SXSW 2021 Reviews: Jakob’s Wife, Language Lessons & More!
The 2021 virtual South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival is finally kicking off and ComingSoon.net got the opportunity to attend and catch some of the incredible films in its catalogue, including the Barbara Crampton-led chiller Jakob’s Wife, the powerful and hilarious dramedy Language Lessons and more! Be sure to follow along as we regularly update our roundup with new reviews throughout the week!
If the story of two estranged siblings coming together to help care for their gravely-ill mother sounds familiar, you wouldn’t be blamed for believing such as you’re right and Sisters doesn’t shy away from knowing its genre and tapping into tropes of it for good. Unlike plenty of feature-length efforts of a similar story, Jess Brunetto’s implementation of the topic into a short format prevents it from overstaying its welcome or creating a meandering plot around it, but rather allows viewers to meet the titular siblings, choose quickly whether they feel a desire to connect to either or both of them and just enjoy the character moments and humor that all feels authentic and grounded, thanks in part to the stellar turns from stars Sarah Burns and Mary Holland.
See You Then
Aside from maybe Richard Linklater’s iconic Before trilogy, it’s rare that filmmakers explore the topic of a couple reuniting years after they originally split and have each gone on to live their own lives, but even moreso when one of the two have undergone a transition in the time since and Mari Walker and Kristen Uno’s See You Then does well to explore this in a unique manner, even if a bit too surface-level. With Kris having left Naomi suddenly and without a word during their time together in college as she struggled with the realization she needed to transition, it’s pretty surprising to see how much the two get along for the majority of the film and how rarely they sit in an awkward silence or stumble. But what really sets it apart is as the film goes on and it almost seems as though there will be a reconciling of sorts between them, Walker and Uno are not afraid to pull the rug out from under audiences’ feet and see Kris and Naomi forced to confront their problems and every insult hurled, every personality flaw noted, every tear and heartbroken sigh comes across so authentically thanks to the skillful writing and Pooya Mohseni and Lynn Chen’s incredible performances, all resulting in a thoughtful, moving and insightful tale.
Lily Topples the World
In exploring the world of viral stardom, so many films and documentaries tend to get swept up in the dangers and more toxic areas of that realm that when a film such as Jeremy Workman’s Lily Topples the World chooses to approach its subject with a kind-hearted and optimistic take, it’s a breath of fresh air. Lily Hevesh, the titular world toppler, is a very sweet and interesting subject and her domino art is nothing short of breathtaking, with her friends and family’s testimonies all offering a nice insight into the artist, thus allowing the viewers’ journey with her from her crossroads of choosing between remaining in college and pursuing her passion to be a compelling one. Though the documentary could’ve benefitted from diving a little deeper into Lily outside of the domino world, giving her a little more of a well-rounded profile, it still proves to be a thoroughly satisfying and charming watch.
Woodland Dark and Days Bewitched
The subgenere of folk horror is certainly a joy to behold and its history is a rich textbook with intriguing connections to the various social standings and while Kier-La Janisse’s Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched clearly did its research to explore this realm, it might have gone a tad too far. Running at over three hours long, the film certainly covers nearly every extent of the world of folk terror but the problem is it doesn’t move at a quick enough pacing and the expert testimonies frequently tend to circle back to the same points made earlier in the documentary, illuminating a need for trimming of some fat to shorten the length and make for a smoother and more quickly-compelling documentary. That being said, the film is still relatively interesting and the experts referencing titles even the biggest of cult fans might not have heard about proves to be an enjoyable enough exploration for hardcore genre fans.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion
Aside from his filmmaker son, it feels as though the unique style and atmosphere of David Cronenberg’s cult classic filmography, namely his techo-surrealist Videodrome, has yet to truly be recreated by another filmmaker, though one of the few to come close not once but now twice is Jacob Gentry, one of the minds behind the woefully-underrated 2007 gem The Signal and now the eye in the director’s chair of Broadcast Signal Intrusion. Following video archivist James as he falls down a rabbit hole of obsession in an effort to solve the mystery behind a series of broadcast signal hacks and their potential connection to his partner’s disappearance, the film may initially start out on the path of a fairly traditional narrative formula, but as it progresses it takes a few interesting twists and turns that keep things more baffling and ambiguous. While this approach worked in Cronenberg’s favor on the 1983 pic, it proves to be a bit more of a hindrance for Intrusion, with the film’s sudden arrival of a conclusion at the end feeling more akin to The Ring or FeardotCom than something original or compelling. That being said, Gentry’s direction is sleek and superb, Harry Shum Jr. delivers an absolute powerhouse of a lead performance and the visuals and atmosphere are appropriately haunting, resulting in a fairly chilling return to the ominous tech-based horror of the past.
