The South by Southwest Film and TV Festival launches this week with a renewed sense of purpose. There is the new name, of course, adding "and TV," along with new leadership. Equally important, the movie "Everything Everywhere All at Once," poised to win big at the Academy Awards on Sunday, had its world premiere at last year's festival.
The Austin, Texas-based SXSW has long been a stop for offbeat commercial films such as "A Quiet Place," "Us" and "Baby Driver." Lena Dunham, Barry Jenkins, Daniel Destin Cretton and Greta Gerwig all premiered key early works here, while "Everything Everywhere" filmmakers the Daniels, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, previously screened their music videos and short films at the festival.
With the box office and awards season triumph of "Everything Everywhere All at Once," the festival for the first time launched a different kind of success. ("To Leslie," the modest film with the unlikely lead actress Oscar nominee in Andrea Riseborough, premiered at last year's festival as well.)
"The reason I do my job is to support filmmakers that are super creative, imaginative and have a really specific vision of what they want to make. And I think that Daniels are a perfect example of that," said Claudette Godfrey, who is taking over as head of the event from Janet Pierson, its leader since 2008. "Who doesn't want to premiere a film that gets accolades all year round? But that's not the goal of how we program."
This year's festival opens with the world premiere of the film "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves," written and directed by "Game Night's" Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley and starring Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page and Hugh Grant. On the TV side, the opening night selection is "Swarm," a series created by Donald Glover and Janine Nabers.
Other anticipated premieres include "Problemista," the debut feature as writer-director-star from "Los Espookys'" Julio Torres, co-starring Tilda Swinton. Perhaps the buzziest title at this year's festival is "Bottoms," a new film from director and co-writer Emma Seligman and co-writer and star Rachel Sennott, the pair who launched "Shiva Baby" at the 2020 festival after premiering the short film it was based on there in 2018. Adding to the excitement over "Bottoms" is "The Bear's" Ayo Edebiri as co-star. Sennott also stars in another film at the festival, Ally Pankiw's "I Used to Be Funny."
A trio of films explore the personalities behind well-know businesses and products. Eva Longoria makes her feature directing debut with "Flamin' Hot," the story of how Richard Montañez did (or did not) invent Flamin' Hot Cheetos. "Tetris," directed by Jon S. Baird, stars Taron Egerton in the tale of the Russian origins of the popular video game and how it was brought to the West. "BlackBerry," directed and co-written by and co-starring Matt Johnson, examines the rise and fall of the handheld device company.
Other noteworthy titles include Hannah Pearl Utt's "Cora Bora," starring Megan Stalter, Billy Luther's "Frybread Face and Me," Jake Johnson's "Self Reliance," Julio Quintana's "The Long Game," Veronica Ngo's "Furies," Luke Gilford's "National Anthem," Tayarisha Poe's "The Young Wife," Penny Lane's "Confessions of a Good Samaritan" and Alexandre O. Philippe's "You Can Call Me Bill."
Among other notable premieres on the TV side are Boots Riley's "I'm a Virgo," Lee Sung Jin's "Beef," David E. Kelley's "Love & Death" and Zoe Lister-Jones' "Slip."
As to whether the success of "Everything Everywhere" created any pressure to unearth future Oscar nominees, Godfrey was emphatic.
"No. How do you compete with that film? You don't. It's a singular vision. There isn't another film that's like that in the immediate future," Godfrey said. "That's never the goal of what we're programming, to try to program Oscar winners. I don't necessarily think the taste of South by Southwest is perfectly aligned with the Oscar voting pool. But maybe now we are."
Godfrey, who was born and raised in Austin and has held numerous other positions at the festival, moved into her new role partway through the year, with programming already underway. So she emphasized continuity rather than a sweeping new vision.
"I actually didn't think that much about it until every person in an interview is like, 'Well, how are you gonna make it different?' And I'm like, 'Well, I already made it into this,'" Godfrey said. "Because we were already working together and built this thing together as a team. So I haven't thought that much about it, because I don't think there's something different that I want it to be."
Arguably the biggest challenge for this year's festival is the calendar, as the scheduling of the Oscars during SXSW's busy first weekend, creating potential headaches for films and talent availability as well as the attention of journalists.
"It's been interesting to have a lot of conversations about it with different people in different parts of the industry," Godfrey said of the unusual dilemma, adding that it hopefully won't repeat itself. "I think the prevailing sort of outcome has been that just the realization that most people aren't at the Oscars. So they can file their Oscar coverage from Austin. In the case of talent, of course, there isn't anything screening that day with talent that would have to be at the Oscars. But not every big talent is there. ... It's helped to spread things out."
Indeed, the festival is saving some of its higher profile titles for later in the week, such as Lee Cronin's "Evil Dead Rise," Gina Gammell and Riley Keough's "War Pony" and Adele Lim's "Joy Ride," starring "Everything Everywhere's" Stephanie Hsu, plus a closing night title still to be announced.
