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SXSW: South Mountain

Relationships are messy. They’re not these uniform experience with clear beginnings, middles and ends. When you invest your emotions into another person and that partnerships ends, it’s not a clean break. Especially when children are involved. 

Director Hilary Brougher’s South Mountain is a beautiful, quiet film about a couple’s break-up and its repercussions. It stays true to the messy nature of family dynamics. It follows the story of Lila (Talia Balsam), an artist living in the Catskills with her husband Edgar (Scott Cohen) and their children. Lila has a lot on her plate. Her best friend Gigi (Andrus Nichols) is battling breast cancer, her adoptive daughter Sam (Macaulee Cassaday) is about to go on her first big adventure as a young adult and her husband Edgar just had a baby with his girlfriend Gemma (Isis Masoud) and is leaving the family. She has a brief affair with her daughter’s friend Jonah (Michael Oberholttzer) and tries to poison Edgar but rescues him just in time. As Lila’s world falls apart, can she put the pieces back together and find some semblance of happiness again?

At the world premiere of South Mountain at SXSW, Brougher spoke at length about the inspiration behind the film and what she hopes audiences will take away from the story. 

“This is definitely a piece of fiction. It’s not all auto-biographical. It’s made from a lot of scraps from a lot of people’s lives that I’ve known very closely. It’s made out of the stuff that is my life. We did that for practical reasons. It was what I hoped would be a way to give the audience something of value… All I have is my particular view of the world.”

Director Hilary Brougher

“For me the film is about sadness but it is not a sad film. The film is about “to be continued.” The film is about how we stay connected when we fall apart… Everyone will bring their own emotions to this film in their own experience. I’m sure my own experience is colored by getting to connect with all these people and having it be a very healing experience.”

Director Hilary Brougher

“I was involved in a project that destroyed me creatively. Even in making this film about why people stick around when things are bad, I was getting healed. For me there is great beauty and joy and transcendence in it but I understand that people are going to access it from wherever they are. I hope they feel the love. I hope it heals more than it hurts.”

Director Hilary Brougher

South Mountain is gorgeously shot and directed and there is a unique beauty in the subtlety of the performances. Everyone goes through their own kind of pain and I love how this is portrayed by the different characters. By the end of the film I did feel I needed the story explained to me so I was grateful for the director Q&A although a second viewing would have expanded my understanding.

In one memorable scene, the family is enjoying an outdoor barbecue while Edgar is inside watching his girlfriend give birth to his child via FaceTime. It looked so realistic I asked myself “did they really use a pregnant woman and film a live birth?” When actress Isis Masoud spoke before the SXSW audience she confirmed this to be true. The iPhone sequence is footage of her child’s birth spliced in with scenes she filmed at 8 months pregnant. Amazing!

South Mountain had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Narrative Feature Competition.

SXSW: Sakawa

“We are the hustlers.”

Director Ben Asamoah’s new documentary Sakawa explores the underground world of Ghanian internet scammers. They gather in a room sharing one source of internet and electricity and using smartphones and computer equipment that they’ve salvaged. The scammers work individually on different projects but advise each other on how to improve their techniques to get the most money out of their victims. By creating fake online personas and focusing on profile types, mostly caucasians in the U.S. and the U.K., they build relationships with their targets and work towards the big pay day.

Viewers will feel conflicted. This is a community of people living in a third-world country. They have few options available to them so they find an alternate way to make money to support themselves and their families. But on the flip side, they’re scamming innocent people out of their hard-earned dollars. These aren’t multi-millionaires, these are middle or lower class people who are gullible enough to fall for these elaborately crafted schemes.

“We use what we have to get what we want.”

There are no in-depth interviews and we don’t learn their names. The film holds the viewer at arms-length which is necessary I believe to keep us in as neutral a space as possible. Some might find the film and its subject matter off-putting but I found it fascinating.

Beyond the internet scams, we also get a look at the religious/cultural practices and home life of Ghanians. 

Sakawa is a compelling documentary that offers insight into the little-known world of internet scammers of Ghana, Africa. 

Sakawa had its North American premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Visions series.

SXSW: Being Impossible

Ariel (Lucia Bedoya) is a Venezuelan woman going through an incredibly painful time in her life. Her day job as a dressmaker finds her surrounded by judgmental women in a stifling environment. At night she cares for her dying mother (Maria Elena Duque). The film opens with Ariel having her first sexual encounter, one that leaves her bleeding and in pain for days. With everything else that’s going on, why is her body betraying her?

What Ariel doesn’t know but something the audience learns with hints along the way is that she’s intersex. When Ariel was born, her mother arranged for her to have sexual reassignment surgery to become female.  As the story progresses, Ariel is confused and bewildered. She doesn’t know why she’s physically attracted to the new woman at work, why sex with a man is so incredibly painful and why her mother refuses to let her see another doctor for a second opinion about her pain.

