Previewing SXSW 2021

Kristine Kujath Thorp and Nader Khademi in Yngvild Sve Flikke’s Ninjababy (2021)

No festival was walloped by the onset of this pandemic last March as hard as SXSW. The schedules were set, the venues booked, and countless small businesses were revving up for the event that would tide them over for much of the rest of the year. And then, with just one week to go before opening day, Austin shut down. Filmmakers, musicians, tech movers and shakers, speakers, panelists, and the thousands of people from all over the country and the globe who had bought tickets and passes, booked flights, and reserved rooms were crushed, but of course, everyone knew the city had done the right thing. “That week was so intense,” Janet Pierson, who heads up the film festival, tells Variety’s Andrew Barker, “and when we were cancelled it was almost a relief, like, at least we’re not going to be an epicenter.”

Over the past twelve months, other festivals have adjusted with remarkable agility to rapidly changing conditions on their respective grounds. As case numbers and deaths ebbed over the summer, Venice was able to usher attendees into theaters, but a winter festival like Sundance had to reinvent itself. SXSW, opening today and running through Saturday, is going with a virtual presentation of seventy-five features, eighty-four shorts, six episodic pilots, and twenty virtual cinema projects. “Everything is different this year,” says Pierson, “so if we’d only seen ten films that we liked, we could have just showed ten films. There was no quota. It’s not like in a real-life event where you have this many screens you have to fill. It could’ve been any number, but these were all films that we were one hundred percent behind.”

Barker is impressed by the lineup Pierson and her team have put together. “It’s been well over a decade since SXSW’s film component established itself as a top-tier date on the festival calendar, developing its own distinctive aesthetic all the while,” he writes, “and so it’s no small compliment to note that the 2021 film lineup looks very much like a typical SXSW program.” In other words, along with the handpicked favorites from other festivals and the social issue documentaries and the low-budget dramas from promising young directors, there’s also a little more comedy and genre fare than most other events have to offer. There’s Udo Kier as a hairdresser on the run in Todd Stephens’s Swan Song and Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King’s “ultra-violent” animated feature The Spine of Night, featuring the voices of Richard E. Grant, Lucy Lawless, and Patton Oswalt.

There’s also a whole lot of music. SXSW devotes an entire program, 24 Beats Per Second, to “the sounds, culture, and influence of music and musicians,” and will open today with Michael D. Ratner’s Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil. In the Austin Chronicle, Doug Freeman talks with Rolling Stone’s David Fricke about Mary Wharton’s documentary Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free, a chronicle of the making of the 1994 album Wildflowers, which “sounds exactly like Petty,” says Fricke, “but it doesn’t sound like any other record he made.”

Then there are the movies about movies, but naturally, a certain kind of movie. In the Chronicle, Dan Gentile talks with Malcolm Ingram about Clerk, the film he’s made about Kevin Smith, “one of the most cultishly revered figures in film today.” At IndieWire, David Ehrlich is looking forward to Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey’s Alien on Stage, a documentary about a British bus driver’s theatrical production of Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror classic. It’s a story told “in loving detail, chronicling the amateur theater troupe’s chest-burstingly feel-good journey from Dorset to the West End as they try to figure out what they’ve made before it kills them,” writes Ehrlich.

Two features in the lineup premiered a couple of weeks ago as part of the Berlinale’s first virtual half of its 2021 edition. Natalie Morales’s debut feature, Language Lessons, made during the pandemic and playing out entirely over Zoom, is a “tender, slender story of a queer California widower (Mark Duplass) processing his grief through online Spanish classes with a Costa Rican stranger (Morales),” and it “ebbs and flows with the limitations, miscommunications, and occasional candor of screen-based interaction,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety. Dispatching to the BFI, John Bleasdale finds Yngvild Sve Flikke’s Ninjababy to be a “raucously funny Norwegian comedy” about an unwanted pregnancy. “Conventional narratives are so burned into our psyches that it comes as a genuine shock to have a character and a film steadfastly refuse any flicker of maternal instinct.” For more SXSW previews, keep an eye on the Austin Chronicle and have a look at the lists of anticipated films at,ScreenAnarchy, and Women and Hollywood.

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