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Christopher Llewellyn Reed’s SXSW 2023 Wrap-Up

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 23rd, 2023

Pardon my delay in writing this, but on the day I flew out of Austin, Texas, to return home I began to feel unwell (fortunately for everyone else, I masked on the plane). That evening, sure enough, I tested positive for COVID-19. And though my symptoms have improved after a miserable weekend, I remain afflicted. All of this is to say that though my return to an in-person SXSW this year may have been a blast, I paid a price for the experience.

During my time on the ground, I wrote a number of reviews and interviews for both this site and Hammer to Nail. Now, before the festival, which ran March 10-19, recedes too quickly into the past, I offer brief capsule thoughts on six other films. If none of these, nor those I reviewed in full, strike you as interesting, check out the award winners, as you may find other treasures therein.

BEING MARY TYLER MOORE director James Adolphus at SXSW 2023 ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

Being Mary Tyler Moore (James Adolphus)

Though at 119 minutes this documentary tribute to the late, great star of television and film feels a little long (with a few too many endings), its cinematic heart is very much in the right place and it serves the subject mostly quite well. Born in 1936, Mary Tyler Moore came of age on screen just before the advent of second-wave feminism, yet her independent-minded wife on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966, CBS) helped pave the way for a rising mass consciousness that women should be more than mere appendages to their husbands. In 1970, she was given her own show, which ran, also on CBS, until 1977, where she played a woman not in any kind of firm romantic relationship who made it “on her own” (as the title song indicated) in Minneapolis. Both series frequently cleaned up at the Emmys. In 1981 she would be nominated for an Oscar for her role in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. The list of accolades goes on. The film is about more than just her professional successes, however, also covering her private life, good and bad. It’s a must-see for any fan.

l-r: BOTTOMS actress Havana Rose Liu and director Emma Seligman at SXSW 2023 ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

Bottoms (Emma Seligman)

What happens when two of the least popular girls in high school—both queer—start a fight club to hook up with some hot cheerleaders? Bottoms, a delirious journey into the whacked-out humor of co-writers Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott, who previously teamed up on the 2021 Shiva Baby. Here, Seligman once again directs, with Sennott sharing screentime with the other member of the loser squad, Ayo Edebiri (Hello, Goodbye and Everything in Between). They play PJ and Josie, respectively, and make a terrific duo. Not only is the premise outlandish, but so is everything else, with the adults as out of control as everyone else. Expect loads of bloody mayhem, and copious comedy.

l-r: A DISTURBANCE IN THE FORCE directors Steve Kozak and Jeremy Coon at SXSW 2023 ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

A Disturbance in the Force (Jeremy Coon/Steve Kozak)

Though I was alive and a Star Wars fan on November 17, 1978, I somehow blissfully missed the one-time airing of what quickly became George Lucas’ one ignominious defeat in a world at that time opening all doors to him. Following the success of the first part of his space epic, he teamed up with executives at CBS to create a “Star Wars Holiday Special” that was meant to pump up awareness of the franchise, as well as to sell toys. Lucas soon bailed on any planning, leaving it up to others, and the result was one of the biggest creative messes one could imagine, a mix of old-time television vaudeville, terrible showtunes, and dancing stormtroopers. In the documentary A Disturbance in the Force, directors Jeremy Coon (Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made) and Steve Kozak (making his first feature as director), explore the hilarious madness in all its infamy and—dare we say it?—wonder. The disturbance still resonates to this day, in the best possible way.

THE STARLING GIRL director Laurel Parmet at SXSW 2023 ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

The Starling Girl (Laurel Parmet)

In writer/director Laurel Parmet’s debut feature, The Starling Girl, Eliza Scanlen (Babyteeth) stars as Jem, the titular character. Raised in a strict, patriarchal religious community in Kentucky, Jem is more or less obedient, though at 17 is starting to more than feel the pull of certain hormones. Her parents hope she might accept to be courted by the church minister’s younger son, but it’s Owen (Lewis Pullman, Top Gun: Maverick), the older, twentysomething sibling, just back from a mission in Puerto Rico and, unfortunately, married, who catches her eye. He’s also the youth pastor, which means they will spend lots of time together. Before long, it becomes apparent that very few people here follow all the rules they’re supposed to. Even Jem’s father has at least one devastating secret. The movie is careful to give everyone their point of view, even as Parmet is clearly on the side of Jem’s eventual freedom. A fraught coming-of-age tale filled with sexual drama, The Starling Girl showcases the considerable talents of both director and star.

l-r: STILL: A MICHAEL J. FOX MOVIE director Davis Guggenheim and protagonist Michael J. Fox at SXSW 2023 ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie (Davis Guggenheim)

By the end of the 1980s, actor Michael J. Fox was riding about as high as a Hollywood star can. After success on television as Alex Keating in the popular Family Ties series (1982-1989, NBC), he had hit it even bigger with movies like the Back to the Future series and The Secret of My Success, even scoring critical praise for more serious work in Brian De Palma’s 1989 Casualties of War. He had also married the love of his life, Tracey Pollan, who had costarred with him on Family Ties, and they had just welcomed their first child. Very soon, however, Fox would receive a diagnosis, of early-onset Parkinson’s disease, that would change everything. Confronting that illness and his rising alcoholism became major challenges. In STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie, director Davis Guggenheim (He Named Me Malala) presents a comprehensive portrait of the man, warts and all. This is no hagiography, even if Fox is, as always, extremely likable. Repurposing footage from all of Fox’s work to complement the interviews and other archival material, Guggenheim allows his protagonist to shine in all his glory, past and present. It’s raw, honest truth with a sharp dose of laughter.

l-r: YOU CAN CALL ME BILL director Alexandre O. Philippe and protagonist William Shatner at SXSW 2023 ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

You Can Call Me Bill (Alexandre O. Philippe)

At 92, William Shatner is still very much going strong, even as his former Star Trek castmates slowly pass on. He knows his time will come soon enough, and so he has partnered with director Alexandre O. Philippe (Memory: The Origins of Alien) to leave behind a meditative statement of principle on what he thinks life should be about. As such, You Can Call Me Bill is not at all like the previous, above-reviewed documentary. It does not strive to offer a complete, rounded portrayal of Shatner with many different voices weighing it. It’s just Bill, his present-day interviews supplemented by copious use of all the shows, films, and stage performances in which he has appeared since the 1950s. Those looking for a less adoring lens will emerge disappointed. But there are many pleasant moments to be had in the company of the original Captain Kirk as he waxes philosophical about the climate and our vulnerable planet (and yes, there are plenty of fun career anecdotes for the fans). I would have preferred something more cinematically robust, but I still enjoyed the experience.

The last photo I took at SXSW 2023, in front of the Paramount Theatre ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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