Short but sweet, this year’s virtual SXSW Film Festival wrapped over the weekend with the presentation of the awards. We’re going to concentrate here on what critics have been saying about the winners of the main competitions, but we should note that a lot of prizes are handed out each year in Austin. SXSW showcases not only features and short films but also virtual reality projects, music videos, and episodic narratives as well as spotlighting title and poster design. You’ll find a full list of every single award winner accompanied by statements from the various juries right here.
Narrative Feature Competition
The top winner here is The Fallout, the debut feature of Megan Park, who began acting in her teens and is probably best known as Grace Bowman, the ex-cheerleader who appeared in all five seasons of the ABC Family series The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Now in her mid-thirties, Park began making short films and music videos a few years ago, most notably for Billie Eilish, which is undoubtedly how she met Eilish’s brother and producer, Finneas O’Connell, who has composed his first score for The Fallout.
The story is sparked by a shooting at a high school in California, but the focus is on the aftermath. Sixteen-year-old Vada (Jenna Ortega) is in the girl’s restroom with Mia (Maddie Ziegler), an Instagram influencer in the making, when shots ring out. Seeking safety in a stall, they’re soon joined by Quinton (Niles Fitch), whose clothes have been smeared with his brother’s blood. Park’s “aesthetic, a compelling blend of strong compositions (Park and cinematographer Kristen Correll show particular skill at overhead shots) and a social media-slick presentation, matches well with the tough material,” finds Kate Erbland at IndieWire. “Mostly, though, it captures the energy of the teenage experience—not just by way of on-screen texting (a lot of it, and most of it necessary and natural) or through sequences that often feel a touch too close to music video-issued idealism, but through Park’s obvious investment in the emotional life of her characters.”
This throws considerable weight on the lead performers, all three of them coming in for praise across the board. “Vada in particular excels at playing chill and deflecting,” writes Sheri Linden in the Hollywood Reporter, “and Ortega’s beautifully nuanced turn understands the nothing-to-look-at-here façade and the chinks in the armor.” As Mia, Ziegler, who has starred in a series of Sia’s music videos, “fully inhabits the role. Soulful and intelligent, Mia is practiced in hiding her ache.” And Fitch's performance “conveys wrenching depths in Quinton’s silences,” writes Linden. There are only three adult characters in The Fallout, and in Screen,Tim Grierson finds that Shailene Woodley “shines as the no-nonsense therapist Vada’s parents (John Ortiz, Julie Bowen) hire to talk to their daughter because she won’t open up to them. But there are no magic words that can snap Vada out of her funk—recovering from trauma is a complicated process—and the filmmaker’s willingness to let her protagonist stumble through her grief and guilt is refreshing.”
Jury members Amanda N’Duka, Jake Coyle, and Joanna Robinson are awarding special recognition to Rogelio Balagtas for his performance in Martin Edralin’s Islands as Joshua, a Filipino bachelor approaching fifty and still living with his elderly parents in Canada. When his mother dies, a beautiful cousin arrives from Kuwait to help him care for his rapidly declining father, and Joshua finds himself falling for her. “Plot-wise, there are virtually no surprises in Islands,” writes Inkoo Kang in the Hollywood Reporter. “But the film’s Filipino-diasporic context adds new dimensions to Joshua’s existential slumber, as well as to the gradual awakening of his senses.” Edralin is “not out for sensationalism,” writes Steven Warner at In Review Online, adding that Islands is, “above all, a low-key character study showing how one individual can inspire change—no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential—within another.”
One more special recognition—for a “multi-hyphenate storyteller”—goes to Kelley Kali, who has written and directed I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) with Angelique Molina. Kali also stars as Danny, a hairdresser who loses her home when her husband dies and moves into a roadside tent with her eight-year-old daughter, promising that they’re just camping until she can raise two hundred dollars for a deposit on an apartment. And there’s a pandemic on. The jury notes that I’m Fine has been “financed in part by stimulus relief checks” and is “a marvel of multitasking and resourcefulness.” Writing for the Austin Chronicle,Laiken Neumann finds that the film’s “genuine humor (free from COVID jests) and saturated aesthetic soften the stark situation.”
Documentary Feature Competition
Lily Topples the World, a portrait of domino artist Lily Hevesh from director Jeremy Workman and executive producer Kelly Marie Tran, takes the top prize. Now in her early twenties, Hevesh has been lining up dominos along intricately mapped out paths and having them tumble in cascading waves since she was ten. The film is “a relentlessly optimistic exploration of so many issues that have touched Hevesh’s life—adoption, her Asian-American identity, her difficulties making friends at school,” writes Richard Whittaker in the Austin Chronicle. “It’s also an exploration of the new meaning of celebrity, and the rapidly evolving relationship between young people and media: Hevesh became a YouTube celebrity without every being seen on-screen, and now she’s the face of a new industry.”
