SxSW 2021 Reviews, Notes & Reactions As It Happens!

As our team is screening a LOT of work at SxSW Online this year, I am condensing some of my more immediate reactions into a single article here on This post will remain at the top of the site through SxSW and will be updated as more movies are seen during the festival!

All reactions in this post are by Jason Whyte, GRM’s Managing Editor. Please click our Reviews in the menu or sidebar above for more reviews from Austin-based writer Antonio Quintero.

UNDER THE VOLCANO (Australia, dir. Gracie Otto)

UNDER THE VOLCANO is a very high-energy and instantly loveable tribute to a small but pivotal Air Studios Montserrat off the coast of Australia featuring a treasure trove of fascinating stories about the creation of music via Elton John, members of The Beatles post-breakup, Dire Straits, Sting-slash-The Police and many more with lots of wonderful vintage photos and clips, ending it all with The Rolling Stones’ pivotal STEEL WHEELS album before the eventual demise of the studio thanks to the nearby volcano deciding to make their contribution. While I sometimes tire of the usual talking-head-clip-show documentaries, filmmaker Gracie Otto has a lot up her sleeve here as UNDER THE VOLCANO also utilizes vintage photos and footage from that area along with candid interviews and stories of the world which is fascinating and a lot of it has never been seen before. There are still a lot of old clips here, mind you, but there’s also such a heart and drive to this documentary that a lot of people may not know about. This doc is a LOT of fun from beginning to end and a great throwback to the music from that era. Now I really want to run the MUSIC FOR MONTSERRAT concert doc!


Seriously just streaming this doc on a whim was the best decision I made at SxSW Online this year. Reminiscent of BECOMING BOND from a few SxSW’s ago, this documentary/narrative by Caroline Catz (absolutely a name I am going to be watching form now on), we get a truly fascinating look into Delia Derbyshire, also known as the Godmother of electronic music and a woman years ahead of her time, fully rejecting all of the toxic male work environment of her early days at the BBC to creating the original Doctor Who theme at the time mostly told in a dramatic recreation that gets right down into the technical and creative aspects of creating the earliest form of this unique kind of music yet also featuring . I totally understand that a movie like this may not be for everyone, but for someone who loves the technical exercise, old tech and the British way of the counterculture era, this is fascinating filmmaking from beginning to end and director Catz, who also stars as the dramatic recreation of Delia, left me absolutely shaken as the credits rolled including a long take in this doc, a long pause between two characters, that is the coolest thing I have seen in 2021. Definitely one I want to see again and study.

INBETWEEN GIRL (United States, dir. Mel Makino)

One thing I always love about SxSW is seeing American Indies, low budget and with fresh talent that I have never seen before…that also turn out to be total creative charmers that I would otherwise never see. This gentle coming-of-age story is about Angie (Emma Galbraith) a bit shy, introverted but very wise in her ways and a creative hand-drawn artist. She’s also dealing with her parents’ divorce. Angie winds up befriending a popular boy at school named Liam (William Magnuson) and ends up in a sexual relationship with him, unbeknownst to Liam’s “Instagram Famous” girlfriend Sheryl (Emily Garrett) who also befriends Angie when the two realize they have a creative connection as well. Even though that description sounds familiar, filmmaker Mel Makino handles this with realism, from the awkward sexual encounters, Angie dealing with her parent’s separation to the later sequences where Angie and Sheryl’s relationship comes to a head all come through beautifully. INBETWEEN GIRL wears its heart on its sleeve and has that ultra-low-budget feel through and through, and there’s an undeniable charm to young Emma Galbraith that you can’t help but love her even with her flaws, and Emily Garrett is a revelation as Sheryl, wonderful in later scenes as the conflicted “Insta-famous” model with a lot of deep pain inside. It’s this tiny little indie set in Galveston, Texas that feels and plays real, and I hope this finds a larger audience. 

