Best & Worst Films at SXSW 2021

  • Publish Date: March 22, 2021
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Updated 3/23 with Audience Award winners.

Which films (and TV shows) impressed at this year's South by Southwest?

Below, we summarize the reactions of critics to all of the major films and television shows debuting at this year's SXSW, divided into categories from best-received to worst. Note that a few films (such as R#J and The Sparks Brothers) which previously debuted at Sundance or another festival are excluded.

Major award winners

Jury Award: Best Narrative Feature
Audience Award: Best Narrative Feature
The Fallout
Drama | USA | Directed by Megan Park

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Actor-singer Megan Park’s debut feature as writer-director examines the aftermath of a school shooting through the life of Vada (Jenna Ortega). During the massacre, she is trapped in the bathroom with Mia (Maddie Ziegler) and Quinton (Niles Fitch), and in the aftermath, she finds herself gravitating toward them and away from her best friend Nick (Will Ropp) and loving parents, played by John Ortiz and Julie Bowen. Park honed her directing chops on music videos, including Billie Eilish’s “Watch,” and Eilish’s brother and producer Finneas O’Connell provides the score for what IndieWire's Kare Erbland calls an “empathetic and often heartbreaking directorial debut.” Tim Grierson of Screen Daily finds it “refreshing that Park allows Vada to “stumble through her grief and guilt,” and in his rave review for Variety Peter Debruge declares it a “stellar feature debut” and a “remarkable accomplishment.” [KK]

Jury Award: Best Documentary Feature
Lily Topples the World
Documentary | USA | Directed by Jeremy Workman

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Acclaimed domino toppler and YouTuber Lily Hevesh is the subject of this documentary by Jeremy Workman (The World Before Your Feet). Filmed over three years, Lily Topples the World is a coming-of-age chronicle of how passion, artistry, and a very steady hand propelled Lily to be the only girl at the top of her field. Writing for /Film, Kalyn Corrigan declares it an “undeniable crowdpleaser and an important spotlight cast on an underrepresented and entirely deserving protagonist. It’s just the kind of unbridled optimism one might seek out after a year marred by despair, delivered by a startling bright ball of sunshine.” THR's Dan Fienberg agrees that “there's a smile that takes up early residency on a viewer's face while watching Lily Topples the World, and that smile isn't toppled until 90 minutes have passed,” but he believes there’s a “richer documentary to be made, one you might crave even more after 90 minutes of being inspired and impressed by Lily Hevesh.” [KK]

Audience Award: Best Documentary Feature
Not Going Quietly
Documentary | USA | Directed by Nicholas Bruckman

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In what THR's John DeFore calls an “unusually moving political doc,” director Nicholas Bruckman profiles progressive activist Ady Barkan, resulting in a “stirring tale of activism shaped by personal suffering.” That suffering is caused by ALS, a diagnosis he receives a month before Donald Trump is elected President. Discovering that dealing with insurance was worse than the knowledge that he was dying (and thinking that the country was now “totally fucked”), Barkan uses his skills as an organizer to fight for healthcare (among other causes) through the “Be a Hero” campaign, all while his muscles deteriorate. The documentary builds to his 2019 testimony about Medicare-for-all in front of congress, but it is also a personal look at Barkan’s battle with ALS with the help of his wife and young son. This combination of the personal and the political make for a “wrenching and earnest documentary,” according to Eric Kohn of IndieWire. [KK}

Audience Award: "Headliners" category
Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free
Documentary/Music | USA | Directed by Mary Wharton

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Documentary filmmaker Mary Wharton’s follow-up to Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President captures Tom Petty in 1994 during the recording of Wildflowers and at a point in his life when he was breaking free of his marriage, band, and music label. Variety's Owen Gleiberman believes it’s a “rather minor rock doc” but still “very worth seeing,” and Rodrigo Perez of The Playlist agrees, writing, “Somewhere You Feel Free certainly captures the spirit of the time, the sadness, the warm-heartedness, and the creative openness, but one could easily argue it doesn’t really add that much substantive value, beyond some of the making-of stories and what’s already there in the poignant grooves of the music.” More positive is Clint Worthington of CoS, who calls it a “beautiful musical tribute to one of rock’s greatest figures,” but admits one shouldn’t expect to “learn too many deep dark secrets about the man in the process.” [KK]