In the Hollywood Reporter,Daniel Fienberg finds that Workman “does nothing so well as just letting his camera focus on Lily at work—whether she’s in solo contemplation of block placement or graceful negotiation of the precarious stretches of dominos, bending and twisting with a dancer’s grace and a born showman’s gift for tension-building.”
In this competition, too, jurors Jacqueline Coley, Sean Fennessey, and Steven Zeitchik have awarded two special recognitions. They’ve found “exceptional intimacy in storytelling” in Rachel Fleit’s Introducing, Selma Blair, a portrait of the actress as she struggles with the multiple sclerosis she was diagnosed with in 2018. In Variety,Guy Lodge finds that the film “makes good on its oddly punctuated title’s promise to construct a second first impression of a star best known as a wonderfully tart, snappy supporting figure in various millennial multiplex favorites.”
Special recognition for “humanity in social action” goes to Not Going Quietly, Nicholas Bruckman’s “stirring tale of activism shaped by personal suffering,” as John DeFore writes in the Hollywood Reporter. Ady Barkan, a lawyer diagnosed with the terminal neurodegenerative disease ALS in 2016, happened to meet Arizona Senator Jeff Flake on a plane the following year and asked him to “be a hero” and vote no on a massive tax bill that Barkan saw as a threat to Americans’ ability to pay for medical care. That confrontation went viral and Barkan has carried on campaigning. In Not Going Quietly, he “proves a highly engaging man, impassioned but funnier than a terminally ill man should be,” writes DeFore. “Intimate scenes with his young family are essential to the appeal of a film whose big issues remain as pressing now as they were during filming in 2018.”
SXSW hosts a bundle of special awards, some of them sponsored, and Brightcove has singled out Megan Park for “her empathetic and honest exploration of life after tragedy, inspired craft, and stellar guidance of a talented young cast.” The Adam Yauch Hörnblowér Award, presented to a filmmaker from the Visions program, goes to Caroline Catz for Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes, a portrait of the electronic music pioneer that, for Lina Fisher in the Austin Chronicle, “rings true when her sounds speak for themselves.”
The Adobe Editing Award goes to Lam Nguyen for his work on Carey Williams’s R#J, a very twenty-first-century take on Romeo and Juliet. When it premiered at Sundance, Abby Sun, dispatching to Filmmaker, called it “one of the highlights of the NEXT section . . . The actors infuse an immediacy to the Shakespeare dialogue that drives all the scenes filmed, and presented to us as, Instagram Lives or Facetimes, often in split screen.” Writing for In Review Online, M. G. Mailloux pointed out that “it should go without saying that any Timur Bekmambetov production that features a plot ‘told entirely through social media and smartphone screens’ should be high-priority viewing for anyone who cares about the future of cinema.”
Brook Driver, Matt White, and Nick Gillespie have won the Final Draft Screenwriters Award for Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break. “Wringing bleak comedy from the psychological collapse of a naive middle-aged man chasing talent-show glory, this uneven sophomore feature from director Nick Gillespie most resembles a grindhouse marriage of Joker and Ingrid Goes West, with its makeup left to run in a gray British drizzle,” writes Guy Lodge for Variety.
Any feature premiering at SXSW that was shot primarily in Texas or directed by a current resident is eligible for the Louis Black “Lone Star” Award, named after one of the cofounders of both the festival and the Austin Chronicle, where Doug Freeman has a brief chat with Tamara Saviano, codirector with Paul Whitfield of this year’s winner, Without Getting Killed or Caught. The title is taken from “L.A. Freeway,” the 1975 song by Guy Clark, and in 2016, Saviano borrowed it the first time for her biography of the folk and country singer-songwriter. In the film, the focus shifts to Clark’s wife, Susanna Clark, also a singer and songwriter, and the couple’s friendship with Townes Van Zandt, “one of country music's great and tragic love stories,” as Freeman puts it.
The Zeiss Cinematography Award goes to Jorrie van der Walt for his work on Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia, “a solid contribution to the burgeoning genre of eco-horror,” according to Cosmo Bjorkenheim at Screen Slate. “Annihilation unavoidably comes to mind—with sentient fungi sending spores into people’s lungs and fruiting through their skin—but so does a previous generation of cautionary tales about the jungle, like Cannibal Holocaust and even Predator.” Bouwer, Van der Walt, screenwriter Tertius Kapp, and composer Pierre-Henri Wicomb work “in tandem to create a steadily escalating mood of Blastomycotic body-horror distress,” writes Marc Savlov in the Austin Chronicle.
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