I’ve learned my lesson from past festivals that you simply must not ignore the shorts. That’s where the real gems can be found and where you can maximize your pass to see the more interesting/experimental projects that have been brought to audiences. They may not all work (or make sense) but there’s an artistic electricity that keeps these tiny marvels a joy to devour. SXSW 2023 had a diverse selection for the virtual viewer, something I was incredibly grateful for. Here’s a swift journey through what I was able to see.
Director: Javier Devitt
Synopsis: With a mysterious string growing from her eye and questionable advice from a hotline service, Veronica is led on a strange quest for answers.
Thoughts: Short, sweet, scary. That’s the best way to describe director Javier Devitt’s mighty little fright, with a great title and a poster that won a Jury Award at this year’s festival. In Eyestring, Veronica relays her latest troubles to a telephone support service when she notices something strange in the corner of her eye. Thinking it’s a hair, she pulls on it…and keeps pulling because it seems to have no end. What is this mysterious “eyestring,” and what will it take to remove it? At first, the answer might be confusing…but wait. I’m waiting for someone to give Devitt a few more bucks to turn this into a full feature.
Director/Screenwriter: Bethiael Alemayoh
Synopsis: A former bride-to-be attempts to sell her wedding dress.
Thoughts: Dressed starts with such a promising premise and impressive performance from Ann-Kathryne Mills that I had high hopes for what would come next. Sadly, the six-minute short about a woman trying to get rid of a wedding dress she has no use for anymore squanders its potential with a less than satisfying third act (can a short this, uh, short have three acts?). I was left to wish Mills would show up in something else soon that could showcase her better.
Directors/Screenwriters: Nicole Daddona, Adam Wilder
Synopsis: Get to know the Mundanes, a faceless suburban family with an unusual appetite.
Thoughts: This one will please a particular crowd who digs its mod weirdness. Part of the Midnighters series at SXSW, The Mundanes has the creepy vibe going for it, what with its faceless family living in their pseudo-dollhouse. Of course, as the film progresses, what appears to be a ‘normal’ family is broken down by ominous narration, an omnipresent atonal score, and a few hair-raising visuals that might make you lock up your Barbie and Ken dolls for the evening. Creative and executed well, but not a lot to grasp onto either.
We Forgot About The Zombies
Director/Screenwriter: Chris McInroy
Synopsis: Two dudes think they found the cure for zombie bites.
Thoughts: One of the three shorts so good that I watched them twice. Three minutes is all it takes for writer/director Chris McInroy to take the traditional zombie trope and send it laughing in the other direction. On the run for their lives and barricaded in a barn, two men come across what looks to be a lab containing several full syringes with hard-to-read labels. The only letters they can make out are C and then an E. One assumes it’s “Cure,”…but you know what they say when you assume something… We Forgot About the Zombies is a fast, fun, gooey, gory, funny watch. If not all the jokes work perfectly, it zips by so quickly that you barely notice if a punchline hasn’t landed totally on target.
Roger J. Carter: Rebel Revolutionary
Director: Justin Fairweather
Synopsis: Follows the Chicago portrait artist as he creates staggering images of black revolutionaries using hundreds of toy soldiers, representing the wars the marginalized face as they dismantle an established system.
Thoughts: Stop what you’re doing and look up the unbelievable works of art that Roger J. Carter has created using an array of toy soldiers. His pieces symbolize social sentiment in our modern era and speak to more significant issues facing generations of underserved minorities and the disenfranchised. Carter is a fascinating artist, but I found director Justin Fairweather’s documentary a bit aimless, more well-shot advertisements for Carter’s work instead of being a portrait of the artist as well. Maybe there’s a more extensive documentary on Carter coming down the line – that I would want to see. This feels like it’s painting on too small of a canvas.
Directors: Courtney Loo, David Karp
Synopsis: Feeling the pressure of an important meeting with a potential music manager, Kiki struggles with her identity as an outsider in the Chinese-American community, a culture vulture in the hip-hop world, and a potential sellout for mainstream success.