Other highlights of the festival

Alien on Stage
Documentary | UK | Directed by Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey

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First-time documentary filmmakers Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer have created a “modest pleasure” that is a “sweet treat for Alien fans, cinephiles, and anyone who gets goosebumps at the sight of let’s-put-on-a-show enthusiasm,” according to Christopher Schobert of The Film Stage. Following a Dorset bus company’s amateur adaptation of Ridley Scott’s Alien from a local annual charity performance to a one-night-only, sold-out London West End show, this crowd-pleasing film “captures lightning in a bottle. Like a real-life Waiting for Guffman with a fairytale ending, it’s one of the funniest documentaries in years,” writes Jude Dry in his review for IndieWire. And IGN's Kristy Puchko agrees, declaring, “Alien on Stage is alive with personality, heart, and humor, making it an out-of-this-world delight.” [KK]

Introducing, Selma Blair
Documentary | USA | Directed by Rachel Fleit

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Winner of Special Jury Recognition for Exceptional Intimacy in Storytelling, Rachel Fleit’s feature documentary debut is a “remarkably moving portrait” of actor Selma Blair’s (Cruel Intentions, Storytelling, Hellboy) struggle with multiple sclerosis (MS), according to Inkoo Kang of THR, and other critics agree. Variety's Guy Lodge deems the film “eye-opening and empathetic . . . enriched by a human subject who appears to learn as much about herself in the course of filming as we do.” And in her review for The Playlist, Kristy Puchko believes the “driving force of this film is rooted in Blair’s wit, which sings to her resilience.” [KK]

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror
Documentary | USA | Directed by Kier-La Janisse

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Director Kier-La Janisse first documentary feature is a 194-minute exploration of folk horror “whose only problem is that it’s not even longer,” according to Clint Worthington of CoS. Touching on over 100 films from across the world, it’s the “rare festival release that actually benefits from the at-home presentation,” suggests IGN's Rafael Motamayor, allowing audiences to “pause and make a list of the hundreds of films they should definitely check out after the documentary.” Echoing those thoughts, IndieWire's David Ehrlich believes this “multi-chapter epic” serves as “both séance-like spectacle and streaming-era syllabus in equal measure.” [KK]

Decent, but not among the festival's best

Alone Together
Documentary/Music | USA | Directed by Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler

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Cutting together webcam video, off-the-cuff cellphone footage, and fan videos, directors Bradley & Pablo chronicle the making of Charli XCX’s pandemic album How I'm Feeling Now, recorded at home in five weeks with major influence from her adoring her fans (known as Angels). The result is a “cyber-dusted celebration of the Charli XCX community and an energetic testament to the healing power of music,” according to CoS writer Rachel Reeves, who feels that the film’s “raw and authentic approach is as engaging as Charli herself.” IndieWire's David Ehrlich calls Together a “vital, bouncy, fist-tight headrush of a 67-minute documentary” that “doubles as a quicksilver portrait of how some online communities turn fandom into a two-way street; the Angels feel connected to each other through Charli, and Charli feels connected to herself through them.” [KK]

Clerk
Documentary | USA/Canada | Directed by Malcolm Ingram

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Malcolm Ingram directs this documentary that begs the question, what do we not already know about Kevin Smith, a filmmaker who has been an open book since Clerks debuted at Sundance in 1994? Fans might hear familiar stories recounted again, but those that gave up on Smith will have a chance to catch up with him through a mostly chronological recap of his extensive career that is an “uplifting and joyous experience filled with amusing stories and engaging anecdotes,” according to Bobby LePire of Film Threat. The Film Stage's John Fink believes the “American Masters-style portrait” has a “conversational tone framed by extensive archival footage and access to Smith and his family” that results in film that “lovingly makes the case for Smith as an American original at the forefront of various technological and cultural shifts.” [KK]

Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil
TV/Reality | USA | Directed by Michael D. Ratner
Premieres March 23 on YouTube

