Austin Film Festival 2018
The 2018 Austin Film Festival marked its 25th year running! I’ve been attending since 2014 when I first moved to Austin, so every year feels like coming home. It’s my very favorite tradition :)
This year I decided to prioritize submitted films as opposed to the bigger marquee films that are guaranteed to hit theaters in the months following the festival. One of my favorite films from last year’s fest was Meerkat Moonship, a South African film that still doesn’t have U.S. distribution, so I didn’t want to miss my chance to see other hidden gems. Of course, that decision led to the worst FOMO of my life, as I had to miss out on buzzier films like Boy Erased, Widows and Green Book! I also prioritized short films but with so many conflicts in my schedule, I only made it to three of the shorts programs. Surprisingly for me, the horror segment was my favorite one!
I also challenged myself to write my full thoughts on each film I screened. Recap below.
This movie had so much potential (emotional subject matter + a unique angle + Natalie Portman + original songs by Sia?!) but after the traumatizing setup, bold opening sequence and an intriguing first half, I started to dislike it more and more as time went on. There’s much to admire here (I'll be thinking about the embodiment of chronic pain for a long time) and enough memorable scenes that I’m glad I watched it but ultimately it felt disjointed and devoid of an honest message, making the heavy beginning scenes seem exploitative. It’s a solid movie idea with visceral characters and intertwining themes that feel urgently relevant to today, but sadly I was left with a general feeling of missed opportunity.
The Long Dumb Road
The chemistry between Tony Revolori and Jason Mantzoukas is so good it feels like it could carry even a mediocre movie but that statement would be a disservice to Hannah Fidell’s smart writing and assured directing. She absolutely nailed her take on the classic road trip buddy comedy. You know a movie’s fun when you’re excited for the gifs to start popping up online!
Love me a subtle Scandinavian space-themed drama. This story is so emotional and sweet, from the kid struggling to cope with his father's disappearance to his youthful romance with a small-town girl who gave him a bad haircut (most endearing meet-cute ever!) throw in some alien intrigue and this film has won my whole heart. This is Adrian bait for sure.
Speaking in Tongues
I never expected to see my college church experience portrayed so accurately onscreen. Kudos to the filmmakers for their fair depiction of a particular brand of conservative charismatic Christianity by neither bashing the believers nor letting them off the hook. It validates the spiritual experiences and tight-knit communities that draw people to faith - the reasons why I still believe and remain involved in church - while exposing the controlling nature of more intense evangelistic groups. So much of faith is sincere. But hurt comes when theological policing leads to severed relationships and when personal outreach warps into a convert recruitment program.
Nothing has my respect quite like filmmakers who choose to portray the lives of marginalized people - not to judge or evoke pity but as an affirmation of human dignity. In that way, Shoplifters reminds me of films like Moonlight and The Florida Project. In each of those stories, we see with clarity and complexity the challenges facing people who are deemed troublesome and undesirable by the rest of society. We have yet to disentangle the false correlation between morality and socioeconomic status. The beauty of this film is seeing the full spectrum of their lives: their bitterness and love, their deception and words of healing, their selfishness and their sacrifices. We need more movies like this until it finally sinks in that the poor are just as valuable and contradictory as the rest of us.
Imagine waking up one day to the beginning of the end. First one parent, then the other, suddenly finds it possible to leave. The psychological horror of seeing a relationship disintegrate without warning is too great a burden for a fifteen-year-old to bear. What kid has the tools to navigate such a thing? What child has power in such a situation?
"What will happen to us?" he asks. First his father: silence. Then his mother. All she can manage is a tearful shake of her head.
I think back to an earlier scene: his paralysis as he watches a forest fire rage.
