Surprises abounded at this year’s South by Southwest film festival, with movies featuring depraved demons, devilish doppelgängers and sadistic senseis all doing despicable things. And yet, one of the most gasp-worthy moments was hearing tween actor Jacob Tremblay use the F-word in the first five minutes of Good Boys. It wouldn’t be the only time in this comedy about a wild day in the life of a few sixth-graders, and it was one of several breakout titles worth knowing about as the film portion of the festival comes to a close Saturday.
“If I’m being honest, I am shocked and appalled,” Tremblay joked during the post-screening Q&A, and added referring to his director Gene Stupnitsky, “Gene told me this was going to be a PG-rated family movie. He lied.”
The movie was right at home at a festival that has turned into something of a testing ground for the hit potential of Hollywood comedies. The audience applauded the comic timing of Tremblay and his co-stars, Brady Noon and scene-stealing Keith L. Williams, and that positive reaction along with a recently released red-band trailer featuring one of the movie’s producers, Seth Rogen, has fueled social-media interest. Good Boys opens nationwide in August.
Another talker was Olivia Wilde’s directing debut, Booksmart. Much like Good Boys, it follows students on a wild day, but this one is female-focused. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever star as high school seniors who, on the last day of school, realize they may have studied too hard and partied too softly. They make up for that in one outrageous evening that includes drugged strawberries and a raucous graduation bash. The packed house at the Paramount theater especially appreciated the killer soundtrack and a high laugh-per-minute ratio.
Also winning over festivalgoers was Long Shot, a rom-com starring Rogen and Charlize Theron. The crowd was drawn to the combination of smart and slapstick humor, and was also roused by a Boyz II Men cameo. Then, after the screening, could it really happen? Or do dreams just fade away? The pop group did a little East Coast swing in a surprise performance.
The laughs had a mellower edge at the premiere of the Harmony Korine comedy The Beach Bum, starring Matthew McConaughey as Moondog, the pothead writer he may have been born to play. The crowd basked in the movie’s hazy glow, and McConaughey was a great sport, attending the after-party dressed in character. Critical reaction to the film was a little more mixed. Variety wrote, “The question here isn’t if McConaughey is having fun, but whether audiences will find his laid-back, ever-lit persona nearly as entertaining to watch.” And The Hollywood Reporter said that the film was “high on style, if not substance.”
Humor was also a thread through some of the festival’s darker films, including Jordan Peele’s Us, which opened SXSW and featured a measured number of laugh- and shriek-worthy sequences. Similarly, audiences winced and laughed during The Art of Self-Defense, starring Jesse Eisenberg in a deadpan role as an accountant who is brutally attacked by masked assailants. Taking classes at a dojo, he meets a sensei (Alessandro Nivola) with a tainted worldview. The comedy is pitch-black, but the crowd appreciated its sinister quirks.
Other funny journeys down twisted roads included Porno, a 1992-set film about conservative Christian teenagers working in a small-town movie theater. After discovering an old film hidden in the walls, they inadvertently unleash a sex demon that wreaks havoc. Keola Racela’s debut feature, with more than one instance of genital mutilation played for laughs, made festivalgoers squirm but got them talking as well.
Villains, directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, put a fun twist on the home-invasion genre, with Bill Skarsgard and Maika Monroe as criminals on the lam. When their car runs out of gas, they pick the wrong home to break into, that of a couple (Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Sedgwick) with a few skeletons in their closet and another secret in their basement.
And in keeping with the Boys/Boyz festival motif, there was Boyz in the Wood, a hallucinogenic comedy-survival tale from music video director Ninian Doff about teenagers in the Scottish Highlands who become more hunted than hunters. The site Film School Rejects described it as “Hot Fuzz meets Attack the Block.” The movie was the subject of so much chatter that SXSW added an extra screening.
The festival wasn’t entirely lighthearted. Its two major jury awards went to much more serious-minded films. Alice, Josephine Mackerras’ drama about a woman (Emilie Piponnier) who becomes a prostitute to support her child, won the narrative feature prize. And For Sama, which focuses on a young female Syrian filmmaker, Waad al-Kateab, who cataloged harrowing aspects of her life in Aleppo for five years, took the documentary feature award.
But the festival’s biggest and funniest standouts show its programming strengths, and reinforce the value of the theatrical experience, the opportunity to laugh, and sometimes cringe, with a large, responsive audience.