HOW IT ENDS (United States, dir. Zoe Lister-Jones & Daryl Wein)

Just the sight of seeing Zoe Lister-Jones on screen reminds me of the time I ran into Zoe and now-husband/partner director Daryl Wein in the street around the time of their little-indie gem BREAKING UPWARDS. I have always kept tabs on this Indie power couple over the years and have always admired them as very unique talents. They have continued on great paths into big movies and TV shows, and it’s cool to see that their latest end-of-the-world comedy HOW IT ENDS, about Liza (Lister-Jones) who wakes up on the very last day and decides to set out and see as many people and patch things up on her last day. Her car is stolen, so it’s going to be a walk around Los Angeles! (As someone who hikes on a daily basis, I caught quite a few good walking paths here.) Along with her spiritual younger-self (Cailee Spaeny) they run into a lot of weird characters played by some celeb cameos (Helen Hunt! Fred Armisen! Charlie Day! Colin Hanks! Bradley Whitford! Pauly Shore!) in a road trip type movie…that’s filmed in LA during Coronavirus, so everyone is socially distant and away from each other. And on foot. Wein and Lister-Jones co-direct this idea and have fun with that concept and the very chill last day of the planet, and it’s mostly a show-case for Lister-Jones, in some of her very best work, as a woman struggling with her inner problems and neurosis. But special mention must be given to Cailee Spaeny, a real find here playing Liza’s “younger self” and has great comedic timing. It’s not perfect with some unfunny patches from supporting turns, and somewhat limited by the fact everyone is isolating and obviously standing six feet in most scenes, but I was pleasantly surprised at how touched I was at the end.

THE SPARKS BROTHERS (United Kingdom, dir. Edgar Wright)

One of the most difficult screenings to get into EVER at SxSW was the 2017 screening of BABY DRIVER. That and having met Edgar Wright here at SxSW many years ago when he served as producer on ATTACK THE BLOCK, the man has certainly a history with the festival and to hear of a new documentary from him is very exciting (and how I wish I could be with 1200 people in the Paramount in Austin). When I sat down to watch THE SPARKS BROTHERS I was wondering how 143 minutes about a somewhat unique and not-as-popular-as-they-should-be band Sparks. Quickly into this expertly designed epic feature featuring Oscar-level worthy editing and presentation, this doc about Ron and Russell Mael is a whirlwind of an experience and one of the finest docs about music in a long time. Through decades of history, old photos and interviews from an incredible array of talent, Sparks were a complete throughline for music history from the 70s all the way up to now. It created or inspired so many musical acts over the years and endless stories that I could have let this go on for another couple of hours. Even at this length Sparks is too much for one movie to maintain. Edgar Wright clearly knows what he is doing and this doc is endlessly fascinating material that I want to rewatch instantly and hang out with. Also, I admit, a quick review like this doesn’t give the doc justice and is one I can’t wait to spread the word about. Seriously one of the best movies you will see in 2021. Focus Features has distribution and I know this will become huge on either a future theatrical or streaming release.

THE FALLOUT (United States/Canada, dir. Megan Park)

From the first few minutes, THE FALLOUT announced a serious new talent in filmmaker Megan Park, who tells the story of a reaction to a school shooting through the eyes of a young girl named Vada (Jenna Ortega) who also forms bonds with new friends after the incident. What follows is an unpredictable journey that has many “ups and downs” as Vada calls it, and it’s refreshing to see such a portrayal that feels and plays real. Young Jenna Ortega, who reminded me very much of Taylor Russell’s unforgettable and equally powerful performance in WAVES, shows all of the realistic signs of teenage years without going overboard. Everyone around her, from the Instagram-popular Mia (Maddin Ziegler) to her parents (Julie Bowen and John Ortiz), even Shailene Woodley in a surprise performance as Vada’s therapist, all have three dimensions. It really does feel like we are dropping right into these people’s lives, and it’s a true testament to Park’s careful, skilled direction that shows the vulnerable side of today’s youth with complete realism and honesty. And even though the main subject is school shootings, this movie also has heart, some big laughs and is entertaining and inspiring above all else. One of the very best of SxSW 2021.