Made For Love
Modern technology has made the world of dating and relationships all the more complicated and messy, giving people the opportunity to assert more control or create a more toxic environment than the past and HBO Max’s Made for Love does a great job of exploring this topic while still working to find a positive path for growth. Centered on a woman escaping her marriage to a suffocating and controlling tech genius, the series takes a few familiar narrative turns for those familiar with Leigh Whannell’s masterful The Invisible Man but never feels like a carbon copy but more an expansion of the formula and platform to showcase that humor can be found and explored while still dealing with some of the seriousness from it. Blending an expert balance of dark humor and drama with skillful direction and phenomenal performances from the always-superb Cristin Milioti and Billy Magnussen and a rare R-rated turn from Ray Romano, it’s a compelling journey thus far and is sure to be one of the best shows of 2021.
As the global pandemic continues to keep many locked in their homes, especially Hollywood talent, the storm of Zoom-shot films continues to pour over audiences, but much like the early ventures of Rob Savage’s Host and Apple’s Mythic Quest quarantine episode, Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass’ Language Lessons smartly uses the duo’s creative talent and performances to focus on its compelling characters and their messy evolving friendship. Centered on a man whose husband buys him a large package of weekly Spanish lessons but is rocked by the sudden death of his partner, the film delves into how its two characters slowly become a lifeline for one another while is forced to confront the fact that assumptions about another person can also ruin a connection. Rather than forcing some Chasing Amy-style romantic story, the film instead elects to explore the world of platonic love and thanks to a fascinating script full of rich dialogue and moving character moments, plenty of charming humor from its talented creative duo and phenomenal performances, it quickly establishes itself as one of the timeliest, sweetest and best films of 2021 already.
A parent losing their child is the most unthinkable and unenviable thing imaginable in life and while those going through it try to tell themselves they’re children are still with them in spirit, what would happen if that child seemingly has returned to you? That’s the question Stacey Gregg’s Here Before poses to viewers and, much like Don’t Look Now, it takes a tense and dramatic approach to the material and the result is a unique and haunting effort. Andrea Riseborough adds yet another stellar performance to her resume, Gregg delivers an emotional script and sleek direction and the narrative takes some unique twists and turns, but the film finds itself somewhat hampered by its convoluted storytelling in its latter third as it seems unsure what side of the road it wants to land on the resolution to its mystery.
As mentioned with Language Lessons, the field of COVID-related productions has quickly become overcrowded and full of similar stories, so, much like the Morales and Duplass-led masterwork, Mallory Everton and Whitney Call’s Recovery comes as a true breath of fresh air. Focused on two aimless sisters braving a road trip to save their grandmother from a COVID outbreak at her nursing home, the film doesn’t seek to make endless political-based jokes or try and delve into the sadness many are experiencing from the pandemic but instead offer a form of heartwarming catharsis by taking its story on the road and focusing on the beautiful friendship between the siblings an their good intentions in a time in which it seemed everyone was out for themselves for a while and it’s wonderful. While some of its jokes at the start of the film feel a little too on the nose, the film is nonetheless a sweet, hilarious and truly enjoyable ride from start to finish.
Persecution of witches is a theme long-explored in the horror genre, but whether the theme is used for a pro-feminine message or generic horror is up for the storyteller to decide, but with Witch Hunt Elle Callahan finds a nice balance between the two. In an alternate modern America in which witchcraft is outlawed and witches are hunted, a young teenager must come to grips with her personal demons and prejudices while her and her family aid witches in escaping to Mexico. While its story tends to be a bit familiar and hard to grasp in moments and it spoils its own ending halfway through the film, there’s something unique about its world building and characters that feels unique and compelling and its scares are mostly effective, adding up to a film that doesn’t quite capitalize on its full potential but offers a rewarding experience nonetheless.
The past few years have seen a major resurgence in Lovecraftian storytelling — inexplicable monsters, psychological horror, ominous world-building — and while Mickey Keating’s Off Season may not reinvent the wheel of the genre, it does utilize many of its tropes to its advantage to deliver a chilling effort. Centered on a woman journeying to a desolated island in the wake of her mother’s death and a letter that her grave has been desecrated, it has all the it’s a great setup for all the trappings of the subgenre, from isolated location to odd population to tales of a regional curse. Though it occasionally seems to have loftier ambitions in mind, it frequently settles for more ominous storytelling that still works to deliver a chilling atmosphere, creepy visuals and a strong performance from Jocelin Donahue, all of which saves it from its predictable plot and bland ending.
Since her breakout work in the ’80s and ’90s, Barbara Crampton has been an icon in the horror genre but only a handful of filmmakers have seen the true potential in her acting ability and given her roles in which she can capitalize on her talent and thankfully Travis Stevens has added himself to the list with the wildly enjoyable Jakob’s Wife. Focused on a bored housewife to a small-town preacher whose encounter with a mysterious entity invokes a dark change in her, the film may prove a bit predictable but thanks to its cleverly dark script, brilliant use of against-type performances from Crampton and fellow genre vet Larry Fessenden and exploration of feminist ideals regarding the vampire mythos, it’s a delightfully gory and entertaining treat for horror genre fans.