Crooked Marquee’s SXSW 2023 Diary

AUSTIN, TX: I’ve said before that SXSW is my favorite film festival, but if we’re being honest, that has more to do with the food and drink and camaraderie than the movies themselves. I took in over a dozen during my week or so on the ground, and most were squarely in the B-/B/B+ range (here are some full-length reviews to back me up). But I did stumble on a couple of gems, and a few more small titles that are worth at least your consideration. 

The best of the bunch may well be This Closeness, writer/director/star Kit Zauhar’s follow-up to her expertly crafted, minutely detailed 2021 feature Actual People. This feels like the right kind of step forward from that picture, which was a bit of a one-woman show; every character here is written and played with complexities that belie your initial impressions. She stars as Tessa, who is joining her boyfriend Ben (Zane Pais) for his ten-year high school reunion in Philadelphia. They’re initially baffled by their tremendously awkward Airbnb host (Ian Edlund), but Zauhar so vividly dramatizes that sticky point in a dying relationship where every interaction is potentially fraught (what she calls the “miserable, miserable cycle” that they’re in), you understand how sexual dynamics and jealousy begin to play out through the thin walls. 

Zauhar is easy to put into a kind of nu-mumblecore box – she’s a Brooklynite, making brutally honest relationship movies on low budgets – but she reminds me more of Cassavetes, putting her thorny characters into long and sometimes genuinely uncomfortable scenes of social situations gone awry, and refusing to let the viewer out of them. It’s a picture that zigs when you expect it to zag. and confirms that Zauhar is one of our most exciting young filmmakers. 

Another performer worth watching is David Dastmachlian, a that-guy character actor (here’s his IMDb, you’ll know him when you see him) who gets a rare, and exhilarating, leading man turn in Cameron and Colin Cairnes’s effectively spooky Late Night with the Devil. He stars as Jack Delroy, host of the Carson-style Night Owls with Jack Delroy, where “five nights a week, Jack helps a nervous nation forget its troubles.” That explainer is part of the film’s clever documentary opening, which uses faux-archival footage and clippings, magazine covers, and the like to fill in the show’s backstory and set us up for the main event: the full master tape of its Halloween 1977 show, “the TV event that shocked the nation.”

The Cairnes brothers niftily replicate the look and feel of the era’s late shows, while wisely varying the gag by going to black-and-white behind-the-scenes footage during station breaks. (There are perfect little details a-plenty, like when a possessed character starts a chant that includes the f-word, but the censor only catches and bleeps it the second time.) Some of the supporting players are a touch thin, and the picture goes on a few minutes too long, with an epilogue that it could’ve done without. But Dastmachlian crafts a powerhouse performance; he gets the laughs (he knows exactly how long a pause to take between “as we attempt to commune with the devil” and “but not before a word from our sponsors”), but conveys the talk show host’s darkness and deep cynicism when it counts. 

Story Ave. is, in many ways, the quintessential indie drama – and not in a great way. Director Aristotle Tores has a fine eye for composition, and convincingly embeds himself in his South Bronx locations and the graffiti-writer world his hero Kadir (Asante Blackk) inhabits. But this is not exactly a new story – a troubled kid, looking to belong, sliding into a life of crime – and it only really lights afire when it departs from that formula to another one, when Kadir tries to stick up a lonely MTA worker (Luis Guzman) who sees through this kid immediately, and tries to help him.

Guzman has accumulated such onscreen gravitas, and such audience goodwill, that we’ll go with him anywhere, even the well-trod path of this character. Because the acting is so modest and intimate, their scenes and relationship are exponentially more compelling than the rest of the movie, even though they’re constructed around one of this year’s most tiresomely recurring motifs, the Deeply-Held Secret and the Gradually Revealing Flashback. But Tores keeps returning to the gangsta narrative, which is overwhelmingly wheezy and tired (even through the graffiti artist lens, previously explored in pics like Gimme the Loot, Bomb the System, and especially Wild Style, all the way back in 1983).