ALONE TOGETHER (United States, dir. Bradley Bell & Pablo Jones-Soler)

ALONE TOGETHER is my favourite music doc out of all of the Headliners at SxSW this year, and another example of a COVID-related documentary that absolutely works. Charli XCX is one of the rare younger artists whose music makes it into these eardrums as I am out and about on hikes during this pandemic, and this short-but-sweet doc is an interesting idea to see her go through the process of recording her latest album almost entirely by herself, in quarantine, right at the start of the pandemic. I was less interested in the social media reaction and constant DIY footage and more interested in the actual process of an album, which usually takes a year to produce, to do the entire thing in five weeks. A big standout is how interesting an individual that Charli is with her outgoing and open personality and sense of humour, and as ALONE TOGETHER progresses we see her and her boyfriend create art even in these bizarre circumstances. While I found some of the constant social media and fans outside of her circle reacting and a bit chaotic for me at times (thankfully there’s hardly any of the blasted “vertical video syndrome”), I could excuse this under the circumstances. I’d like to see a future full on doc about Charli and her creative process as she’s such a personable and friendly personality in music or, as I always suggest (because STOP MAKING SENSE is my favourite movie, I have to) a full on Charli concert doc. She seems like a lot of fun on stage.

SOY CUBANA (Cuba/United States, dir. Jeremy Ungar & Ivaylo Getov)

One of the cool things about covering SxSW Online is that I get to watch screenings on a giant 65″ TV and on headphones with a strong Dolby 5.1 playback. In other words, movies look and sound good in this screening room and I was happy to check out this very musical doc on the all-Cuban female Quartet Vocal Vidas and their journey from 2015 in Cuba to performing in their very first United States concert just a few years later. A lot of SOY CUBANA is typical of the music doc but filmmakers Jeremy Ungar and Ivaylo Getov take their time and patience creating a solid balance of complete music performances, interviews from all of the support of the ladies and travel footage (felt a bit of echoes of BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB with their leads wandering around cities sightseeing), but the Vocal Vidas are very interesting and passionate individuals with their own unique personalities and who look and sound amazing when performing. Maybe I’ll catch them in a SxSW showcase one day…

ALIEN ON STAGE (United Kingdom, dir. Danielle Kummer & Lucy Harvey)

Hey movie buffs! Remember that scary movie ALIEN from 1979 that you all know and love? Instead of remaking it into a current Blockbuster movie (which of course you’d have to add Marvel or DC characters for anyone to be interested to see it now), let’s do instead as a comedy with practical effects, cast with a bunch of transit drivers from Dorset, United Kingdom. And these non-professional actors also were able to transport their small DIY production all the way to the London Stage. I still can’t believe all of this happened. ALIEN ON STAGE is a documentary that is also some kind of miracle. We see honest-to-goodness GOOD people, good down-to-earth British folk warts and all smile all the way through a truly wacky presentation that wears its heart on its sleeve, and filmmakers Danielle Kummer & Lucy Harvey deserve great credit for showing not only the process of putting it all together but the wild audience reaction. Equal parts a great concept for a play AND for a documentary, ALIEN ON STAGE is pure happiness from beginning to end. My ONLY wish is for another documentary to be released that simply shows the entire play as-is from beginning to end, STOP MAKING SENSE style.

THE HUNT FOR PLANET B (United States, dir. Nathaniel Kahn)

A mostly female group of scientists are on the search for another planet, hoping one day that we may be able to relocate or just see beyond our own planet. Featuring a lot of news clips, interviews and technical mumbo-jumbo along with macro photography through telescopes, THE HUNT FOR PLANET B would totally work on a nature or science TV channel or streaming service but feels a little too serious for a theatrical release. There is also a great moment in the doc where Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” is used and commented on (this is one of my favourite songs of all time, so any inclusion of this song is welcome in any movie or documentary). A bit slow in areas but overall it’s an inspiring doc of the process of finding another world out there.

