Can a festival have swagger? Because it felt like SXSW was swaggering in 2023. This should not be a total surprise for a weeklong conference that’s an intersection between film, television, music, gaming, technology, and arguably innovation itself. As per one industry insider, SXSW has long been perceived as “the cool kids festival.” Nonetheless, one year and a day after Everything Everywhere All at Once premiered on SXSW’s opening night, that film went on to win a staggering seven Oscars on the same weekend as the 2023 festival.
And after last Sunday, excitement and a sense of vindication floated in the air around every movie theater in Austin. Somehow this fest was coming even more into its own with its first Best Picture win, and that truth appears reflected in the eclectic mix of films and television series that showed up the year Everything Everywhere came to town. From oddball studio blockbusters like Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves to wild auteur announcement statements like Julio Torres’ Problemista, and from goofy crowdpleasers such as Emma Seligman’s Bottoms to some genuinely creepy horror fare, a la Danny and Michael Philippou’s Talk to Me, SXSW was awash in a wide variety of movies that played.
Below are our thoughts on most of the ones we saw while we were there.
We are only beginning to comprehend the full breadth of abuse and psychological anguish that the internet can inflict. Writing that in the abstract can even feel superfluous. Yet the queasy dread of Sophie Compton and Reuben Hamlyn’s Another Body is how exactingly nightmarish it all becomes in the finer, uglier details. Here is a personal, harrowing account of how emerging A.I. technology is used to harass, humiliate, and prey upon women—all by manipulating the actual details of their personal bodies into something cruel and unreal.
That is the story of a college student named Taylor who discovers during her senior year that her face has been digitally copied onto the bodies of other women participating in pornography. Without her consent, Taylor has been exposed to revenge porn that turned her into a “star” on sites like Pornhub and 4Chan. And she isn’t alone. As the documentary unfurls, Taylor soon discovers that one of her best friends from freshman year and many other acquaintances at her university have also been “deepfaked” into porn by the same individual. And one of the most startling statistics in the doc is that while newspapers mostly speculate about how deepfake technology will be used to misrepresent politicians in the future, currently 90 percent of all deepfake content on the internet is non-consensual pornography targeting women. That number will only grow as the tech becomes more readily available (there are apparently online tutorials for how to do it by stalking a person’s IG account).
This is an eye-opening, despairing splash of water at how emerging tech has generated just one more way for women to be harassed and abused, and sometimes in a process that is currently permissible by law. Taylor, by the by, is not the name of the real woman who was targeted. However, what is striking about Another Body is that neither she nor most of the other women who are interviewed show their real faces. The same deepfake tech that was used to make their lives hell is also used to disguise their features from the troglodytes of the web. Their countenances and names have been changed, but their truth remains unmoved. It’s a first in documentary filmmaking, as far as I’m aware, and it acts as yet another example of how powerful this tech can become, especially when weaponized. – David Crow
I’m old enough to remember using a BlackBerry once or twice at an internship, but not quite so old to have ever owned one. And for folks a few years younger, the device might as well belong to the neolithic past; a relic from the dark ages before the iPhone. That fact is the secret of BlackBerry’s appeal. As the latest feature effort from Matt Johnson (The Dirties, Operation Avalanche), BlackBerry is an introspective consideration on the business and creative instincts that built a device which briefly changed the world—and was then relegated to the dustbin of history barely a decade later.
It is another cold, myopic view of the emerging tech business in the 21st century, but unlike, say, The Social Network, this isn’t about a monster reshaping the world; it’s the story of a few very shortsighted humans who let that power slip away. The film stars Jay Baruchel (good) as awkward tech wunderkind Mike Lazaridis and Glenn Howerton (great) as Jim Balsillie, the type-A boardroom conqueror who essentially bullies his way into becoming Lazaridis’ co-CEO in 1996. Despite an unpleasant working relationship, their dynamic pays off handsomely when they release the world’s first smartphone. It’s fortune and glory in the palm of your hand. At least until Apple enters the chat 11 years later.