Unconcerned that starry studio projects might steamroll work by as-yet-undiscovered talent, Godfrey called SXSW a "choose-your-own-adventure type of event," with audiences creating their own mix of what to see. The festival also emphasizes the crossover between film and television work.
"There's an element of the weirdness or edginess or offbeat part of Austin that I think has always been part of the identity of the entire event. And I think that carries through to the work we program," Godfrey said.
"So it's like 'Dungeons & Dragons,' literally made for South by Southwest. Having the room to play ... and lean into stuff that it makes sense for our bigger and much different audience than a traditional film festival is important to me."
Here are the projects we're looking forward to at this year's fest.
Filmmaker Seligman and performer Sennott are genuine SXSW success stories, having been to the festival first with the short film and then subsequent feature version of the anxiety-inducing comedy "Shiva Baby." Now, the pair have co-written "Bottoms," with Seligman directing and Sennott starring in a movie with the provocatively outrageous description of two unpopular queer high school girls who start a fight club to get with cheerleaders, co-starring Edebiri, who previously made the short-lived series "Ayo and Rachel Are Single" with Sennott. With a prime Saturday night slot, the premiere promises to be one of SXSW's signature chaotic, party-like you-had-to-be-there events.
I say this at the risk of betraying my profession, but the question of whether Montañez actually invented Flamin' Hot Cheetos is immaterial to me — at least, it was for the 99 minutes of "Flamin' Hot," Longoria's genuinely charming biopic of the Ontario-born janitor who worked his way up to Frito-Lay marketing executive by drawing on his Mexican American heritage. In hewing so aggressively to convention, with an irrepressible hero (Jesse Garcia) leaning on his wife (Annie Gonzalez) and a workplace mentor (Dennis Haysbert) to impress the company's top brass (Tony Shalhoub), the rock-solid rags-to-riches tale, written by Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chávez, is counterintuitively refreshing — a crowd-pleasingly far cry from the dour rise-and-fall construction of the celebrity biopic industrial complex. Though I can't predict the film's reception among Latino audiences — some of the cultural hand-holding for Anglos felt hammy even to me — I can say that "Flamin' Hot" successfully builds a feature film around not only Mexican Americans but also another group underrepresented in Hollywood's current output — the working class. Now that's a snack I could get addicted to.
U.S. audiences may know Vietnamese star-filmmaker Ngo (Ngô Thanh Vân) from her turn in the "Star Wars"-verse as Resistance fighter Paige Tico, sister to Rose, in "The Last Jedi." But after building a crossover career with appearances in action pics such as "Bright," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny," "The Princess" and "The Old Guard," Ngo arrives at SXSW to make her biggest splash yet with "Furies," the sequel to her own 2019 breakout martial arts action vehicle "Furie," in which she starred as an ex-gangster mama mowing down bad men to save her kidnapped daughter. Now at the helm as director, co-writer and executive producer, Ngo crafts a prequel tale of three young vigilante women training to take down a seedy crime syndicate in '90s Saigon, with brutal fight sequences that would make John Wick sit up and take note — an action-packed Midnighter premiere not to miss, coming later this month to Netflix, that gives genre fans in the West another bold emerging filmmaker to watch.
'I'm a Virgo'
What's it like to be a 13-foot-tall person in a world that isn't made for you? Riley puts that question to the test in "I'm a Virgo," his first TV series. The story, set in Oakland, centers on Cootie (Jharrel Jerome), who escapes his home after being insulated from the outside world by family members because they worry about the reaction to his size. Riley created, wrote and directed the series, and he uses elements of comedy and magical realism akin to his feature-length directorial debut, "Sorry to Bother You." The show will premiere at SXSW on Saturday and is slated to debut on Amazon Prime Video this summer.
Torres' biggest hit sketch from his time writing on "Saturday Night Live" was easily "Papyrus," a viral send-up of the first "Avatar" movie's inexplicably slapdash font choice. But if you want a preview of what to expect from "Problemista" — the feature film he wrote, directed and stars in, set to premiere Monday at SXSW — you might consider checking out some of the other, more niche sketches Torres wrote for "SNL" before leaving 30 Rock. "Wells for Boys," my personal favorite, is delightfully ethereal; "Diego Calls His Mom" is at once quietly human and cheekily observant; "Cheques" turns something as mundane as banking into a genre-savvy melodrama of epic proportions. That all three have an understated sociopolitical perspective is the cherry on top. ("Problemista," for its part, will explore American immigration policy). The Salvadoran comic continued honing his one-of-a-kind artistic vision in two HBO projects, his stand-up special "My Favorite Shapes" and his TV show "Los Espookys," that are just as singular in their sensibility — but even if he hadn't, those early "SNL" sketches would be enough to get me psyched for a full-length film worth of that signature Torres weirdness.