Thoughts: I’m unsure what to report about Slick Talk. It’s a bundle of ideas and statements that never form a comprehensive sentence. I wish directors Courtney Loo and David Karp had been able to focus their short into something with a sharper edge because lead Jess Hu is a real find who could capably hold her own in a more extended feature. For these nine minutes, though, it’s never apparent via the script that the takeaway is beyond resistance to the pressure of changing your identity for art’s sake. That feels too simple of a premise for what is presented by Hu to be a complex character.
Director: Scott Lazer
Synopsis: Behind the scenes of the US Open Ball Crew tryouts.
Thoughts: I’m not a tennis person, but I got excited when I saw this documentary arriving at SXSW. Perhaps it’s the actor in me, but I love seeing films with people vying for a limited number of spots and having just a few scant chances to make an excellent first impression. For the most part, Ball People, centered around the US Open Ball Crew selection process, fulfilled that sweet spot. You have the expected candidates that aren’t qualified, are too skilled, desperately hope they get it, and are ambivalent. There are the typical scenes of those making the choices silently murmuring their thoughts to one another. And, finally, there are scenes of joy or brave acceptance when the ultimate decision is made. Director Scott Lazer perhaps lingers too long after all this is over, showing what the job is like for those selected. Without getting to know any of the subjects that well, these scenes feel unnecessary and filler.
Director/Screenwriter: Dustin Waldman
Synopsis: Amid the high anxiety of post-9/11 NYC, a struggling post-production house is hired to remove a shot of the Twin Towers from the intro to a hit TV show.
Thoughts: Writing, directing, and acting. These are the essential components of any movie, and when they are all in alignment, a filmmaker has already won more than half the battle. Never Fuggedaboutit has strong direction; I’ll give it that, but the writing and especially the acting leave much to be desired. It’s a bizarre story of a post-9/11, tightly wound, pro-America man, pushed over the edge when asked to remove a shot of the Twin Towers from the opening credits of The Sopranos. Let’s be clear, this doesn’t feel like a “Make America Great Again” fueled film, so I’m not entirely clear where the motivation behind the furor of our lead character is generated from all these years later. What could have been an exciting discourse is broadly played with over-the-top performances. Fuggedabout this one.
Director/Screenwriter: Daniel Sinclair
Synopsis: Jane and Teddy are on the brink of divorce – but when their marital problems come to a sticking point, they have an unexpected breakthrough.
Thoughts: My favorite short I watched at SXSW; I also watched The Breakthrough twice, thanks to its clever, often-acerbic writing by Daniel Sinclair and awesomely fun work being done by stars Greta Lee (about to have a good 2023, I think, with her new film Past Lives) and Ben Sinclair. I want to say as little about this one as possible because it veers into the kind of curve you will never see coming…even after I just told you not to expect it. We’ve seen bickering couples on film before (still never topped by Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey in 1994’s The Ref), but Lee and Sinclair manage to throw some humanity into their squabbling pair while they navigate a difficult situation. I don’t know how/where this will be seen, but I hope many eyes get on this one.
Director/Screenwriter: Chaconne Martin-Berkowicz
Synopsis: The night of a sorority hazing event, a college freshman learns just how far she’s willing to go to impress an older girl.
Thoughts: Aside from feeling like I’ve seen films like Scotty’s Vag before, I also didn’t want to see films like Scotty’s Vag again. The whole “shy girl pushes her limits to impress a popular girl” thing is overbaked for me, and nothing about this short did much to change my mind about it. If anything, it just reinforces my distaste that hazing practices a) continue on college campuses and b) are featured in films that glorify them in some way. It feels irresponsible and reductive, even with a writer/director possessing a clear voice like Chaconne Martin-Berkowicz overseeing the proceedings. Films with the same subject/theme have already been done and done better, and they didn’t have to feature a troubling loss of virginity through peer pressure as their centerpiece.
Director/Screenwriter: Sam Shainberg
Synopsis: Carol begins a typical day only to discover that her heart medication has doubled in price. Afraid but not without hope, she sets out to find a solution, but her journey doesn’t lead to salvation, only a desperate act of revolution.