Love Goes Through Your Mind
Although clearly a first feature, the director's unique point of view more than makes up for its few technical and pacing issues. We've seen stories about bipolar disorder before but never in the specific context of an Indian American family. This is a perspective that is sorely needed - for all of us, really - but especially in a community where the stigma is particularly powerful. The movie explores a whole spectrum of responses, from the parents' struggles to validate their son's condition as a medical issue and anxiety about what their community will think, to the sister's compassionate efforts to help her brother. The director unflinchingly addresses the gravity of the untreated condition in several frightening scenes but weaves a pure vein of tenderness throughout. Several scenes brought me to tears without having to pull any heartstrings. The story ends on a hopeful note (a conscious decision by the director), sending the message to the audience that this condition is treatable, especially if the family surrounds and supports the one who is suffering. I'd take this over an arthouse action comedy revenge story any day of the week.
Y’all know I’m a sucker for shit like this. I’ve always found the mysterious expanse of space to be a rich canvas for exploring faith and fear and wonder and love.
The central romance is easily anticipated but its development shows restraint: their relationship is multilayered, slow to develop and ultimately feels earned despite the typical setup in favor of the male protagonist’s arc. I can't wait to watch it again, without cynicism this time, because sci-fi romance truly is my favorite genre - a marriage (ha) of the intimate and the cosmic.
It's through their interactions that we explore the key theme of the film: the tension between cold objectivity (which sometimes masks hopelessness) and spiritual intuition (often dismissed outright). Since watching this, I've teared up a few times thinking about the pain of wanting to believe but past hurt pushing us to pessimism.
Themes and gushy stuff aside, I was fascinated by the film’s focus on the process of sifting through tedious amounts of data in the effort to detect habitable planets that just might be the home to intelligent life.
Delia & Sammy
I always roll my eyes a bit at photographers whose only subjects are the young and picturesque - because how much work are they doing, really? I feel similarly about movies that depict glamorous people living fast and loose. It feels too easy. This movie, however, chooses to focus on the back end of those glamorous lives: a retired soap opera actress with a matter of months to live and her senile, womanizing husband.
Not only does it focus on a stage of life that is often ignored, it asks the question: What happens to the villain at the end of their life? At first, their surliness is funny but over the course of the movie, the true toxicity of the characters grows clearer. We see the reactions of the people around them until it's obvious they are reaping the consequences of selfishness in their old age. Despite its somber message, the story ends on a hopeful note, because everyone deserves compassion - even redemption - in their difficult latter years.
Blood Runs Down
I desperately need a rewatch so I can pick apart the complex poetry of this Southern Gothic horror. The spellbinding imagery is strung together by an unexplainable but undeniable intuition that left me both short of breath and in tears. What makes this short effective is how it moves without warning between sacred intimacy and the terror of violated emotions. It brought to my mind how loved ones often inflict the deepest wounds. Luckily, this film cuts with the precision of a surgeon – not to harm, but to make way for healing.
This short depicts an abuser’s first act of aggression by transforming a young couple’s house into a labyrinth occupied by a looming minotaur. The moment he reveals himself in an argument, irrevocably breaking the trust of his wife, the rules of physics no longer apply to the halls and doorways of their home. The beast is unleashed and unstoppable, subjecting the man to the intimidation and dread he himself is guilty of inflicting. The simplicity and pointed symbolism of the story reminded me why I love short films so much as an art form.
Watching Shoplifters at the Paramount Theater with my team members from the Austin Asian American Film Festival. I saw director Hirokazu Kore-eda's last film, After the Storm, at AAAFF a few years ago and first heard of the festival through a film they co-presented at AFF a year before that. I feel honored to be involved and grateful to watch my worlds colliding for the love of film.
Hearing Brazilian director Pedro Formigoni introduce his short film, Perdeu, about police brutality in his country. He spoke of how the film had taken on a new urgency in the wake of that morning’s election results in Brazil and how his heart weighed heavy for his friends from marginalized communities.
Spotting screenwriter Nicole Perlman a few tables over in The Hideout Cafe before a screening. I was able to introduce her to one of my friends and somehow she remembered me from our past encounters at AFF. *cries*
Catching rom-com queen Tess Morris’ panel titled Deconstructing Nora Ephron, and receiving a warm hug from her when I said hi afterward. We’ve been friendly on Twitter for awhile now – I adore her podcast (You Had Us At Hello) and her cat (Nora Ephron aka Norbles). She followed me not long after we talked. That’s the magic of AFF!