An often restrained and understated drama, BlackBerry avoids the period piece kitsch that most movies about the recent past fetishize, instead relying on the timelessness of a conflict where incongruent wills can sometimes create fleeting greatness. With an often shaky, handheld and faux-documentarian eye, Johnson lets the characters’ successes and failures speak for themselves in a movie where the price of doing business remains elusive. – DC
In a genre defined by pent-up emotional stresses and triggers, Bottoms lands devastating blows of laughter by being blunt and unafraid to smile through the absurdities of adolescent life—even if that means revealing broken teeth and blood dribbling down the chin along the way. The brainchild of both Seligman and her frequent leading lady Rachel Sennott, Bottoms sees the Shiva Baby pair reunite, now as co-screenwriters and co-conspirators. Together, they plot a subversive attack on coming of age yarns, even as they’ve made a probable cult classic in the form; it’s certainly one of the most original with the setup being about two queer girls who think their best shot at dating cheerleaders is to punch them in the face.
For genre aficionados, a film that matches writer-director Ted Geoghegan with stars Anne Ramsay and Larry Fessenden should have all the comfort of a cozy fireside chat in the 1940s while Glenn Miller plays on the radio. Shudder is likely banking on this since Brooklyn 45 already has found an appropriate home on the horror streaming service. Yet the real dread of this movie comes from how effectively the picture removes the glossy veneer of nostalgia, even for the Greatest Generation, in order to find true horror.
Ramsay and Fessenden star as but two characters in a larger ensemble about four war buddies, plus the feckless, erudite husband of Ramsay’s retired Army interrogator, meeting up after Christmas in December 1945. The war is over, and peace for a generation has allegedly been won. Even so, all of these middle-aged acquaintances are bedeviled by bad memories from both world wars. And given one of the casualties appears to be the wife of Lt. Col. Clive Hockstaffer (Fessenden), he’s just fine with living with those ghosts. He even guilts his friends into performing a seance to commune with the dead. Things spiral from there.
It’s a pulpy premise that relegates five (and eventually six) actors to a single room where doors bump and spectral figures appear. But the reason the ghost story leaves an impression is because of the quiet determination Geoghegan reveals in drawing on-the-nose parallels between then and now, and how the rot of nationalist prejudices, bigotries, and unaccounted for war crimes that we’d simply rather not speak about was festering at the foundation of the American experiment even during the rose-tinted afterglow of WWII. The movie still leans into its B-movie trappings (more than it needs to), but there’s an intellectual despair in the thing that haunts. – DC
A Disturbance in the Force
At one point during Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak’s A Disturbance in the Force, a kitschy new documentary about the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special of 1978, a talking head looks into the camera and tries to patiently explain that 1970s television “was for the whole family to come around and not one member be really satisfied.” Such affectionate truths about half-remembered mediocrity is the charm of this slight but pleasant autopsy on junk pop culture.
With a fine-tooth comb, Coon and Kozak go into meticulous detail about how every aspect of The Star Wars Holiday Special was made in ’78—and why George Lucas spent the following 35 years ensuring no one could (legally) watch it ever again. The modern filmmakers also impressively gather many of the behind-the-scenes talents who contributed to the special, albeit notably not Lucas, Mark Hamill, or Harrison Ford, who only appear in clips from previous interviews where they swallow embarrassment whenever the infernal TV special that had Carrie Fisher singing faux-Christmas songs to a Wookie is brought up.
