This year's SXSW slate benefited from a surge of films helmed by a wide variety of women, from Oscar-winner Jodie Foster's The Beaver to 18-year-old Austin darling Emily Hagins's third feature, My Sucky Teen Romance. It's a welcome trend, one that, along with the evolution of returning filmmakers and the emergence of new visionaries, helps to continue developing SXSW into a rounded, varied, and increasingly more difficult to label film festival. Below are some of my thoughts on just a few of this year's female-directed movies.
Director Aimee Lagos seems to be at odds with her own film, like a well-meaning but controlling parent hell-bent on choosing a child's college, major, and fraternity for them. She unremittingly insists that 96 Minutes take the route she's attempted to clear out for it, detrimentally piling on ill-fitting themes and characters to try and shape the film into something it's not.
At the core of 96 Minutes is Dre, the film's only source of real, relatable emotion, thanks in large part to a compelling performance by Evan Ross, the deserving recipient of a Breakthrough Performance Award at this year's festival. Dre's struggle to hang onto the gang-related friends of his past while still pursuing the educational ambitions of his future holds enough internal and external conflict on its own to comprise an engaging film. However, Lagos surrounds it with the uneventful stories of Carley (Brittany Snow) and Lena (Christian Serratos), two arc-less, fixed trajectories that exist to simply collide with the stories of Dre and Kevin (J. Michael Trautmann), whose own terribly unsubtle but necessary plot thread involving his own befriending of Dre's gangsta friends offers little character development or explanation beyond the old standbys of "bad parenting" and "violent video games."
Dre's own plight isn't free of clichés, but Lagos counters many of them with refreshing moments true to the character, as when Dre takes Kevin on a trip to his town's college hangout. He walks along the sidewalks, taking in the city lights and sights, knowing the opportunity for a more fulfilling life is just around the corner. It's a cheesy way to show Kevin the potential of an existence away from thugs and hatred, but it's so real to Dre's character that the moment becomes moving. Scenes like these struggle to redeem a film set on surrounding its best material with generic, bland filler.
Similarly, thematically, the film can't pull away from the grips of its insistent director. 96 Minutes, through Dre's inner battle and Kevin's predictable descent into "dangerously misguided teen" territory, finds itself asking questions about personal identity, where it comes from, and if it can ever be altered, yet somewhere along the way Lagos decided that the film's focus needed to be morality—more specifically whether or not "an eye for an eye" has a place in how we run our society. The notion is crudely mashed into the film's timeline, first in the form of a convenient college ethics debate arguing the morality of the death penalty, and then as a clumsy epilogue where one self-righteous character touts the virtues of this moral outlook over another, confusing the viewer, who's left wondering why the director couldn't let her film grow up to be what it really wanted to be.
Elevate concerns itself more with the journeys rather than the destinations of the four African basketball players it follows, an approach well-fit for its subject when you consider how each of these young men—Assane, Aziz, Byago, and Dethie, all gifted Muslim teenagers attending the SEEDS Academy in Senegal—is told that his cyclical journey is not complete once he gets to play ball in the U.S. Every one of these guys in this focused but affectionate documentary hopes to one day play in the NBA, but their collective primary goal is to use any attention they receive on the court to open the door for other ambitious Senegalese children after them. Life's path, for these men, is not a straight line, but rather a circle, so when the film ends with each player at a different point in this path, the story's sense of incompleteness feels entirely appropriate.
Anne Buford's direction is observant, but never presumes to tell us how to feel about what she shows us. We see a prep-school principal put pressure on one of the West African students to eventually attend Princeton, but the authority figure is never villanized by the film for this, allowing us to decide if the pressure was undue.
When Dethie begins attending the school Assane has been at for some time, Assane offers him tips and advice on how to fit in, and informs him of the morning church service that requires attendance from all students, even the Muslims. Assane matter-of-factly tells Dethie that it's no big deal, and kind of a nice gesture to simply sit and attend the service. Instead of using this endearing and quietly powerful moment to even slightly chastise Americans for their current fear, ignorance, and intolerance of Muslims, Buford keeps a steady hand and shows wisdom in her restraint. No doubt, she has causes to champion and issues to fight after spending four years chronicling the bumps and triumphs of these young men, but she realizes that this documentary isn't about the issues, it's about the people.
The fact that newly pregnant Sarah (Anna Margaret Hollyman) is more intimately connected with technology than she is with the ever-forming child in her belly is evident from the Small, Beautifully Moving Parts's get-go, when, as her boyfriend Leon (Andre Holland) glows at the news of his fatherhood, Sarah admires the choice of typeface on the disposable pregnancy test. Only Sarah seems to be unaware of her ambivalence and at times borderline numbness toward her unborn child, so when she does come to this self-realization halfway through the film, the audience doesn't feel the same impact that it would've if this character trait had been revealed more gradually and organically.
The film then shifts its focus to Sarah's relationship with her mother, with our pregnant hero embarking on a road trip to find the woman who abandoned her many years ago. While the excursion results in a few nice moments of insight, especially a scene involving one-way communication via a video baby monitor, the journey is ultimately unsatisfying in that it gets few answers for questions that seemed somewhat irrelevant to begin with. Sarah's abandonment issues with her mother don't feel like the source of her current problems with her own baby, but the directors insist on making the connection anyway.
These shortcomings, however, are mostly eclipsed by Hollyman's downright charming performance as Sarah; the actress is adorable, genuinely funny, and completely natural, so it's somewhat shocking to see her relatively slim acting resume so far. I don't anticipate that to last long. Her effortlessness makes her believable and her casualness makes her nearly irresistible, in turn making Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson's film worth the occasional qualm.
SWSW ran from March 11 – 20.