Sarah (Lydia Leonard), the heroine of Northern Comfort, lives a life that’s both satisfying and stressful – a good career, a promising relationship, but lots of stress and an overpowering fear of flying. To address the latter, she’s enrolled in “Fearless Flyers,” a class for nervous flyers; their “final,” a day trip on a real flight, falls on the very same day she’s to take another flight to join her new-ish boyfriend and his daughter on holiday. She’ll be cutting it close. And then things start to go wrong. 

Director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson expertly cranks up the tension  throughout the picture, putting you right in her head during her pre-flight panic attack and through the complications that follow. It’s genuinely nerve-racking, an anxiety comedy – closer to “Shiva Baby” than that director’s SXSW follow-up, “Bottoms,” turned out to be. But it’s burdened by several unfortunate overlaps with Triangle of Sadness – unfortunate because Triangle hit first, and makes these points more wittily and entertainingly. It feels, at times, like a remake by John Hughes, more interested in travel woes than class commentary, and by the second hour the doomed inevitability curdles into a kind of narrative exhaustion, causing the whole enterprise to run out of gas by the end.

Full disclosure: I am friends with the brother of Brian Wallach, the subject (along with his wife Sandra) of the activist documentary No Ordinary Campaign. Brian and Sandra started ACT for ALS, an organization dedicated to lobbying for more funding and more effective treatments of ALS (aka Lou Gherig’s Disease), which has a 0% survival rate. Because the film itself is boosting that campaign, it’s shot and cut, in spots, less like a doc than a video press release (there are a lot of montages, including one, I’m afraid, to “Fight Song”). But this is a deeply compelling story, and (especially in the clutch), it lands – the closing passages are powerful, angry, and wrenching, and you don’t have to know the Wallachs to be inspired by their dedication. 

Nonfiction filmmaking, as well as television, publishing, and podcasting, have become overwhelmed by true crime investigations, and Chris Kasick’s documentary Citizen Sleuth explores the “content creator” of a successful pod who, it could be said, represents a worst-case scenario. Emily Nestor hosts the “Mile Marker 181” podcast, centered on the suspicious 2011 death of 20-year-old West Virginian Jaleyah Davis – ruled an accident, but it looks like a homicide, according to local legend, where everyone has a theory and everyone has an opinion. Someone had to synthesize all of that, Nestor reasons; “Why not me?” she asks. And Kasic sets out to answer that question.

“She doesn’t have any training whatsoever!” her friend notes, chirpily, but what she lacks in knowledge she makes up for in tenacity and savvy self-marketing. Through her, Kasick gets a peek into the big (and sometimes gross) business of true crime, where generating not only “content” but revenue from the tragedies of others can create ethical dilemmas that an untrained investigator might not be equipped for. And, to his credit, Kasick understands that the documentary camera similarly changes things, influences behavior, and shifts outcomes. Citizen Sleuth is an uncommonly thoughtful examination of true crime – yet one that also leaves the viewer to draw their own conclusions about its events and participants. 

The most appropriate documentary for film festival viewing, however, is Ian Cheney’s The Arc of Oblivion, which uses a catchy gimmick – baffled by questions of how and even why to save things, he hires a carpenter neighbor to build a Noah-style arc on his parents’ property in rural Maine – as a vehicle for asking some of the biggest questions we’ve got. Does anything actually last? Are we insane to imagine that anything can last? How do we choose what survives – of our lives, of our memories, of our art? It’s essentially an egghead movie, but Cheney has a breezy touch, managing to synthesize a great deal of information in a thoughtful and comprehensible way. His narration is witty and his style is snazzy, but he’s best at finding these Maine characters and letting them rip in a manner that recalls early Errol Morris – back in the Gates of Heaven era. So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise when executive producer Werner Herzog turns up near the end; it’s the kind of movie where his appearance seems all but inevitable. 

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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