Normally, there are two ways to cover a film festival. One is to treat it like any other work week, responsibly blocking out time to get all your writing done and going to bed at a reasonable hour. The other is to push your body to its limit, getting up for early-morning press screenings and then staying out partying —or, as one might put it to oneself, “networking”—until last call. The approach you choose is between you, your deadlines, and your editor, should you start missing those deadlines. But this year’s SXSW left attendees little choice in the matter, by becoming the first in a series of film-industry dominoes to fall after a forceful push from COVID-19.
And sure, you could stay up all night drinking alone in your apartment and then drag yourself out of bed and run to the living room at 8 a.m. to watch another film. But that’s a punishing routine under normal circumstances. And in an environment where waking up with a slight tickle in your throat is enough to send many into a panic spiral, being exhausted with a hangover is less than appealing. And so, after a whirlwind series of events that started with the SXSW cancellation and ended with The A.V. Club’s parent company sending us home to work remotely for the foreseeable future, we found ourselves self-quarantining with a pile of online screeners. And so, the lonely, cozy, unventful remote watch party hereby dubbed Couch x Couchwest was born.
Not every film from SXSW is being made available for online review: Some are holding out for festivals scheduled for the summer and fall, and others are still figuring out what they want to do. And it is a risk to move forward with remote coverage—if a film is reviewed that very few people are able to see, how does that affect its reception when it does finally become available to the public? Honestly, nobody is sure right now. This is an unprecedented situation for festival programmers and publicists and critics, as it is for everyone else.
From where The A.V. Club sits, the films that would have been our marquee reviews coming out of SXSW—the world premiere of David Lowery’s The Green Knight, for example, or the Kumail Nanjiani-Issa Rae vehicle The Lovebirds—do not need our remote coverage. But then there are the small indie films that had pinned their creative dreams on a SXSW premiere, films that normally depend on sites like ours to amplify them in festival coverage. Those are the films that are jumping into the unknown and uploading screeners to the online library SXSW created last week, and we hope that we can help their creators out by shining a little light on these otherwise rudderless films.
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We watched 11 feature films in total for Couch x Couchwest, both through the SXSW portal and via email submissions. In the end, a handful stood out, all of which happened to be directed or co-directed by women. And so we decided to run with it, because—although the world’s mind is on other things right now—it is still Women’s History Month. Add these films to your watch list, for warmer and freer days ahead.
Had SXSW gone forward, Kris Rey’s (formerly Kris Swanberg) fourth feature I Used To Go Here (Grade: B) would have been hailed as a breakout comedy akin to last year’s buzziest SXSW title, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart. This film is less self-consciously progressive than Wilde’s, though, and although it does feature a clique of effortlessly cool college kids —including the dorky, aptly named Tall Brandon (Brandon Daley)—this time they’re not at the center of the story. That distinction belongs to Kate (Gillian Jacobs), a 35-year-old writer whose life seems enviable on the outside: She just published her first novel, complete with a smug nod to her domestic bliss on the dust jacket. The thing is, in the time between Kate penning that bio and now, her fiancee dumped her. Adding insult to injury, the book is selling so poorly that her publisher cancels her book tour—and that’s before a negative New York Times review sinks any possibility of a rebound. Oh, and she hates the cover art.
In short, Kate is vulnerable, leading her to accept an invitation from her undergraduate writing teacher David (Jemaine Clement) to come give a talk at her old college in downstate Illinois. Adulation from a handful of starry-eyed undergrads isn’t enough to satiate Kate’s neediness, however, and so she entangles herself in a very messy love triangle with Hugo (Josh Wiggins), the teenager who now lives in her old house. The setup is vaguely reminiscent of Old School, but the execution is more in line with Young Adult, full of sharp dialogue lampooning male sexual entitlement and subtle visual gags that underline Kate’s immaturity as well as the existential absurdity of her dilemma. (A scene where she holds up her book next to a lineup of friends posing with their pregnant bellies is equally cringeworthy and hilarious.)
But while Rey’s screenplay sets her up for success, it’s Jacobs who makes it sparkle, playing Kate with enough confidence that she comes across as a real, flawed human being and not an aw-shucks caricature of a mess. Like many comedies, visually I Used To Go Here isn’t especially memorable. But Rey and Jacobs more than make up for it with charm and painfully relatable wit, and backed by a producing team of indie all-stars that includes Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone—a.k.a. The Lonely Island—there’s still hope of this film hitting theaters when they reopen.