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Screening on the festival's opening night, this four-part YouTube original docuseries finds pop star Demi Lovato reflecting on her near-fatal 2018 drug overdose and subsequent recovery. That recovery, as you might expect, has not been smooth sailing; Lovato details in the series (from Michael D. Ratner, who previously guided Justin Bieber's Seasons docuseries) the lingering physical and emotional effects, including brain damage. Reviews were fairly positive overall at SXSW, though most critics note imperfections. The Playlist's Robert Daniels deems it "unfocused" and The Austin Chronicle's Jenny Nulf cautions, "The shadow of her pain looms continuously, but is shattered by the documentary’s demand for a faux happy ending: her upcoming album release." In THR, Inkoo Kang admires a "brutually honest" and "candid" series that is nevertheless "undermined aesthetically by production choices." And Variety's Daniel D'Addario echoes several critics when he notes that it's a "challenging and emotionally demanding viewing experience" but also "one that lacks the time or space that would allow certain key revelations to land." [JD]

The Girlfriend Experience (Season 3)
TV/Drama | UK | Directed by Anja Marquardt
Premieres May 2 on Starz

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The Steven Soderbergh-produced Starz anthology, which last aired in 2017, has finally completed production on a third season that relocates the series to London's tech industry, where the show now centers on a neuroscientist played by The Affair's Julia Goldani Telles who is drafted into a high-tech research project aiming to turn the latest scientific discoveries into cutting-edge dating apps. Anja Marquardt (She's Lost Control) takes over as writer and director. The season's first two episodes screened at the festival, and didn't collect many reviews there—but those critics who wrote about the episodes seemed to like them. IndieWire's Ben Travers thinks "the early results are as magnetic as they are mystifying" and even thinks the limitations on production necessitated by covid work to the show's advantage. Rodrigo Perez is also mostly bullish on the new season in his review at The Playlist, calling S3 "probably its most conceptually bold one so far, playing on the bleeding edge of A.I. science, technology, and how it applies to behavior and sex. It’s heady and cerebral stuff, a little mystifying and elusive too (this is a show you have to pay strict attention to), but it’s rewarding and super intriguing too." [JD]

Here Before
Drama/Thriller | UK | Directed by Stacey Gregg

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The feature directorial debut of Stacey Gregg stars Andrea Riseborough as a grieving mother who becomes obsessed with the little girl who moves in next door. Set in small town in Northern Ireland, the film has a “a striking and cinematic visual sense” and “builds a gas-lighting sense of uncertainty which has us questioning everything,” but “fumbles the third act reveal,” according to Wendy Ide of Screen Daily. But The Playlist critic Jason Bailey gives the film an A, praising Gregg’s ability to create tension and uneasiness “with merely the composition of her frames, or the timing of the reactions.” And Variety's Owen Gleiberman echoes that sentiment: “Gregg [...] has what I would characterize as a hugely accessible and transportable technique. I could see her continuing down the pinpoint road of minor-key dread, or making an unabashed genre film that blows a lot of people away.” [KK]

The Hunt for Planet B
Documentary | USA | Directed by Nathaniel Kahn

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Nathaniel Kahn (My Architect, The Price of Everything) directs this documentary about the James Webb Space Telescope and the pioneering scientists hoping to employ it to find another life-supporting planet in the universe. IndieWire's Eric Kohn enjoys how the film “celebrates a community whose enthusiasm for the possibility of life on other planets is downright infectious.” And in his review for THR, Jordan Mintzer is impressed by how Planet B “manages to put a friendly, mostly female face to all the technical exploits and celestial theorizing, underlining how much the desire to uncover the secrets of the known universe is something that's all-too human.” [KK]

I'm Fine (Thanks for Asking)
Drama | USA | Directed by Angelique Molina and Kelley Kali

