For those who don’t regularly attend film festivals, the name South by Southwest (SXSW) is probably more likely to conjure pictures of struggling indie bands rather than serious fans sitting attentively in movie theaters. But as with Sundance, directors and producers bring their films to Austin, Texas, in hopes of creating buzz and attracting interest from distributors who can actually put their movies into theaters.
This year, more than 250 films will screen, including Kal Penn and Johnny Cho in “Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo,” Kevin Spacey in “21,” Jason Segal in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” Ryan Phillippe in “Stop-Loss” and Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stone’s doc, “Shine a Light.” All of these films will be coming to a theater near you.
But what about the smaller films? The ones without big stars or well-known directors? Most have yet-to-be-determined futures. Here’s a quick glimpse of six films that show the variety of what this little Austin film fest has to offer.
“One Minute to Nine”
This harrowing documentary, part of SWSW’s “emerging visions” series, follows the final days of Wendy Maldonado before she heads off to serve 10 years in jail for killing her husband, Aaron. Unlike a lot of true-crime docs, this film isn’t about her trial. The fact that she murdered Aaron is never in question. Instead, the film uses home-video footage to show the abuse that she and her four sons suffered at the hands of her husband, and the sad inevitability of her final choice. Married when she was just 16 years old, Wendy and her sons were beaten almost every day. And though Wendy is surrounded by loved ones when she heads off to jail, the big send-off may leave you wondering, “Where were these people when she was being abused?” This moving story is one that will stay with you long after you watch it — and be prepared to cry.
After a one-night stand with jazz singer Bogart Truman (Fairuza Balk), medical student Peter Hadley (the promising Jeremy Strong) finds himself stranded in Humboldt County with her pot-growing, free-living extended family. Slowly, he’s drawn into a life that that includes pot plantations tucked among the redwoods, worries about federal spotter planes and a public school funded by marijuana sales. The cast reads like a best-of HBO shows with Brad Dourif (“Deadwood”), Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under”) and Chris Messina (“Six Feet Under”). Peter Bogdonavich co-stars as Peter’s disapproving professor father. This fish-out-of-water tale, which is also part of the “emerging visions” series, takes full advantage of its gorgeous setting and makes the “simple” life these people choose more complicated than it seems at first glance.
Not all the films at SXSW are art-house fare. In fact, the festival has a whole series called “round midnight,” which focuses on genre flicks and includes titles such as “Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie” and “Dance of the Dead,” a horror film that takes place on the night of a high-school prom. “Shuttle” falls squarely into the late-night fright category. In the tradition of movies like “Hostel,” this film tells about a night of terror after two women (Cameron Goodman, Peyton List) get on the wrong airport shuttle with one bad guy (Tony Curran) who has nefarious plans that they can’t even imagine. The gross-out level isn’t quite on the same scale as “Saw,” but there are some cringe-worthy moments throughout. The movie takes some unexpected twists when the girls decide they are not going to go down without a fight.
Documentaries are a big part of the SXSW festival, and this film — along with “We Are Wizards,” a doc about “Harry Potter” fans, and “The Matador,” a doc about bullfighting — are all part of the “documentary feature competition.” This film tells the story of Richard Berkowitz, a gay S&M hustler-turned-activist, who was one the first to suggest safe-sex practices. In the early ’80s when he first spoke out about promiscuity being at the root of the spread of AIDS, the gay community reviled him for laying blame for the disease. But he, along with Dr. Joseph Sonnabend and activist Michael Callen, fought to get the message to their community that they could do something to fight AIDS and it didn’t have to mean going without sex. The documentary doesn’t shy away from Berkowitz’s hustler past, but instead shows how he used it to test some of his own safe-sex theories. Sadly, it also shows Berkowitz in the present day — broke and seemingly uninterested in his past. It’s a compelling story that shows the evolution of one man’s thinking as the world around him changed overnight.
“The Wrecking Crew”
This being Austin, it makes sense that SXSW would have a whole category of films, “24 beats per second,” devoted to music. The films include “Nerdcore Rising,” about a new movement in hip-hop and “Heavy Metal in Bagdad.” “The Wrecking Crew” looks at the session musicians behind some of the ’60s biggest hits by bands such as The Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, Nancy Sinatra and The Righteous Brothers. Unbelievably, the same set of musicians played on almost every record. They included Tommy Tedesco, Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye and even Glen Campbell. Brian Wilson talks about their invaluable contributions to the seminal “Pet Sounds” and Mickey Dolenz explains how they stood in for The Monkees. They were also Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound crew. The documentary explores a subculture you may have never realized existed. Carol Kaye’s story as one of the only female rock ’n’ roll session players is one of the most compelling — the woman deserves her own film.
“Then She Found Me”
Helen Hunt’s directorial debut does have a distributor (the film comes out April 25), but it needs buzz to compete with bigger films this spring, and so it makes its debut as part of the “spotlight premieres” series. Hunt stars as April Epner, a woman whose birth mother (Bette Midler) contacts her not long after the death of her adoptive mother and her separation from her husband (Matthew Broderick). Reeling from all the changes in her life, April finds herself drawn to the single parent (Colin Firth) of one of her students, who seems just as damaged by life and is as fragile as she is. Though not without flaws, the movie does succeed in making this a love story between adults, with all the baggage and realities that adults actually have to face, whether they be children, fears of being abandoned once again, or just not being quite sure of what you want. Firth has a way of excelling at playing every woman’s fantasy man (hello, Mr. Darcy), and he succeeds at doing just that here.