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Here's what to watch at SXSW Film 2021, the fest's first online edition

Eric Webb
Austin 360
The Charli XCX documentary "Alone Together" will be SXSW Online's closing night headliner.

Watching movies at home? You’re an old hand at this by now, friend.  

South by Southwest Film Festival is back for 2021, and now it’s online. The cancellation of last year’s event at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic was a huge blow to the film community, and an ominous portent of things to come. Emerging filmmakers lost a valuable platform for securing distribution. Major studios missed out on high-visibility premieres for big-budget projects, and soon release and production schedules were stymied across the board. Also, regular Joes like us missed out on our annual binge of exciting stories and weird celebrity moments right in our backyard. (Remember when Boyz II Men showed up to perform at the “Long Shot” premiere, or any of the times Bill Murray walked right past us?) 

After Austin pulled SXSW’s plug in 2020, we got the odd rogue screening and a much smaller online showcase hosted by Amazon Prime Video. Since then, though, we’ve become used to the virtual format, thanks to events like ATX Television Festival and Austin Film Festival. Now, it’s SXSW’s turn. 

The program this year is a decidedly quieter affair than the years when Matthew McConaughey and Tiffany Haddish stomped the red carpet. Mirroring the SXSW Music Festival’s yearslong trend toward fewer big names and more up-and-comers, you’ll find a little less flash and a lot more niche interest on the online film schedule. 

Here are a few of our picks for films to check out. Check the schedule at online.sxsw.com for more screenings, Q&A events and film-related panels.

“Alien on Stage”: As someone who just watched Ridley Scott’s “Alien” for the first time a few months ago — listen, I only have two eyes — this doc about a scrappy, amateur stage adaptation in the U.K. suddenly seems essential. International premiere at noon March 18.

"Alone Together”: Alright angels, here’s our closing film. Pop mastermind Charli XCX birthed a critical smash album, “How I’m Feeling Now,” over 40 days during pandemic quarantine, taking her fans along for the ride. This doc opens the door even wider. (For what it’s worth, my favorite track is either “Detonate” or “I Finally Understand.”) World premiere at 6 p.m. March 18. Don’t miss the post-screening event with Ms. XCX at 9 p.m. on March 20.

Former "Glee" actor Harry Shum Jr. gets dark in "Broadcast Signal Intrusion."

“Broadcast Signal Intrusion”: Harry Shum Jr. — previously of dancing but not getting enough lines on “Glee” and then making a cameo in “Crazy Rich Asians” — stars in this midnighter about a video archivist who discovers sinister pirate broadcasts. Sounds like Prano Bailey-Bond's Sundance gem “Censor” in all the right ways. World premiere at 8 p.m. March 16.

“Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil”: SXSW's opening night headliner is this docuseries from YouTube Originals. The pop singer suffered a near-fatal overdose in 2018. Director Michael D. Ratner get an intimate look at that time and what came after. World premiere at 6 p.m. March 16. Catch the Q&A with Lovato and Ratner at 8 p.m. the same night.

“Dorothea’s Blues”: Director Channing Godfrey Peoples wowed us with last year’s Texas feature “Miss Juneteenth,” so we’re sure to check out this Austin Film Society-supported short. World premiere at 4 p.m. March 16.

Taís Araújo, left, and Alfred Enoch in Brazilian film "Executive Order."

"Executive Order”: A holdover from the 2020 slate, this Brazilian film imagines a near future when that country’s authoritarian regime tries to expel all people of African descent to Africa. Staring Alfred Enoch (“How To Get Away With Murder” and the “Harry Potter” films); promises to feel all too plausible. Texas premiere at 2 p.m. March 16. 

“The Fabulous Filipino Brothers”: Dante Basco’s comedy feature about the titular quartet is told in four vignettes containing “cockfights, adultery, romance, food and family.” I mean yeah, I’ll bite. World premiere at 4 p.m. March 16.

