’ hilarious behind-the-scenes look at the Improv Everywhere movement. Turns out Adams’ playful group-stunts (including the notorious “No Pants” subway ride) are doubly amusing with the benefit of his commentary. This smile-inducing docu should drive considerable on-demand interest, considering the collective has more than 1.2 million subscribers online.

“White Reindeer”
A Candy Castle Motion Pictures presentation. (Sales: Cinetic Media, New York.) Directed, written by Zach Clark. Running time: 82 MIN.

If Douglas Sirk and the Kuchar brothers had a mutant love child, he might grow up to be Zach Clark, who so loves corny melodrama that his idea of a camp Christmas classic revolves around a stunned widow (Anna Margaret Hollyman) making pals with the exotic dancer (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough) who was shagging her husband before he died. Clark’s script isn’t nearly clever enough to compensate for his flat, low-budget direction, though naughty shoplifting sprees and swingers parties are a nice start.

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