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Filmed during the pandemic, this “micro-budget charmer” (as Lisa Kennedy of Variety describes it) directed by Kelley Kali and Angelique Molina follows Kali’s Danny, a recently widowed and houseless mom, as she tries to secure enough money for a down payment on a new apartment for herself and her young daughter. Writing for The Playlist, Robert Daniels believes the film “struggles to find its way, but when it does, this story of houselessness, grief, and motherhood blossoms like a sunflower in a rich field of pathos. And offers a very brief balm to these heady times.” Even more positive on the film, Marisa Mirabal of /Film praises the “vibrant and inspiring story” that is filled with “refreshingly vulnerable and relatable situations,” resulting in a film “as validating as it is captivating.” [KK]

Made for Love
TV/Comedy | USA | Directed by Stephanie Laing
Premieres April 1 on HBO Max

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Cristin Milioti and Ray Romano head the cast for an eight-episode adaptation of Alissa Nutting's 2017 darkly comedic novel about a woman who has a high-tech surveillance chip implanted in her brain by her ex-husband, an unstable and likely sociopathic tech billionaire. The adaptation comes from writer Patrick Somerville (Maniac), and critics have seen the first four episodes. The Playlist's Andrew Crump has praise for Milioti's performance and notes, "the amount of thought put into plot, theme, and performance makes the opening half of 'Made for Love' absorbing viewing." At IndieWire, Ben Travers notes a bumpy start caused by a decision to jump between two time periods, but thinks the series recovers: "These early episodes can be frustrating, as very basic questions distract from the sci-fi satire’s broader ideas and emotional engagement, but after 'Made for Love' gets its backstory out of the way, there’s ample time left to dig into issues of identity, trust, and the general purpose of a romantic relationship." Slashfilm's Jacob Hall saw only the first episode but seems impressed by what he labels "gonzo genre storytelling," adding, "It’s impossible to ask Made for Love to keep this level of energy up for its entire run. But as far as first episodes go, this is the kind of premiere that hooks you and guarantees you will watch every damn episode." [JD]

Sasquatch
TV/Documentary | USA | Directed by Joshua Rofé
Premieres April 20 on Hulu

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The latest docuseries produced by the Duplass brother follows journalist David Holthouse as he revisits an incident from his own past. It seems that in 1993, while visiting a Northern California pot farm (you know, for research), he heard a tale about three local men who were dismembered in a "savage Bigfoot attack." Could it have been true? But what sounds like a potentially jokey series about a group of oddballs hunting for a mythical beast—and is, in fact, just that for a while—instead morphs into a serious exploration of racial and cultural differences in rural (and partially lawless) Northern California. At RogerEbert.com, Nick Allen writes, "'Sasquatch' proves to be an incredibly savvy true-crime doc that naturally evolves from light-hearted to complete darkness." Slashfilm's Jacob Hall similarly argues that "Sasquatch feels like a bold new statement for the genre, an offbeat blend of investigative reporting and documentary filmmaking with a deep dive into the supernatural and the unexplainable." [JD]

Swan Song
Comed/Drama | USA | Directed by Todd Stephens

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In the latest from writer-director Todd Stephens (Another Gay Movie), Udo Kier stars as a retired hairdresser who leaves his nursing home and makes his way across town to do a dead woman’s hair for her funeral. Shot in Sandusky, Ohio and based on the life of local icon Pat Pitsenbarger, the film is a “joyous vehicle for Kier, who finally gets to play the leading man,” writes Ryan Lattanzio of IndieWire. Often a source of menace in a picture, Kier “hits new highs,” in what THR's David Rooney calls a “heartfelt salute” in which the “campiness of its outrageous plot becomes secondary to the soulful poignancy.” And in her review for CoS, Rachel Reeves labels Swan Song a “touching, funny, and emotional journey of self-redemption told through a deeply personal lens.” [KK]

