This year’s SXSW Film Festival will roll on in Austin until it officially wraps on Saturday night with the world premiere of Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s fresh take on Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. But the juries have now seen all of the films selected for the narrative and documentary competitions, and last night, they announced their decisions. The winner of the grand jury prize and the inaugural CherryPicks female first feature award, Josephine Mackerras’s Alice, is the story of a woman (Emilie Piponnier) forced to rebuild her life when she discovers that her husband’s addiction to escorts has depleted their family’s finances. “I’m fascinated with the idea of living in an illusion and how the pain of waking up to those illusions is usually accompanied by a sort of liberation if we’re strong enough to take it,” Mackerras tells James Prestridge at Close-Up Culture. And talking to SXSW’s Neha Aziz, she notes that as Alice “discovers strength she never knew she had, her sense of self expands,” and “a new personal revolution of self and identity begins.”
Another Alice, this one played by Natalia Dyer (Stranger Things), is a sixteen-year-old devout Catholic who discovers the joys of masturbation in Karen Maine’s Yes, God, Yes, which has received special jury recognition for best ensemble. Alice’s sense of shame leads her to a four-day retreat where, as the Austin Chronicle’s Shalavé Cawley notes, “self-pleasure warrants punishment by fifty Hail Marys and probably eternal damnation. Maine captures this struggle with the good-natured humor of someone who has realized the ridiculousness of this logic yet harbors no hard feelings.” Variety’s Joe Leydon agrees that Maine “evinces a welcome generosity of spirit” in this “engaging indie comedy.”
Special recognition for a breakthrough voice goes to Alex Thompson for Saint Frances, written by and starring Kelly O’Sullivan as Bridget, a thirty-four-year-old who has an abortion just as she’s offered a summer-long babysitting job by six-year-old Frances’s two moms. For the Austin Chronicle’s Sarah Marloff, Saint Frances is “both a quintessential millennial comedy and a timeless commentary on the things women don’t talk about.” And the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney agrees that, despite its “occasional heavy-handedness or caricature,” this is “a likable film elevated by its crisp, summery look and warm score.”
Creator of the Channel 4 News series Inside Aleppo and a self-described citizen journalist Waad al-Kateab was at the festival with her feature debut, For Sama, addressed to her daughter and codirected by Edward Watts. As al-Kateab tells Women and Hollywood, this cinematic letter captures “the story of my life in Aleppo through five years of the Syrian revolution. It shows how I fell in love, got married, and gave birth to her as terrible violence raged around us. I wanted her to see the laughter and the happiness of our lives as well as the sadness and loss.” The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer calls For Sama, named best documentary at SXSW 2019, “one of the most remarkable” films yet made about the ongoing conflict, and the Austin Chronicle’s Dan Gentile warns that it “may be the most difficult film you’ll ever watch.”
Special jury recognition for empathy in craft goes to Jenifer McShane for Ernie & Joe, a portrait of two officers in the Mental Health Unit of the San Antonio Police Department. “My hope is that communities across the country will recognize the importance of training law enforcement to de-escalate crisis situations and seek help with their own mental health struggles,” McShane tells Women and Hollywood. “More personally, I hope the film generates conversation and action around the issue of decriminalizing mental illness. More mentally ill people in this country reside behind bars than in state hospitals.” Sheri Linden, reviewing Ernie & Joe for the Hollywood Reporter, finds that besides “building a strong case, through example, of the implications for towns and cities across the country, the film delivers telling glimpses of the personal day-to-day coping mechanisms of the cops themselves.”
Elizabeth Carroll has received special jury recognition for excellence in storytelling for Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy, a profile of the ninety-five-year-old British expat and author of some of the most admired and beloved books on Mexican cooking. Carroll tells Women and Hollywood that she’s aimed to tell “a feminist story about the complexity of being unapologetically oneself,” a story that “reflects the human responsibility to preserve the past and future equally.” It’s also “proof that food doesn’t have walls, and age is indeterminate of spirit.”
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