As with everything else in fan culture, the Holiday Special has found its admirers over the decades, many of whom were so young when they watched it they didn’t know any better; and then there are others who just have an affinity for campy trash. A Disturbance gives them their due, but the movie’s greatest power is excavating a now lost world in pop culture. There are interviews with veterans of ‘70s TV like Donnie Osmond and Bruce Vilanch, but there’s also glimpse into a worldview where nerd culture was treated as a frivolity or gag instead of holy scripture that must be worshiped and adored from the C-suite and down. That mindset created crap like the Star Wars Holiday Special, but it also was a world where something like Lucas’ original Star Wars could shine as opposed to exist as another cog in a multinational conglomerate’s ceaseless machine. This movie remembers a time when the world was fuller because Star Wars was so lame, it was kind of cool. – DC
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
As the second big screen adaptation of the tabletop game, Honor Among Thieves feels about a million miles away from the sinister image D&D conjured in 1980s newspapers and at church luncheons. Really, this is a movie that’s as heavy metal as Air Supply. But that also makes for a breath of fresh air in its own right during a moment where most blockbusters are mired by globs of CGI sludge, and many high fantasy stories, on film and television, bear the weight of war and fratricide. The Dungeons & Dragons movie, by design, eschews those flavors of bombast for something a little shaggier and a lot more winsome. By echoing the type of anachronistic medieval fantasy movies actually made in the ‘80s—your Princess Brides and your Willows instead of J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin—the real magic at work here is a nonstop charm offensive. – DC
Eva Longoria makes her directorial debut in Flamin’ Hot, a movie about the unlikely origin for sprinkling spices on cheap, industrialized corn. The metaphor this presents is almost too obvious: Here is a movie which demonstrates genuine visual flair from Longoria, as well as features a handful of impressive performances, yet employs all of the above to disguise the bland emptiness that awaits beneath its surface. With a cookie-cutter script by Linda Yvette Chávez and Lewis Colick, Flamin’ Hot is less a story than a checklist of “feel-good” filmmaking beats, revealing in the most banal way how Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia) went from being a janitor at Frito-Lay to the source of the company’s salvation. He is the guy who convinced the all-white heads of Frito-Lay to put a version of his wife’s spices on their snack food.
It’s a pretty remarkable story, and one which emphasizes the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Latino entrepreneurs, but as presented in Flamin’ Hot, it plays out like the kind of middle-of-the-road rags-to-riches yarn which used to come and go at the multiplex every weekend during Montañez’s heyday in the 1990s and 2000s. Longoria’s emphasis on quick editing and nimble camera movements, particularly when paired with Montañez’s obviously more embellished voiceover narration bits, suggests real style, and Garcia is terrific as the charismatic, fast-talking protagonist, but Flamin’ Hot is so heavily processed and determined to avoid discomforting its consumer that you’ll leave feeling unsatisfied and looking for cinematic nourishment from elsewhere. – DC
If You Were the Last
If You Were the Last, Kristian Mercado’s new sci-fi rom-com, begins by introducing Anthony Mackie and Zoe Chao as Adam and Jane. Adam and Jane are two astronauts debating the realism of The Martian (2015), a film in which the nations of the world became united and spent trillions of dollars to save one space traveler from certain death on a distant planet. The pair ultimately agree it’s not at all plausible, even as the rings of Saturn appear outside their window, all of which are made from clay and stop-motion. In other words, this isn’t going to be a space movie about the sci in its sci-fi.
Instead, If You Were the Last is a canny reimagination of the “lost on a barren island” fantasy, as well as an actualization of what it means to be “the last person in the world” with a member of the opposite sex. Which is not to say Adam and Jane are at odds. As played with an easygoing charm and chemistry between Mackie and Chao, the pair are presented as two NASA engineers who are as comfortable around one another as childhood pals. However, when their spaceship had an unpredictable malfunction three years ago, they were effectively lost to Earth, condemned to float through the cosmos with infinite oxygen and food courtesy of their greenhouse room, complete with goats and chickens. They have plenty of eggs and every film or song they ever loved… and time, lots and lots of time, as they consider what the other person means to them, especially when compared to their fading marriage vows to spouses back home.
It’s a beguiling setup that Mercado mines for a quirky, old-fashioned romantic comedy wherein opposites attract, and Adam’s traditional romanticism clashes with Jane’s sober-eyed intellectualism. But even when they’re fighting, the two enjoy perfect synchronicity on the dance floor, with both actors getting to dabble in everything from country-western to the tango. Essentially a time loop movie about two people getting enough space to realize they’re perfect for each other, If You Were the Last will never once surprise you in its 89-minute running time, and you’ll be glad it didn’t. – DC
“Millennials versus baby boomers,” it’s a narrative that has generated a lot of clicks on social media apps and websites, but Lisa Steen’s Late Bloomers suggests there may not be that much difference as both generations come of a certain age. Indeed, Karen Gillan’s Louise is 28 going on 18 in the film, an adult woman who still lives with roommates and romantic ambiguities in NYC, and who winds up in physical therapy after trying to break into the house of an ex. It’s that trip to PT that brings her face-to-face with a lot of elderly Polish women, including Antonina (Malgorzata Zajaczkowska), who doesn’t speak English but still enjoys listening to Simon & Garfunkel.