In a funhouse reversal of this dynamic, She Dies Tomorrow (B+)—another auteur effort pairing two indie-film darlings, Upstream Color and Pet Sematary’s Amy Seimetz and frequent Alex Ross Perry collaborator Kate Lyn Sheil—has inventive, invigorating visual panache to spare, even when its screenplay is enigmatic to the point of obfuscation. The film opens with a quarantine-worthy scenario, as Amy (Shiel) putters around her house, picking out and putting on a sequin gown as bombastic classical music blares in the background before shopping for leather jackets (and, more curiously, cremation urns) online. When her concerned friend Jane (Jane Adams) comes by and finds Amy blankly standing in her backyard holding a leaf blower, we learn two key details: Amy is an alcoholic who’s fallen off the wagon, and she’s gripped by the unshakeable, eerily calm belief that she will die the next day.
The origins and function of this belief riff on a cosmic version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers by way of It Follows, as everyone who Amy encounters catches this belief like—well, like a virus. The pandemic here is existential and emotional, as first Jane, then everyone she meets, is visited by a psychedelic onslaught of color, sound, and pummeling strobe light. It’s sort of like being abducted by aliens while high on LSD, and it turns all who see and hear it into hollow shells of doom. And that’s totally terrifying and disorienting, an effect that builds until Michelle Rodriguez intoning about death next to a swimming pool slowly filling up with blood seems about right for the situation. The film does lose its way a bit as it wanders through vast expanses of dread in search of an ending. But in terms of originality, Seimetz’s second feature-length outing as a writer-director (her first, Sun Don’t Shine, debuted at SXSW in 2012) is unmatched in the films we watched for this year’s virtual fest.
Meanwhile, with the gorgeous, misty hills of Northern California adding priceless production value, writer-directors Mario Furloni and Kate McLean’s Freeland (B) was without a doubt the most visually accomplished of the bunch. Krisha Fairchild—the same Krisha who lent her name to Trey Edward Shults’ debut, Krisha (2015)—stars as Devi, a Humboldt County pot farmer struggling to keep up with the complicated bureaucratic tangle of legalization. Riding the line between drama and thriller as Devi’s predicament becomes more dire, Freeland depends even more heavily on its lead performance than I Used To Go Here. Mainly, that’s because its screenplay falters in its attempts to expand Devi’s world beyond the film’s core conflict. But Fairchild is magnificent in the role, giving a layered performance that evokes deep pathos for this woman left behind now that the communal values once associated with her crop of choice have been replaced by the capitalist power structures she retreated to the hills to escape in the first place.
Growing pot in the mountains far away from the prying eyes of the law is one version of the American dream. Another is changing the face of a quintessentially American junk food, like the subject of Alice Gu’s documentary The Donut King (B). As an energetic montage at the beginning of the film states, Los Angeles has a much higher percentage of donut shops than any other city in the U.S.—one for every 7,000 residents, as opposed to the national average of one per 30,000. And almost all of those donut shops are owned by Cambodian people, whose market dominance is so complete that even East Coast staple Dunkin’ Donuts struggled to break into Southern California in the ’90s.
Remarkably—almost miraculously—this is all the work of one man: Ted Ngoy, who sponsored hundreds of refugees to come to the U.S. and gave them turnkey loans to run their own donut shops in the ’70s and ’80s. The first part of Gu’s documentary celebrates Ngoy, as well as the ingenuity and tireless work ethic of immigrants in general, with a vivid hybrid of biographical documentary and food porn set to colorful animation and a hip-hop beat. In fact, The Donut King plays much like an extended episode of Ugly Delicious, before diving into darker territory in its second half that actively dismantles the myths it spent the first hour building. And although this abrupt turn destabilizes the film’s structure in a way it never quite recovers from, it also makes The Donut King much more than simple food porn—not that there’s anything wrong with that, particularly when creative, mouthwatering treats like cronuts and emoji donuts are so lovingly showcased.
The Donut King is just one of several women-helmed documentaries about dreamers struggling against impossible odds screening virtually through SXSW: Film fans will find Cathryne Czubek and Hugo Perez’s Wakaliwood documentary Once Upon A Time In Uganda of special interest. And for music fans there’s Dark City Beneath The Beat, a stylish exploration of Baltimore’s club underground from director TT The Artist, as well as Tomboy, a documentary following four female drummers from different generations by Lindsay Lindenbaum.
It’s surreal to think about how quickly such simple pleasures as going out for a donut or sitting down in a crowded movie theater have disappeared from the daily lives of so many people around the world. And as the industry adapts to the “new normal” of social distancing and shelter in place orders, it’s the scrappy ground-up filmmakers who are most at risk of having their already unstable livelihoods decimated. The future of SXSW itself is uncertain at this point, as the festival lays off employees amid a reported $355 million loss for the city of Austin following the cancellation of this year’s festival. But the dream of standing in the front of that crowded theater, taking in the applause that marks the culmination of years of hard work? SXSW or no SXSW, pre-or post-COVID-19, that’s going to be difficult to destroy.