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SXSW Film Refines Its Identity

After announcing this year’s lineup, SXSW’s film head Janet Pierson noted that the lineup conformed to a characterization that had long been attributed to the fest. “We’ve been told we program the way real people watch movies,” she said, “sometimes for fun, sometimes for mind expansion, then there’s the art, and who doesn’t love a great surprise?”

It was, in many ways, precisely the descriptor that the festival had been lacking. The Austin confab’s film section has arguably suffered from a sort of middle-child syndrome. For all its growing maturity over the past decade, it’s found it hard to escape its reputation as the scrappier, lesser-storied younger sibling to SXSW’s foundational music offering, or as the more sedate counterpart to the flashy Interactive digital component.

With past triumphs spanning career-sparking breakouts “Short Term 12” (which first put Oscar winner Brie Larson on the map) and “Tiny Furniture” (Lena Dunham’s early calling card), to raucous big-studio comedy launches (“Spy,” “Neighbors”) and coming-out parties for idiosyncratic indie helmers (Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List” and Gareth Edwards’ “Monsters”), the fest has certainly grown up. But notching success stories and forging a coherent identity are two different things, and the sometimes chaotic film programming appears to be taking a much more solid shape.

“Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” top, and the Ethan Hawke-starrer “In a Valley of Violence” highlight SXSW’s reliably eclectic film slate. Courtesy of Netflix/Focus

Oddly enough, perhaps the most widely imitated component of SXSW’s film offerings don’t strictly fall under the “film” heading at all. Starting in 2012, SXSW pioneered the film festival’s emerging role as a springboard for episodic TV content, with Dunham’s HBO series “Girls” launching from the heart of Texas into the hearts of millennials and thinkpiece-scribblers everywhere. Subsequent fest installments saw the bows of “Bates Motel,” “Silicon Valley,” “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Mr. Robot,” and the influence on SXSW’s elder brethren was almost immediate, with fests like Sundance all but tripping over themselves to follow suit. This year, the big TV story will likely be the world premiere of “Preacher,” Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s adaptation of the cult graphic novel. HBO will also bow “Vice Principal,” starring Danny McBride, while Cinemax will bring “Outcast,” from “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman.

Which isn’t to discount the year’s feature film slate. SXSW will open with “Everybody Wants Some,” the “spiritual sequel” to that most Texan of high school comedies, “Dazed and Confused,” from that most Texan of filmmakers, Richard Linklater. Plenty of bold-name actors are scheduled to attend, and nearly all come with indie pics in tow. Linklater regular Ethan Hawke will appear in “In a Valley of Violence,” from underground horror auteur Ti West; former Disney Channel star Bella Thorne stars in “Shovel Buddies,” the debut feature from director pair Si & Ad; and Nicolas Cage, Elijah Wood and indie pop songstress Sky Ferreira arrive in town with crime drama “The Trust,” from Alex and Benjamin Brewer.

“We’ve been told that we program the way real people watch movies”
Janet Pierson

But of course, par for course at SXSW, the real surprises could come from just about anywhere in the 139-film lineup. (After all, “Short Term 12” went into the fest with almost zero buzz, while “Kill List” bowed in the Midnighters program, and the fest’s more outre Visions category is one of the most impressively programmed of such sections in the country.) With that unpredictability in mind, it would still be wise to keep an eye on Mike Birbiglia’s improv comedy drama “Don’t Think Twice,” Kasra Farahani’s James Caan-starrer “The Waiting,” or Midnighters entries “Hush” and “Carnage Park.” And the compendium film “collective: unconscious,” in which five filmmakers take turns adapting one another’s dreams, sounds like precisely the type of high-wire experiment that makes SXSW such a valuable outlet.

And far be it from anyone to discount Paul Reubens’ reprisal of his most famous character in the Judd Apatow-produced “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.” Colorful, lovably obnoxious, playfully subversive, and prone to Texas-set misadventures, perhaps Pee-wee Herman is just the mascot that SXSW Film has been waiting for.

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