Louise is struggling with the fact she needs to take better care of herself while Antonina must accept she cannot do it as much as she used to. It’s an oil and water dynamic that’s familiar but fairly charming in this indie dramedy about how difficult it is to enter the next phase of your life. Late Bloomers also is a film that sees Gillan embrace her silly side in a way few of her recent blockbusters allowed, including a moment where she bonds with Antonina by wearing depends. You know with a gag like that if you want to also strap in for the full 90 minutes. – DC
Late Night with the Devil
The spontaneity of a live broadcast can be thrilling; it can also be unnerving. If something is beaming into your living room as it is happening, there is usually no filter that will let you look away. Audiences re-learned this fact at last year’s Oscars with “the slap heard around the world.” Still, things can get so much worse. Brothers Cameron and Colin Cairnes’ Late Night with the Devil drills down into how with its “lost master tape” premise in which one of the non-Johnny Carson late night hosts of the 1970s, the affable Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian), invites onto his Halloween broadcast a little girl who claims she is occasionally possessed by the Devil. It makes for killer television.
The appeal of the film is how lovingly the Cairnes’ team recreates the look and tenor of ‘70s on-air gabfests. Dastmalchian in particular appears jazzed at channeling his inner-Dick Cavett with an easygoing, self-deprecating charm that belies unmistakable ambition. And the fuzzy recreation of antiquated video photography and warm, rainbow set decorations all add an air of authenticity that harkens back to a time when television was monoculture, and everyone watched the same things… and at the same time.
In this way, the Cairnes brothers recreate a tension that’s recognizable to anyone who’s read accounts of the live broadcast of news anchor Christine Chubbuck’s suicide (a tragedy seen by millions once and which has been kept in a vault ever since). Yet the ghoulish added element of the Satanic Panic, fear of cults, and of course the afterglow of The Exorcist are all tapped into Late Night with the Devil’s perfect blend of midnight movie eeriness. The climax loses something, as does whenever the movie breaks the form of its “lost tape” concept, but this is a provocative low-budget chiller that leaves just enough mystery as to what’s occurring off-camera to stay with you after the feed has cut out. Shudder, look at this one. – DC
The New Americans: Gaming a Revolution
It’s hard to capture the chaotic energy of the internet in anything that’s not the internet but The New Americans: Gaming a Revolution comes pretty close. Expertly crafted by veteran filmmaker Ondi Timoner, this documentary about r/WallStreetBets and cryptocurrency moves at the pace of a movie trailer and only takes breaks for strange little diversions into its own fourth wall breaking meta space.
The New Americans communicates the dangers and opportunities of a world run by algorithms more than capably and its throughline from the 2008 banking crash to the gamification of the stock market with GameStop is presented logically. The film, however, is never quite able to convincingly tie the “punk” energy of r/WallStreetBets into the Jan. 6 insurrection in the way it intends to. Plus, due to the nature of the internet, any documentary about meme culture is going to feel like old news the very moment it premieres. Despite those stumbling blocks, The New Americans is a fine entry point to understand the larger forces of the American meme economy. – Alec Bojalad
Brittany Snow returned to Austin to premiere her directorial debut, the bittersweet romance Parachute. On the surface the story of two awkward young people looking to reenter the world after Riley (Courtney Eaton) did a stint in an institution for body dysmorphia and Ethan (Thomas Mann) got out of jail for drunkenly throwing a bottle at a cop car, Parachute is really a tale of codependency. Riley and Ethan are both wounded, twentysomething, and terrified of getting on with their lives. So they find a comfortable rhythm as friends, and sometimes something more, while healthy mental gains remain ephemeral.