“Fruits of Labor”: One of the most timely docs on the slate. Emily Cohen Ibañez’s film tells the story of Ashley Solis, a Mexican American high school senior who also supports her family by working in California’s strawberry fields. Then ICE raids threaten to tear her community apart. World premiere at noon March 18.

Documentary "Fruits of Labor" will screen as part of SXSW Online.

“Here Before”: If there’s anything I love more than Andrea Riseborough scaring my pandemic-era gym shorts off in a mind-bending thriller — “Possessor,” “Mandy,” hello — I haven’t found it. In Stacey Gregg’s “unsettling” feature, Riseborough’s a bereaved mother questioning her reality. Give it to me now. World premiere at noon March 17.

“Hysterical”: If you, like me, like to stop breathing because you can’t stop laughing, this doc about women in the comedy scene will probably be your bag. Features Margaret Cho, Fortune Feimster, Kathy Griffin, Sherri Shepherd, Lisa Lampanelli and more. World premiere at 10 a.m. March 16. 

“I’m Fine (Thanks For Asking)”: A widow is put out on the street and reframes it as a camping adventure for her daughter. Director Kelley Kali also stars. World premiere at 10 a.m. March 17.

“In the Same Breath”: Director Nanfu Wang’s coronavirus documentary traces the pandemic’s history from the first cases in Wuhan, China, over to the country that let the virus fester to its most deadly proportions out of mass ignorance and political cruelty, the United States. In a film festival uniquely hit by the pandemic, seems like essential viewing.  Texas premiere at 4 p.m. March 18.

“Inbetween Girl”: University of Texas alum Mei Makino’s feature debut sounds like it was made to be a Netflix hit. A teen girl pursues a secret romance with the school hunk in the wake of her parents’ divorce. World premiere at 4 p.m. March 18.

"Introducing, Selma Blair”: Director Rachel Fleit follows actress Selma Blair after her 2018 multiple sclerosis diagnosis. World premiere at 2 p.m. March 16. 

"Kid Candidate”:  Always good to check in on the wild, hallucinatory world of Texas politics (it’s cheaper than booze but the hangover’s worse). In this doc: a 20-something musician runs for Amarillo City Council after his spoof campaign ad goes viral. World premiere at 10 a.m. March 16. 

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“Language Lessons”: Natalie Morales (of “Parks and Recreation”) makes her feature directorial debut, co-starring and co-writing with University of Texas alum Mark Duplass in a lockdown-inspired tale of a Spanish teacher and her student forming a connection. North American premiere at 2 p.m. March 17. 

"Lily Topples the World”: The world’s greatest domino toppler blazes a trail for women in her artform. We love a good doc about the nicheiest niches. World premiere at 4 p.m. March 16. 

“Luchadoras”: Meet the female wrestlers of Ciudad Juarez in this Spanish-language doc. World premiere at noon March 17.

“Ludi”: A nurse takes on the world “as she chases the American Dream in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood” in director Edson Jean’s drama. Texas premiere at 2 p.m. March 16.

“Made for Love”: In this house, we enjoy the onscreen stylings of one Cristin Milioti (“Palm Springs,” “Black Mirror”). Here, she’s a 30-something on the run from a bad marriage in an episodic series described as dark, absurd and poignant. Co-stars Billy Magnussen, who’s handsome and always pops up in stuff to do a good job at being mean, and Ray Romano. World premiere at 10 a.m. March 17.

“The Position”: For the high-concept TV fans out there, “The Position” is about a woman who runs a “small business out of a mini-mall selling direct access to the multiverse via a dimensional portal.” People cross dimensions to assume the lives of their alternate selves, and we are led to believe hijinks ensue. World premiere at 10 a.m. March 17. 

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“Potato Dreams of America”: A special story about a gay boy growing up under the U.S.S.R.’s falling shadow, who discovers the escapist power of movies. Also, his mother discovers the escapist power of being a mail-order bride. Based on a true story, co-starring the always welcome Lea DeLaria and featuring “Mean Girls” hunk Jonathan Bennett as Jesus Christ. World premiere at noon March 16.