BEST SUMMER EVER (United States, dir. Michael Parks Randa & Lauren Smitelli)

Originally part of the 2020 lineup and a movie that was on the top of my list to see last year, I am thrilled that BEST SUMMER EVER is available as part of this year’s lineup. This project is part of a disability in film initiative that I first learned about all the way back at the Vancouver International Film Festival with the unforgettable doc BECOMING BULLETPROOF which was about a group of disabled actors making a movie. The group got more traction with THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON at SxSW 2018 and with BEST SUMMER EVER they have even branded in top musicals! The entire experience is a warm hug with a simple story of a girl named Sage trying to find her way in a new school. It was also great to see my friend AJ Murray in a small role as one of the brothers. Bright, happy and full of spirit, this brought so many tears of happiness to my face and is a lovely support of disabled actors and filmmakers in the movies. Bonus points for presenting the movie in a fully accessible format with subtitles, sing-along lyrics and a comfortable volume level for the hearing sensitive.

WEWORK: or the Making and Breaking a $47 Billion Unicorn (United States, dir. Jed Rothstein)

A polished and amusing look at Adam Neumann who struck it rich with the office design WeWork and kicked off some now-prevalent attitudes of the millennial generation. It brings up the Regus office design which turned around the design of offices and how they are used, and as the doc progresses we get more and more of Adam’s unique personality get exposed. It’s also a great looking doc — a rare one presented in the wide scope format — and a telling explanation of how this corporate culture has moved to our current lives.

THE FEAST (United Kingdom, Lee-Haven Jones)

A total slow burn about a wealthy family gathering in a remote Welsh mountain and helped by a quiet, pale young woman (Anne Elwy) who has some secrets behind her, this incredibly visual movie gets more strange, twisted and graphic as it progresses. It’s a SxSW Midnighter movie that I watched really late at night which is sometimes never a good idea with pacing like this, but nevertheless I stuck it through and was totally impressed with this weird and original vision by Lee-Haven Jones. Lead actress Anne Elwy is such a fascinating presence; saying very little dialogue and mostly focusing on her very expressive — and freckled — face, we see an ever-so-subtle breakdown of the family unit that goes into very graphic detail. Split by chapter titles as well, it has a very ominous build and it leads to a satisfying if gory finale, all to the tune of a gorgeous widescreen look and feel. The usual “don’t see it on a full stomach” warning would be in effect here.

OFFSEASON (United States, dir. Mickey Keating)

No stranger to SxSW, I have seen a few of Mickey Keating’s movies all at this festival in the Midnighters section (CARNAGE PARK and POD immediately come to mind where I would sit at the now-departed Alamo Drafthouse Ritz at 12:30 in the morning with a huge bowl of buttered popcorn). He’s an Oklahoma-based, truly indie filmmaker who has made some pretty visually arresting genre movies on what seems to be low-budget. OFFSEASON I feel is his best work so far, starring Jocelin Donahue and Joe Swanberg as a couple that travels to a mysterious island after Mari (Donahue) gets a call about her late mother’s grave been vandalized. To say that many wacky things happen after they arrive on the island is understating it. Also on the solid cast is MAGNOLIA’S own Melora Walters in a pivotal opening scene that comes strongly into play late in the picture. While a lot of this feels old-fashioned and the twists may not work for all, I deeply admired the atmospheric tone and I could recommend OFFSEASON alone for the use of the main bridge. It’s also just cool to see long-time SxSW alum Joe Swanberg in a solid supporting role, and it makes me miss the late 00’s times of SxSW where I would run into him on the street in Austin and talk shop about what movies to see at the festival.

