28 Films in 9 Days: A Humanist Take on SXSW

Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash

I just spent the last ten days in Austin, Texas, at the 2019 South by Southwest Film Festival—part of the larger film, music, and interactive media behemoth known as South by Southwest, aka SXSW, aka South By. In all I watched some twenty-eight films in nine days (and stood in line for anywhere from thirty minutes to three-and-a-half hours before each one). I was there for fun—and yes, even the lines were fun—but I was also keeping an eye out for anything of particular interest to humanists. Since most of the films aren’t in theaters yet, I’ll refrain from spoilers beyond the synopses and trailers that promote the films. I’m also not sure which films will make it to distribution, but hopefully a good number of them will.

The festival opener was Jordan Peele’s Us, his next act after the hugely successful Get Out. While Get Out had a great deal to say about black/white relations, whatever message Us was conveying was lost on me (and everyone I spoke to). I greatly preferred another horror movie also starring Lupita Nyong’o, Little Monsters—a romantic comedy/zombie thriller. It touches on people being Christian or not, and is all about “stepping up”—taking care of those you’re committed to taking care of, regardless of religion. This is a wildly entertaining, hilarious film with some lessons that go down with a spoonful of sugar and buckets of blood.

Several films had debauched, irresponsible heroes. The Beach Bum, starring Matthew McConaughey (channeling The Dude from The Big Lebowski), Snoop Dogg, Jimmy Buffett, and Martin Lawrence, should not be seen by anyone. It glorifies being stoned all the time, stealing, beating a man in a wheelchair, trashing property, rampant promiscuity (wow, that seems like such a quaint term), and reckless driving. The main message is that nowadays everyone’s too uptight and cautious, and instead should just let the universe take care of things and it’ll all be alright, alright, alright. I was pleasantly surprised that everyone I chatted with rejected both the message and the movie.

The closing film was Pet Sematary (a remake of the 1989 film based on the eponymous Stephen King book, in which kids misspell “cemetery” on a sign marking a spot where children bury their dead animals). Early on there’s some discussion about what happens after you die, with the main character (a doctor) telling his children, against his wife’s wishes, that death is the end. Of course, this being Stephen King, it’s not that simple. There may not be a heaven, but there’s certainly hell. I couldn’t discern any coherent meaning, such as punishment for sins or for not accepting death as final. Just 120 minutes of well-executed thrills and chills.

A somewhat similar but more cohesive treatment was The Curse of La Llorona, which felt like The Exorcist meets Poltergeist. It’s inspired by a legend popular in Mexico and other countries about the evil spirit of a bereft mother seeking to replace her murdered children. Like a Santa Claus in reverse, the legend helps get children to behave by warning them that La Llorona will take them if they’re bad. It has strong religious and hocus-pocus elements, but they’re not likely to turn off nonbelievers who can merrily suspend their nonbelief for ninety-eight minutes of Mommy Scariest.

The Art of Self-Defense, starring Jesse Eisenberg, is an engrossing and entertaining exploration of guns versus other means of self-protection, bullying, and the costs of obsessive discipline to achieve goals. It’s a deep, dark comedy with a few unfortunately gaping plot holes, but it’s still excellent on multiple levels, with a tidy ending. As someone who pursued karate for a few years, I can attest to the reality of the sexism and authoritarianism, here taken beyond reality to Fight Club extremes with head- and side-splitting results.

Booksmart, directed by Olivia Wilde, seems particularly timely in light of the college admissions scandals. Unlike the maddening details of the real-world FBI sting, this film is a light-hearted romp about kids who worked really hard throughout high school to get into top schools—only to realize that other kids had loads of fun and also got into top schools. So the diligent ones decide to make up for lost time the day before graduation. Along with all the crazy teen party stuff, there’s much about achieving balance and acceptance, figuring out what really matters, and friendship.

Two stand-out SXSW comedies focused on people with disabilities. The Peanut Butter Falcon starred Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down’s syndrome, in a Huck Finn quest to become a pro wrestler, with Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, and Bruce Dern in supporting roles. It’s an eye-opening if far-fetched tale of how misunderstood and inappropriately treated people with Down’s syndrome can be, and what people are capable of when empowered to pursue their dreams.

And speaking of following dreams, my favorite film of the entire festival was Come As You Are, a comedy about three young men with disabilities who embark on a road trip to a brothel, driven by a jaded nurse (Gabourey Sidibe). The film deftly dispenses with moral judgments and sees things from the perspective of characters aiming to make the most of their lives, however challenging. It makes the case for self-determination over protection, includes a touching moment about racial color-blindness (literally), and has a terrific, irreverent scene in a church.

During the Q&A after the screening of Come As You Are, a reporter asked why actors with disabilities weren’t cast in the lead roles. The answer was that it would have been an extreme challenge in terms of logistics, costs, and securing backers. The filmmakers felt it was far better to get out a film that so vibrantly depicts the experience of people with disabilities—and how much their aspirations are the same as those of able-bodied people. Incidentally, the film is a remake of a 2011 Belgian version originally titled Hasta la Vista.

There were so many great films at South by Southwest this year, particularly comedies and horror, which these days can offer a surprising amount of humanism amongst the laughs and screams.