Thoughts: Speaking of themes done to death (see Scotty’s Vag above), Endless Sea features a woman pushed to the breaking point by her economic status, forced to choose her health over a potential loss of freedom. However, unlike the film mentioned above, this takes that premise and infuses it with interesting subjects that give it a feeling of immediacy and importance and actors who find honesty among broad contrivances. It’s all packaged too neatly by writer/director Sam Shainberg, but star Brenda Cullerton is the chief reason to seek this out. I’m shocked Cullerton only has two credits to her name on IMDb because her work here is powerhouse stuff. Though the script calls for her to wind up in several eye-rolling situations (a mother begs at the doorstep of a disappointed daughter? Hold me back!), she rises above it with frankness and believability. If Shainberg wants to expand this to feature length, I’d gladly return to see where this character goes next (or where she came from.)
F**k Me, Richard
Directors: Lucy McKendrick, Charlie Polinger,
Synopsis: Recovering from a broken leg, a romance-obsessed loner is swept up in a passionate long-distance love affair. Richard is perfect in every way, except he may be a scammer.
Thoughts: Pardon me while I blush at the name of this film from star Lucy McKendrick & Charlie Polinger. Ok, I’ve recovered. Eye-catching title aside, this intriguing short takes a little longer than it should to sink its hooks into you, but once you are in its grasp, it holds on tight. McKendrick stars as a woman confined to her home in a leg cast who starts an online romance with a man who isn’t who he says he is. The pity we take on her for her lack of catching on that she’s being duped into sending him money only goes so far, and it’s right about that time when the film does a neat little rug pull and shows that deception isn’t a one-way street.
Directors: Fidel Ruiz-Healy, Tyler Walker
Synopsis: A disaffected gas station clerk finds out why they call it the “graveyard shift” after oil drillers set loose an ancient race of mind-controlling parasites.
Thoughts: You’ll get major Tremors vibes (with a dash of Matinee) from Fidel Ruiz-Healy & Tyler Walker’s kooky Dead Enders. That’s a significant endorsement from me, knowing those are two of my favorite films that trade in creature feature fun and are sending up the schlocky horror movies that drove audiences crazy sixty years ago. Dead Enders hits the ground running with a wave of icky parasites released from their underground dwelling and descending upon a nearby small convenience shop. Employees and customers become heroes and victims quickly, but the tongue is always planted firmly in cheek. There’s much room here to develop many aspects of the film (script, effects, ending, etc.), but the performances (save for a few weak supporting roles) are almost there. I could see this one coming down the pike as a full-length title.
Pennies from Heaven
Director: Sandy Honig
Synopsis: Two eccentric twin sisters (Annabel Meschke and Sabina Meschke) stumble upon a pickup truck full of pennies and follow the adventure wherever it takes them.
Thoughts: Rounding out my Top Three of the shorts I saw at SXSW, I will admit that Pennies from Heaven is one of those Your Mileage May Vary selections. How much you get out of the film will likely rest entirely on how you respond to stars Annabel Meschke & Sabina Meschke. The identical twins co-wrote this absurdly funny crime comedy with director Sandy Honig, and it’s a downright joy to watch the twins be let loose and get into mischief. The Meschkes play bored convenience store clerks who get a surprise after they scare off a pair of robbers attempting to steal from their store. The robbers left behind a truck full of pennies, and, newly rich, the sisters head off for a day of adventure even Pee-Wee Herman would find a little too kooky for his tastes. I found it charming more than anything (which is why I watched it twice) and think we’ll be seeing more of the Meschkes soon.
Director/Screenwriter: Luchina Fisher
Synopsis: When five fathers of trans kids join Dennis Shepard, the father of slain gay college student Matthew Shepard, for a weekend fishing trip in rural Oklahoma, they find a common purpose across races, generations, and experiences.
Thoughts: I like to finish strong at SXSW, and that’s why I wish I hadn’t ended on The Dads. While writer/director Luchina Fisher’s short documentary about a group of fathers who gather to bond over their trans children is a noble effort, it’s relatively unbridled and adrift in its emotional mining of the issues. Throwing in the father of Matthew Shepard feels like an odd addition to the group, and, let’s just be honest, the discussion is more about the men’s feelings about themselves rather than discussing how to parent a trans child. I’m sure these conversations did occur over the time these fathers were together, but Fisher didn’t include them in the documentary. That leaves us with another frustrating talky piece where cis men are afforded another arena to act as vocal representation for a population still struggling to be heard.