SXSW 2021: Narrative Feature Competition

Eight films competed for the top prize at this year’s fest

Every year the slate of films vying for the title in the Narrative Feature Competition is solid. 2021 was no different. These eight movies represent the best of current indie and foreign cinema.


Grand Jury Award

Bursting onto the scene with a ferocity matched only by the tears it will draw out of you, the astounding and assured SXSW Grand Jury Winner The Fallout launches writer/director Megan Park and her cast into a whole different stratosphere.

Park has achieved something incredible here, focusing on the topical tragedy of school gun violence that has become sadly emblematic of modern American life, and then grounding it in a bravely realistic portrait of teen life that peels back a veil of mystery not unlike films like Thirteen or Eighth Grade have done… making us cringe at the awkwardness of this time of life even as our jaws drop realizing what “kids these days” have to deal with that we never had to.

Ed Travis


Special Jury Recognition for Multi-hyphenate Storyteller

Danny’s not doing fine. Her husband is recently deceased, she lives in a tent with her daughter, and she’s braiding hair and delivering food just to make ends meet. Set in the Pacoima neighborhood of Los Angeles, I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) tells a tale of toil and trouble.


Special Jury Recognition for Breakthrough Performance

Calling something “a quiet film” is usually a backhanded complement at best, but it the case of Islands, it’s not only true, it’s a strength. Set amidst a Filipino family in Canada, Islands centers itself around Joshua (superbly played by Rogelio Balagtas) as a middle-aged man dealing with the mortality of his elderly parents as well as his own crippling shyness. The film is literally quiet in its volume and even more so in the slow rhythms of daily life for this immigrant family. When cousin Marisol (Sheila Lotuaco) shows up, her appearance breathes a huge breath of life into the situation. Islands might not drip with drama, but it deals with the heartache of the every day in a genuine and affecting way.


The premise of Here Before isn’t a new one. A new child shows up in the life of a family grieving the loss of their own. Before long, it becomes apparent that something is amiss, and the new child seems much too much like the old one. Reincarnation? Insanity? This is twist-heavy territory, but where some films might try to get by on narrative trickery, Here Before relies on execution. It all starts with the mother, played brilliantly by Andrea Riseborough. She’s the epitome of having moved on from the death of her Josie, and when a new little girl moves in next door, she’s as sweet as can be. When memories from her daughter start coming out of this other wee one’s mouth, she starts to doubt herself and her sanity. The resolution doesn’t go full M. Night, but matches well with this story of daily life in North Ireland, where a family’s struggle with grief doesn’t end as easily as anyone would like.


There will surely be a spate of pandemic-induced movies. While The End of Us might not end up being the best, it’s a nice contribution to the nascent genre. Set in Los Angeles right as the lockdown begins, Leah (Ali Vingiano) and Nick (Ben Coleman) break up, but with nowhere to go, they turn from lovers into roommates, a situation fraught with boundary issues. Nick’s an uninspired aspiring actor, with the Leah the breadwinner until she loses her job along with lots of others in mid-2020. The story tracks the pandemic, and being set mainly in a small, one-bedroom house exudes claustrophobia in both time and space. Strict adherence to safety protocols are strictly kept. Until they’re not. The intrusion of former coworker–and current douchebag–Tim (Derrick Joseph DeBlasis) creates some much needed chaos that pushes things toward a climax. A small production like this lives or dies on its leads, and The End of Us lives large. Vigniano’s vulnerable strength plays off Coleman’s flawed, earnest charm to great effect. DeBlasis is good, too, managing to make obsession with the Criterion Collection seem like an eternal wrong move. While no one wants to relive the last year, The End of Us crafts an empathetic journey through a troubled time.


Two girls. One dead dad. Lots of awkward hijinks. That’s not all Our Father is, but it’s a start. Older sister Beta (Baize Buzan who’s got kind of an Allison Brie thing going on) and Zelda (Allison Torem) must navigate not only their father’s passing but also their own chaotic lives. Beta should be moving on the grad school, but hasn’t yet, and Zelda has found herself dating an older man while living in a boarding house with much older women. She’s crass, and keeps the comedy going on the girls begin a hunt for an uncle they’ve just become aware of. This Chicago indie is both full of pathos and humor, and good combo for any set of siblings.


Tagged as both a comedy and a drama, Women is Losers deals with much too weighty of a subject to be the former but operates as the latter well. The film is a period piece, depicting the struggles of a young girl from high school through an unplanned pregnancy to the hard and soft sexism of the working world of the 70’s. While the struggles are real, the film almost universally turns the world into a series of two-dimensional bad guys enacting oppressive after oppressive act. What saves this story is the lead, played artfully by Lorenza Izzo. Her depiction of grace and perseverance jumps off the screen.


Being gay in the Soviet Union is no way to live. That’s the conundrum facing the main character in Potato Dreams of America, and autobiographical tale from director Wes Hurley. Instead of taking their chances in the U.S.S.R., Potato’s mother offers herself up as a mail-order bride, which wins them a trip to Seattle. Alls not well there, though, as her new conservative Christian husband John (Dan Lauria of The Wonder Years) makes it clear where he stands on Potato’s gay agenda. It doesn’t stop there, and Potato Dreams of America has some surprises up its sleeve before the final curtain.

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