A definite first-time film by an actor-turned-director, Parachute leans heavily on performances and, indeed, reveals impressive dimensionality in Eaton’s central turn. A talent on the rise after Yellowjackets, Eaton is alternatingly heartbreaking and frustrating as a girl who perpetually stands on the edge of spiraling, even when she’s smiling bright in Ethan’s arms. Snow also provides opportunity for longtime friends and colleagues to show up briefly and play against type, including Gina Rodriguez, Joel McHale, Kid Cudi, and an especially enjoyable Dave Bautista as a needy, insecure owner of a dinner theater bar.
Together they populate an NYC that is recognizable to anyone who spent at least some of their 20s in the big city. As an indie narrative about discovering self-love though, it’s pretty standard. Still, there is an undeniable authenticity and awareness to the picture. The director knows how relentless this world is at applying pressure on women and their appearances, and she visualizes that anxiety with a resigned weariness. Her film also provides a decent reel for its director and cast to show new sides of talent just beginning to be explored. – DC
Sometimes weirdos and iconoclasts just need to flock together. Julio Torres would appear to think so in his impressive if discombobulated directorial debut, which is sure to increase his visibility in the comedy world. A Salvadoran writer, comedian, and actor who is best known for penning some of Saturday Night Live’s more esoteric sketches in the 2010s (think “Wells for Boys”) and the HBO series Los Espookys, Problemista is a pleasantly bizarre laugher with elements of magical realism and heaping quantities of dry deadpan.
The film stars Torres as Alejandro, a Salvadoran immigrant who dreams of making toys… that by design would not be fun to play with. A tough sell to Hasbro, Alejandro must put his ideas aside and take any job in NYC that can maintain his American visa. Hence how he finds himself working for Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), an idiosyncratic boss from hell who is obsessed with selling the art of her husband (RZA), a painter who’s taken the dubious step of having his body frozen so he can travel to a future where, presumably, someone will actually care about his work. The fact that the company that froze him has no way to reverse the process is incidental.
The plot of Problemista can sometimes seem trenchant, but it is also in large part irrelevant. The film is a surrealist collection of amusing vignettes. Some are clearly based on moments in Torres’ life, from navigating the Sisyphean American immigration system to evading the darkest corners of Craigslist, which is personified here as a Lovecraftian siren complete with mortifying tentacles. But by and large, Problemista is a hilarious mood piece designed to invite the viewer inside a truly original filmmaker’s imagination. The effect can be charming, if also as cluttered as the excessively trash-strewn streets of New York that Alejandro walks across.
The through-line that props it up as a narrative is a magnificent performance by Swinton as Elizabeth. With frizzled hot pink hair and a relentless tenacity that is at times visualized as an actual dragon devouring poor waiters and receptionists who annoy her, Swinton portrays late-stage narcissism in its most maximalist, extravagant form. However, instead of being depicted as the antagonist of Alejandro’s journey, she turns into his mentor and confidante. Their oddness complements the characters and acts a compliment to the movie’s own eccentric rhythm. Swinton provides the gravitas that allows an auteur piece to find its groove, and likely an audience given it’s about to get the ol’ A24 push. – DC
Satan Wants You
A documentary that would pair nicely with Late Night with the Devil (featured above), Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor’s Satan Wants You provides a solid and immersive account of the irrational fear of baby-killing Satanic cults in the 1980s and ‘90s, as well as how a few enterprising hucksters’ con had disastrous consequences for innocent people. Told primarily through the pop culture curio of the early 1980s bestseller Michelle Remembers, Satan Wants You tracks how this alleged memoir by Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder terrified the U.S. and Canada.
In the book, Smith claimed to recall through hypnotic therapy that she was tortured and bred by a Satanic cult in British Columbia, and watched as other girls were forced to give birth so their infants could be sacrificed and fed upon. It became a sensation with evangelicals and the blossoming daytime talk show format, which only became more lurid and sensationalist by the time the ‘90s rolled around. The book inspired countless similar “accounts” of related, unprovable crimes that never once produced a shred of evidence. Nonetheless, children were encouraged to accuse daycare and preschool teachers of Satanism and abuse, and lives were destroyed.