Them
TV/Horror | USA | Directed by Nelson Cragg
Premieres April 9 on Prime Video

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Produced by Lena Waithe and created by writer Little Marvin (making his television debut), the small screen's latest American Horror Story-style horror anthology will devote each season to a single, stand-alone story. This debut season, subtitled Covenant, centers on an African-American family that moves from North Carolina to an all-white (and, apparently, haunted) L.A. neighborhood in 1953. Two episodes screened at SXSW, and they were met by a positive reception from critics—as well as the inevitable Lovecraft Country comparisons. IndieWire's Elliott Smith thinks Them's structure "helps to create a more focused story" than Lovecraft offered. At The Playlist, Jason Bailey praises the early performances but wonders at this point "how these materials will make for a full, compelling season of television," thinking it too early to tell whether that "airtight first installment" might flatten into "yet another flabby binge" over the course of additional episodes. But Bloody Disgusting's Meagan Navarro agrees the series "is off to an auspicious start" thanks to "brilliant pacing and mystery building" in the early going. [JD]

Women Is Losers
Comedy/Drama | USA | Directed by Lissette Feliciano

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Writer-director Lissette Feliciano’s feature debut stars Lorenza Izzo as Celina, a Catholic school girl trying to make her way in 1960s San Francisco. For Tomris Laffly, Izzo is the highlight of this “over-enthusiastic yet frustratingly clumsy feminist film,” described in her review for Variety as a “slogan-heavy manifesto, rather than a flesh-and-blood movie with a sincere story to tell.” IndieWire's Kate Erbland also praises Izzo’s “winning” lead performance, but she is more positive on the film as a whole, calling it an “infectious and auspicious debut.” And in her rave review for /Film, Kalyn Corrigan claims Feliciano’s film is “boldly original and beautifully bittersweet.” [KK]

The disappointments

The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson
Drama | Australia | Directed by Leah Purcell

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In 2016, Leah Purcell wrote and starred in a play that reimagined Henry Lawson's 1892 short story "The Drover's Wife" from a feminist perspective. She followed that award-winning production with a novel based on the play, and now she directs and stars in this film adaptation. Originally the story of a woman who protects her home from a snake while her husband is away, the film expands the story to create a multi-layered, anti-colonial narrative about an Aboriginal woman protecting her children from a multitude of dangers. For Screen Daily's Sarah Ward, The Drover’s Wife is a success, an “atmospheric revenge-thriller” and an “impassioned film with an unflinching Indigenous and feminist perspective” that “earns its boldness and wears it as a badge of honour.” David Rooney of THR agrees that it is bold, but finds the film uneven, with the screenplay lacking “cohesion and fluidity,” and the film overall “at times eluding the director's grasp.” Comparing the film to its previous iterations, IndieWire's Kate Erbland believes “Purcell’s film version lacks both the vigor and the emotion of her previous adaptations.” [KK]

The Lost Sons
Documentary | USA | Directed by Ursula Macfarlane

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Ursula Macfarlane (Untouchable) directs this investigation into who Paul Fronczak is. At one time, he believed he was stolen as a baby from a hospital in Chicago, discovered 15 months later abandoned in New Jersey and then returned to his parents. But that’s just the beginning of the tale. CineVue's Matthew Anderson admits that the “twists and turns” of the story are “unquestionably compelling,” but he thinks the film feels like a “somewhat formulaic, made-for-TV documentary.” John DeFore of THR agrees, claiming the “twisty true-crime story loses much of its appeal” when the film “always feels TV-grade at best.” On the other hand, Variety's Owen Gleiberman believes the “unraveling of the mystery mirrors the human journey that Paul takes. He loses a lot, but for the first time he brings his soul into focus.” [KK]

Violet
Drama | USA | Directed by Justine Bateman

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Justine Bateman’s first feature as writer-director stars Olivia Munn as a film executive who struggles to stop listening to the voice inside her head (Justin Theroux) and instead follow her authentic self. John Fink of The Film Stage believes it’s a “bold, yet imperfect directorial debut for Bateman” with a “terrific performance by Olivia Munn,” and IndieWire's Kate Erbland agrees, claiming it’s the “best work” of Munn’s career, and “so devastatingly good” that it’s “easy to forgive Bateman’s other creative impulses.” But in her review for The Playlist, Kristy Puchko isn’t sure it all works: “Violet feels less like a film than a pitch meeting. A frenzied flurry of ideas, devices, and character sketches chucked out to see what sticks. It’s flashy, but not fascinating, which leaves this drama of inner conflict and deep thoughts feeling horridly shallow.” [KK]

 

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