Director Patricia Ortega’s Being Impossible/Yo imposible is a hard pill to swallow. It’s a heavy-handed story that offers little to an audience that will be overwhelmed by the subject matter. The story is set up as a mystery with Ariel finding about her true gender at the end. While this might make sense on paper it doesn’t really work in the film.

I did identify with the character of Ariel because even though I don’t know what it’s like to be intersex, I could relate to the feeling of being betrayed by one’s own body and the repression that comes with being in an a religious environment. Interspersed throughout the movie were interviews with intersex subjects who described their own struggles on camera. I thought these were effective but would have been more so if Ariel’s discovery had happened earlier in the story. I loved the tender love story between Ariel and her female coworker. This was a little kernel of hope in otherwise grim movie.

If you’re interested in the subject matter, I would direct you to another South American film with an intersex protagonist XXY (2007) which I thought was a far better story overall.

Being Impossible had its North American premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Global series.

SXSW: Qualified

“All I want to do is race cars.”

Janet Guthrie

Adventurous and determined, Janet Guthrie is a trailblazer in the auto racing world. As the first woman to race the Indy 500, she faced an uphill battle to break the gender barrier in the late 1970s. Her career was plagued with setbacks; from mechanical failures, to lack of sponsorship that kept her out of races, to injuries and the biggest of all was the engrained belief that women could not physically be race car drivers.

Guthrie is a fearless woman. At a very young age, she fell in love with flying and didn’t hesitate to jump out of a plane for her first skydive. But realizing that female pilots were banned from both the airline industry and the military, she decided to become an aeronautical engineer instead. This led to her discovery of sports cars, a fascination with their design and her infatuation with the sport. Developing her skills as a driver, Guthrie loved speed and racing took over her life. But was auto racing ready for a woman driver?

“What is this nonsense that women can’t do it?”

Janet Guthrie on women race car drivers

Director Jenna Ricker’s Qualified follows the career of Janet Guthrie and all its ups and downs. And there were a lot of downs. The documentary consists of mostly archival footage of Guthrie’s races and television interviews. Guthrie herself and the various drivers and mechanics speak at length about her qualifying attempts, her races and all the struggles she endured in her career. I found Guthrie’s story both frustrating and awe-inspiring. I was angry at society for holding her back whether it was a sponsor not wanting to risk being associated with a woman driver or other people in the industry believing the sport was too dangerous for women. One pivotal moment show the dilemma of whether to call out “gentleman start your engines” when both Guthrie and the mechanic starting her engine were women.

As a woman who has experienced many career setbacks, I was really motivated by Guthrie’s tenacity. She explored every option, fought for every qualifier and race and only gave up when no options were left for her. If it hadn’t been for her tenacity, she might not have opened the doors necessary to pursue her dream. That’s a powerful message for any woman of any age.

Qualified takes its viewers on an emotional journey. I’m so grateful for Ricker’s film and the opportunity to learn about Guthrie’s story. I’ll have to admit, I choked up a few times. I can’t emphasize how important it is for a woman to have a strong female role model, even if she’s in a completely different field from your own. It can be life changing.

Qualified had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Documentary Spotlight series.

SXSW: Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy

“She is a prophet for Mexican food.”

Nick Zuckin

Cookbook author and chef Diana Kennedy is the leading expert on traditional Mexican cooking. For over 60 years, Kennedy has immersed herself in Mexican culture and food, learning and respecting the traditions of one of the most celebrated cuisines. This feisty and unapologetic British woman may be an outsider looking in but because she has lived in rural Mexico, in Zitácuaro, Michoacán, for most of her life and sticks to the tried and true approaches to different dishes and recipes, she’s become what one of her friends calls an “adoptive daughter of Mexico.” 

Director Elizabeth Carroll, in her debut documentary Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy explores the life and work of this outspoken advocate for preserving Mexico’s culinary history. Nothing Fancy is a reference to one of Kennedy’s cookbooks but also speaks to Kennedy’s approach to cooking and to life. There are no variations, twists or updates. She sticks to the old ways. Kennedy is a fascinating subject. She’s scrappy, resourceful, and is a champion for organic gardening and sustainable living. She’s always on the road exploring different parts of her adopted country. Kennedy isn’t afraid to tell you what she thinks in her abrupt and frank manner.

In the film we mostly hear from Kennedy herself but Mexican chefs, including one of my favorites Pati Jinich, and other experts also chime in on Kennedy’s legacy. My favorite scene shows present day Kennedy making guacamole with spliced in archival footage from decades earlier of her making the exact same recipe. Kennedy is a free spirit who does not change and is true to what she believes in. 

Perhaps the only flaw of the film, which the director hinted at during a screening of this documentary at SXSW, is that the relationships Kennedy has with people in the film isn’t explained. In one case, she is very close to another chef and there is a lovely scene where they have their portrait taken together. But we really don’t find out much about who she is and how they bonded.

Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy is a charming documentary that allows its subject’s vibrant personality shine through. It also serves as one way we can ensure Kennedy’s contributions to preserving Mexican food culture is appreciated for decades to come.

Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Documentary Feature Competition.

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