Satan Wants You contextualizes for the modern eye this now quaint-seeming moral panic while also drawing striking parallels between the 1980s’ religious hysteria with QAnon conspiracy theories that helped inspire a mob to attack the U.S. Capitol only a few years ago. Some salacious attempts at shadowy reenactments of Smith’s “memories” in the doc, as well as how Pazder encouraged her to believe them during their psychiatric sessions, prove unnecessary and border on the lascivious. Just hearing the tapes of those sessions play out over the static image of a recorder is the stuff of horror enough. – DC
After writing the underrated M.F.A., Leah McKendrick makes her directorial debut with her second screenplay, Scrambled. Based on an acutely personal moment for McKendrick, who went through the process of freezing her eggs during the COVID-19 lockdown to leave the option open of having children later in life, Scrambled takes what is a personal and likely emotionally fraught experience and warps it into a raunchy, laugh out loud comedy.
With an air of gallows humor pulsing throughout her script, McKendrick not only interrogates her own experiences as a single woman going through the eggs-freezing process but also uses it as a springboard to examine the double standards and biases society holds women in their 30s to versus their male counterparts. There is, indeed, a bleakly petulant relationship and contrast between Nellie and her older, and also single, brother Jesse (Andrew Santino). Both are in arrested development, but their parents still favor one. The pic also provides floor space for Clancy Brown as the father of both to bring a regal quality to grumpy boomer chauvinism.
Mostly though, the film is a bracing comedy where McKendrick works through some personal therapy by way of sardonic one-liners and gags in a rapid-fire script that starts with Nellie and her best friend Sheila (Ego Nwodim) doing molly on the day of Sheila’s wedding. It’s glib, snarky, and sometimes bittersweet as eventually Nellie and McKendrick are forced to let down the charade and face the hardship of making difficult life decisions with the only person the film’s hero can trust: herself. – DC
When chatting with Jake Johnson during the festival, the actor conceded he thinks comedy works best when it feels like the character is being punished. Which might explain the darkly silly travails of Tommy, Johnson’s character in his writer-director debut, Self Reliance. Tommy is living at home with his mom more than a year after his longtime girlfriend broke up with him. He’s bored, lonely, and all too eager to accept when Scandinavian billionaires offer to pay him $1 million to partake in a reality show on the dark web where he’ll be hunted. If he can survive for more than a month, he gets the money.
It’s a ludicrous premise, even more so when Tommy learns of a loophole where he can’t be killed if he’s standing next to someone who’s not playing. However, the more he tries to explain it to other people in his life—his mother, his sisters, maybe an ex—the more they’re able to poke holes in a game that sounds like the ravings of a madman… and maybe he is mad? Still, things get a little more plausible once Tom meets a woman online named Maddy (Anna Kendrick), who says she’s also being hunted on the show. She’s likewise blasé about the whole thing but wouldn’t mind teaming up.
More surrealist silly than its midnight madness premise might suggest, Self Reliance is a strange, incongruent piece that allows Johnson’s attentions to float between tones, conventions, and even genres since the movie detours into an outright rom-com after Kendrick enters the picture. The result is a bit muddled but strangely affable. When it’s over, I’m still not sure what to make of these characters, but I did laugh every time Tommy’s punishment became more severe. That has to be the mark of some type of win. – DC
Talk to Me
By allowing the supernatural element of the film to slowly infest the rest of the picture, the effect is not unlike watching rot encroach from the fringes of the frame for about 90 minutes. It’s also akin to how addiction can slowly submerge an individual you know under the darkest shadow. The otherworldly consequences that Mia and Riley face manifest like mental illness, only with the heightened depravity of it taking on the shape of a child cackling as he laps at a pool of his own blood. The possession scenes are disturbing not because of smash-cut editing or contortionist acrobatics, but due to the perverse feeling of awful, irreversible corruption is taking root. Wilde and especially Bird are also unsparing at inhabiting these descents. – DC
Less an actual “video game movie,” or even another drama about tech innovation gone wrong, Jon S. Baird’s Tetris is a strange and delightful Cold War thriller where the offices of Nintendo hold a gravity usually reserved for parliament buildings, and licensing rights are whispered of in the same conspiratorial tones as state secrets. Of course, in Soviet Russia, they were just that. Hence at a time when most tech biopics still chase the myopic trajectory of David Fincher’s The Social Network, Tetris is a quirky blend of Moneyball meets Argo (or perhaps Kingsman would be more apropos given Taron Egerton’s central performance). In other words, it’s a thoroughly unique rendering of a high-stakes origin story about falling blocks. Who knew? – DC
The Big Door Prize
The question at the center of Apple TV+’s The Big Door Prize is a compelling one. If there was a machine in a local corner store that promised to tell you your ultimate potential in exchange for four quarters, would you use it? What if seemingly everyone in your small town who has utilized the services of the butterfly-branded “Morpho” machine appears absolutely ecstatic with the machine’s response and is fully prepared to upend their lives to better fulfill its idyllic vision for them?