“Recovery”: A standout on the schedule among the “Hey, this definitely is a COVID-19 film” set. In this comedy, two sisters embark on a pandemic road trip to bust grandma out of her nursing home when there’s a coronavirus outbreak. Man, what a year. World premiere at noon March 17.

“The Return: Life After ISIS”: Alba Sotorra Clua directs this Spanish/British doc about two woman who left their countries as teens to join ISIS. They find that returning home will not be so easy. World premiere at 2 p.m. March 17.

“The Spine of Night": In a year without the red carpet celeb sightings we’ve grown accustomed to, this might be SXSW’s most star-studded film — and it’s a rotoscoped horror fantasy. This midnighter from Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King features Richard E. Grant, Lucy Lawless, Betty Gabriel, Joe Manganiello and Patton Oswalt in a time-bending quest to defeat a dark magic threat. World premiere at 8 p.m. March 18.

Udo Kier is a hairdresser on the mission of a lifetime in "Swan Song."

“Swan Song”: If you went to Sundance Film Festival’s drive-in screening of “The Blazing World” earlier this year, you’re fiending for more Udo Kier, who was deliciously batty both onscreen and in the post-film Q&A. (You haven’t lived until you’ve tried to avoid hitting Udo Kier with your Prius as you try to exit a replica pioneer village at night in a pandemic.) In Todd Stephens’ “Swan Song,” the actor plays a hairdresser who escapes his nursing home to do a dead woman’s hair for her funeral. Co-stars Michael Urie and Jennifer freakin’ Coolidge, so. World premiere at noon March 18. 

“Them”: There’s buzz around this episodic horror anthology from Amazon Studios and Sony Pictures Television (Lena Waithe is an executive producer). Showrunner Little Marvin presents the story of a Black family moving to an all-white neighborhood in 1953, with “malevolent forces, next door and otherworldly,” in store. World premiere at 4 p.m. March 18.

“Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free”: The legendary rocker, who died in 2017 at age 66, was at a creative peak when this footage was shot from 1993 to 1995. It captures sessions for his landmark 1994 album “Wildflowers” plus behind-the-scenes glimpses of Petty and his band the Heartbreakers on tour, as well as personal home movies of Petty with his family. Director Mary Wharton assembled the film from recently discovered 16mm film archives. World premiere at 6 p.m. March 17. — Peter Blackstock

“Violet”: Justine Bateman! I am a longtime fan and super intrigued by the summary of the story she wrote and directs, which is a holdover from the 2020 slate: A film executive (Olivia Munn) discovers her internal voice has been lying to her about everything. World premiere at 4 p.m. March 18. Catch the Q&A with Bateman at 8 p.m. — Sharon Chapman

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“Without Getting Killed or Caught”: Based on author/filmmaker Tamara Saviano’s Guy Clark biography of the same title, this documentary is in many ways as much about Clark’s wife, Susanna, a chart-topping songwriter and accomplished painter who’s as fascinating a subject as her husband. The couple’s close friend Townes Van Zandt also figures prominently in the story, which is told partly through archival footage and photographs. Oscar winner Sissy Spacek provides the voice for passages from Susanna’s journal that complement fresh interviews with Clark compadres such as Rodney Crowell and Verlon Thompson. World premiere at 10 a.m. March 18. — P.B.

“Women is Losers”: Director Lissette Feliciano’s comedy-drama is set in 1960s San Francisco, where a “once-promising Catholic school girl” named Celine (Lorenza Izzo) tries to find a better future for her son and herself. (The cast also includes Liza “Paris Gellar” Weil.) World premiere at 10 a.m. March 16.

"Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror”: Austin filmmaker Kier-La Janisse brings “the first feature-length documentary on the history of folk horror” to SXSW. Let’s get spooky. World premiere at 8 p.m. March 16.