LANGUAGE LESSONS (United States, dir. Natalie Morales)

Although it is never commented on, LANGUAGE LESSONS is a movie gently inspired by our COVID pandemic and through a unique idea pushes the idea of a complete connection happening via digital communication. Taking place entirely between what appears to be Zoom calls, we meet Adam (Mark Duplass, no stranger to SxSW) who is arranged with two years (!) of Spanish lessons with Carino (Natalie Morales). Duplass seems to be an easy learner who is already having conversations with Natalie in the second lesson, but hey, that’s the movies for you. As it progresses, a unique relationship forges with some misunderstandings here and there that are very common. The tech quality of LANGUAGE LESSONS took me a bit to get used to and I had to cringe through a few video and audio blips; of course this is nature for the course of video calls but it all has a point; Once the two leads talk more, they really seem to connect and that is where the movie gets really interesting. Both Morales and Duplass have their own brand of comedic timing (and more and more Duplass ages, the more he looks like actor Ron Livingston from OFFICE SPACE, am I right?) and I also admired how it took a dramatic turn in the final act that is very well earned.

R#J (United States, dir. Carey Williams)

Adaptations to ROMEO & JULIET have been a mainstay of cinema for decades, from the Roman Polanski version in the late 1960s that became a staple of High School classrooms to the more famous rendition by Baz Luhrmann in the mid 90s. Carey Williams’ idea is to tell the entire story through Instagram Stories, direct messages, texting and more modern social media ways of communication. If you are someone who has your face buried in your phone and ONLY goes by all of the apps and taps away in text messages, you may find this an interesting take. My major issue with R#J that this is a good idea for a short subject film and it really tested my patience at its 90+ minute run time which made it overstay its welcome. Still, there are some gorgeous colorful shots in here and an interesting idea…that could have been a lot shorter.

BROADCAST SIGNAL INTRUSION (United States, dir. Jacob Gentry)

Jacob Gentry’s moody and visual who-dun-it has a terrific nod to 80s and 90s technology. When a man (Harry Shum Jr, terrific here) sees a mysterious image on videos that he is editing, he is hell bent on solving the case which takes him all the way on a weird fantastical journey, all the way to running into a mysterious lady (Kelley Mack) who can only give you information if you do a lot of shots with her. Only a TOUCH overlong in the middle (it’s only 104 minutes with credits but it feels a bit longer at times), this is a gorgeously made yarn that has a lot of stunning visual flourishes and even, dare I say it, some nice nods to Brian De Palma’s BLOW OUT at times. If you remember Gentry’s 2007 genre hit THE SIGNAL and the great balance between genre, awesome acting and visual design on limited means, BROADCAST SIGNAL INTRUSION is a solid new feature.

NOT GOING QUIETLY (United States, dir. Nicholas Bruckman)

A quietly powerful documentary that will really hit you right in the gut when at least expected, director Nicholas Bruckman’s is sure to be one of the most talked about talents at the festival. Ady Barkan is a man who was diagnosed with ALS at age 32 and after a now-viral incident where he runs into a politician on a plane and it begins a big push for government not to cut benefits that would not only save his own life, but others. Bruckman is wise here to use a lot of Ady’s home-made clips and cell phone footage that show his likeable personality along with his own non-obtrusive style that has way more power than expected. Ady also reminded me a lot of Jason DeSilva, a Vancouver based activist who also had a movie made about him called WHEN I WALK (a 2013 documentary) and is also worth looking out for. Ady is also very much an activist and wanting to push forward while also in the battle of his life at the same time.

INTRODUCING SELMA BLAIR (United States, dir. Rachel Fleit)

One of the most tragic actress stories of late was learning that actress Selma Blair, who had incredibly memorable performances in such movies as LEGALLY BLONDE, STORYTELLING and a famous sequence in CRUEL INTENTIONS, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2018. Blair was always an actress who I loved seeing in movies yet never really became what someone would consider an A-list celeb, but for this movie fan she was always a great addition to a movie.  This bold documentary by Rachel Felt follows Selma through many stages of treatment and dealing with MS, especially during COVID last year. This will not be an easy movie to watch for some and I also admired how the filmmakers also have no easy answers or solution either It simply watches Blair as she goes through an incredible transformation and gives very candid interviews about her family relationship, her real thoughts on her acting life along with scenes of her going through treatment. It emerges as a powerful account of an actor fighting for their life and you will never forget Selma Blair after watching this.

This film and many others like it will be showing at the virtual South By Southwest taking place March 16-20th. For more information and to register for the festival, point your browser to!

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