Developed by David West Read (Schitt’s Creek), The Big Door Prize borrows its premise from a book of the same by M.O. Walsh. The show is at its best when laser focused on the tantalizing sci-fi question at its core. The cast, led by Chris O’Dowd, is largely great but the series’ depiction of Deerfield – a Small Town, Anywhere USA-type environment where everybody knows your name – is frustratingly shallow. Still, by the time viewers get to the pitch perfect punchline that serves as episode one’s conclusion, resisting The Big Door Prize’s charms becomes as impossible as resisting the Morpho machine itself. – AB
I’m a Virgo
Nothing stokes the creative imagination quite like a good speculative fiction premise. And that’s exactly what acclaimed musician/activist/filmmaker Boots Riley stumbles onto with his first TV effort I’m a Virgo. Shortly following the premiere of his landmark 2018 film, Sorry to Bother You, Riley told anyone who would listen that its follow up would be about a “13-foot tall Black man in Oakland.” The phrase adorns his Twitter bio currently and was even the subject line of his pitch email to eventual star Jharrel Jerome.
The final product of I’m a Virgo, set to run its seven episodes on Prime Video this summer, lives up to the promise of that initial pitch and also so much more. Jerome brings an enormous (pardon the pun) heart to the equally enormous lead character Cootie as he ventures into a world that just might not be ready for him. Though I’m a Virgo is as critical and cynical about the modern political landscape as any Boots Riley satire is ought to be, there’s also an unexpected warmth here that makes the show one of SXSW’s biggest hits. – AB
Whichever project Bob Odenkirk chose to be his first acting job after his legendary decade plus-long stint portraying criminal lawyer Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul was going to be heavily scrutinized. Thankfully the project he eventually opted for, Lucky Hank, is the kind of thing that resists intense scrutiny. There are no car chases, gun fights, or court cases here—just a breezy character study of a Man of a Certain Age as he contemplates his current professional and personal lot in life.
Odenkirk is superb as William Henry Devereaux Jr., a washed up English department head at the equally washed up Railton College. Based on the 1997 novel Straight Man by Richard Russo, Lucky Hank doesn’t have a central plot so much as it has a mood of decay and disappointment. And also jokes! Though markedly different from the Saul-iverse in both temperament and ultimate creative impact, Lucky Hank is simply lowkey dramedy TV done with care. – AB
The concept of “independent film” has existed since the medium’s early days when filmmakers resisted the “Edison Trust” cartel. Now “indie film” is its own beloved genre—even spawning the demand for hallowed film festivals like the very one you’re reading about now. Indie television on the other hand? Never much of a thing. After all, how could any “indie” TV producer find a way to hijack the cable signal and deliver content to your personal TV set in the pre-internet era?
