Exploring Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, a history of folk horror, and a raucous pregnancy comedy

Pictured, clockwise from top left: NinjababyWoodlands Dark and Days BewitchedTom Petty: Somewhere We Feel FreeVioletClerk, and The Fallout
Stills courtesy of South by Southwest

Just a few weeks after the Sundance Film Fest came the opportunity to attend another virtual festival, South by Southwest. The annual Austin, Texas collection of films, concerts, conversations, and more moved online for 2021. And while it did not offer the pleasures of Sundance, it was nevertheless a unique opportunity to experience new cinema. 

I ended up seeing two truly great films, a couple very good ones, and then lots that I would categorize as so-so (or worse). Here are my 2021 SXSW rankings.

Ninjababy: A-

From my review for The Film Stage: “The title of 2021 Berlinale and SXSW selection Ninjababy might conjure thoughts of wacky superhero adventures; ‘Ninjababy’ could be Astro Boy or Turbo Kid’s infant cousin. Director Yngvild Sve Flikke’s film, based on Inga H Sætre’s graphic novel, is no superhero adventure, although it is a bit wacky. Rather, Ninjababy is a delightfully unruly, genuinely moving portrait of a young woman stuck in a situation with no easy way out. Smartly plotted and downright hilarious, it features a star-making performance from lead Kristine Kujath Thorp.”

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A-

The most unique, compelling, and enjoyably upsetting film of SXSW was Kier-La Janisse’s three-hour (!) exploration of folk horror, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched. This stunning deep-dive into the history and art of this genre includes oodles of film clips and commentary from a fascinating group of historians, authors, and filmmakers. While I found the first two hours a bit more enthralling than the third — I was especially interested in the sections exploring U.K. folk horror, like the iconic horror film The Wicker Man — Woodlands is so strong, and so deep, that one finishes wanting even more. This is a truly stunning film. 

Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free: B+

From my review for The Film Stage: “The Tom Petty in this documentary is both joyful and devastated, powerful and wounded. This dichotomy exists in many of Petty’s greatest songs, and as Somewhere shows, it is essential to understanding how the Wildflowers album came to be. The ability to see all of this for ourselves is what makes the film more than a standard making-of doc. As Petty says on-screen, ‘I had no control over what I wrote this time. I didn’t edit myself.’ In Somewhere You Feel Free, we have a very rare––and very welcome––opportunity to see that truth for ourselves.”

The Fallout: B+

There have been a number of films centered on the aftermath of school shootings at recent festivals, and The Fallout might be the best yet. While there is nothing new here, exactly, Megan Park’s film stands out due to the performance of Jenni Ortega. The former Disney Channel star finds just the right mix of sadness and hope as the emotionally devastated survivor of a California shooting.

Alien On Stage: B

From my review for The Film Stage: “The documentary is the rather delightful story of a group of bus drivers and crew in Dorset, England, who stage an amateur performance for charity each year. Most years, that meant family-friendly pantomimes around Christmastime. But those days are over. Recently, the Dorset thespians brought Ridley Scott’s Alien to the stage. The film is a sweet treat for Alien fans, cinephiles, and anyone who gets goosebumps at the sight of let’s-put-on-a-show enthusiasm.”

See You Then: B

This conversation-heavy drama about the reunion of two exes is beautifully acted by stars Pooya Mohseni and Lynn Chen, and features piercing dialogue from writer-director Mari Walker.

Here Before: B

A psychological drama set in Belfast, this story of a wife and mother dealing with the death of a child is remarkably acted by Andrea Riseborough. While the story is not ultimately satisfying, Riseborough’s standout performance is a reason to watch. Her pain and fear is palpable. 

Clerk: B-

Kevin Smith fans will be delighted by this documentary tracing his career from convenience store employee in New Jersey to breakout writer-director with films like Clerks and Chasing Amy. Smith is an ever-gregarious storyteller, but interest flags after the section documenting the controversial Dogma. Still, even though the stories here have been told before, it’s an enjoyable watch.

Gaia: B-

Haunting and unsettling, this eco-horror film is not an easy watch. But viewers who have the stomach to stick with this tale of a woman who comes upon a man and his son deep in the forest is certainly memorable and always unpredictable.

Our Father: B-

The first film from writer-director Bradley Grant Smith is an often funny but rather dreary look at two sisters brought back together after their father’s suicide. There is much to savor here, most notably the performance from star Allison Torem. 

Violet: B-

As Justine Bateman’s film came to a close, I found myself a bit conflicted about this look at a film executive whose inner voice may have been steering her wrong. Yet even when the “voice” element feels rote, there is Olivia Munn. She gives a remarkably layered performance here — one of the festival’s finest. 

The Feast: B-

A shockingly bloody horror entry set in rural Wales, The Feast is a strange, sometimes hard to follow film about a dinner party you do *not* want to attend. 

How it Ends: C+

I might be in the minority with this one, but as much I respected the tone of star/writer/co-director (with Daryl Wein) Zoe Lister-Jones’ film about the last day on earth, the story left me bored. This one could be a cult classic in the making, and I could see myself finding more to enjoy on a second viewing. There is no question that Jones is the real deal. 

Broadcast Signal Intrusion: C

Creepy conspiracies and grainy VHS nightmares are great on paper, but Jacob Gentry’s film never adds up to anything truly compelling. Still, there is style to spare; Gentry is a filmmaker to watch, for sure. 

Potato Dreams of America: C-

Wes Hurley’s autobiographical film about his closeted childhood in the U.S.S.R. has an admirable go-for-broke energy, but also feels like an amateurish production. I look forward to seeing what’s next from Hurley, but Potato Dreams did not work for me. 

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