Thanks to technological advances, however, the days of indie TV pilots have now arrived, with this year’s SXSW featuring many burgeoning episodic projects all jockeying for a forever home. One of those projects is the delightful LGBTQ+ comedy Marvin? from Dutch production imprint Explorers of the Unfound. Marvin? features some of the growing pains you’d expect from a low budget TV experiment—static sets and occasionally stilted dialogue. But its central premise (a magic wish-granting refrigerator) and indie spirit shine through with promise. – AB
God help anyone trying to explain Mrs. Davis to someone who hasn’t yet seen Mrs. Davis. This eight-episode Peacock series from pop culture mastermind Damon Lindelof (Watchmen, Lost) and his seasoned collaborator Tara Hernandez (The Big Bang Theory) resists easy categorization. It’s a sci-fi series about a nun trying to take down a powerful A.I. known as Mrs. Davis. But it’s also about Las Vegas showman-style magic. And it’s also a goofy neo-Western with surprisingly cartoonish energy. And oh yeah: Chris Diamantopoulos has a thick Australian accent.
However you choose to (or struggle to) define Mrs. Davis, one aspect of the show always remains the same: It’s good! Like many Lindelof-ian stories before it, Mrs. Davis vibrates with the joy of discovery. Every passing moment of the series’ first few episodes feature twist after twist that brings viewers closer into Mrs. Davis’ confusing, yet compelling world. In an era of gonzo concepts like all powerful A.I. tools that will help you cheat on your English homework, we deserve an equally gonzo representation of A.I. like this show puts forward. – AB
Shatter Belt brings a lot of things to the table that our current pop culture landscape already has plenty of. A TV show? Yeah, we’ve got lots of those. An anthology? Well covered there. Inspired by other speculative fiction anthologies like The Twilight Zone? Throw a dart anywhere at your TV and you’ll hit exactly that. So… do we even need something like Shatter Belt? Unfortunately, for all our dwindling attention spans, it turns out we do!
Created by James Ward Byrkit (the same mind behind the experimental improvised sci-fi film Coherence), Shatter Belt feels more lively, fresh, and clever than it has any right to. The three episodes screened at SXSW do the impossible and cover exciting new ground for the TV sci-fi anthology genre. Storylines include an apple that cannot be touched, a desperate toy collector, and a most unusual meal at a trendy restaurant. Through it all, Shatter Belt crafts an identity for itself that could best be described as Black Mirror… but weirder. – AB
The multiverse? So hot right now. With Marvel’s pop culture Eye of Sauron firmly planted on the concept of multiple universes and realities, it can be hard for any other project to find its place in this increasingly popular science fiction canon. But Roku Channel’s Slip has something that no Marvel multiverse story will ever have: Sex. Lots of it. Depicted onscreen between consenting adults to communicate something real about the human need for intimacy.
Created by, written, directed, and starring Zoe Lister-Jones, Slip imagines a world in which one married woman wonders what it would be like to go home with someone other than her husband and then gets to experience that – over and over again across several splintering realities. This seven episode series was one of the more interesting and uniquely human TV endeavors presented at SXSW. Roku Channel is only just now venturing into the scripted TV space but it’s hard to imagine a stronger start than this capably told, deeply empathetic story. – AB
Sometimes alphabetical order does you a solid and saves the best for last. Not that it’s a competition or anything (though it literally is in this case), but Prime Video’s Swarm is the best TV series to premiere at SXSW this year. With the pedigree behind the seven-episode darkly comic saga, perhaps that’s no surprise. Swarm is the first TV flower to blossom from Amazon’s overall deal with Atlanta creator and multi-hyphenate Donald Glover. Alongside co-creator and showrunner Janine Nabers (who also wrote for Atlanta), Glover and the writing staff concoct a truly unique and uniquely surreal pop culture experience.
Breathlessly told like an urban legend in a gossipy tone, Swarm grafts real life instances of true crime and fandom gone wrong onto the story of Andrea “Dre” Green (Dominique Fishback). Dre is an obsessive stan of fictional pop music icon Ni’Jah (basically Beyoncé)… and she’s about to make it everyone else’s problem. Swarm perfectly captures the neo Southern Gothic storytelling capabilities this team developed on the modern classic Atlanta and finetunes them into a more focused, but no less satisfyingly messy story. Swarm flags a bit in its experimental-but-not-experimental-enough penultimate episode but all in all it remains the best TV experience one could have at this festival or any other. – AB