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Rappers, riot grrls and Zoom: 8 movies to look out for from Austin Film Festival

Rapper Freddie Gibbs paints a compelling portrait of a troubled artist in "Down With the King."

Austin Film Festival made its grand in-person return to the city Oct. 21-28, bringing exciting new movies to cinephiles from here and abroad. Didn't make it out? Here's a roundup of a few flicks we caught at the fest that you should keep an eye on. Also, check out full reviews of festival selections "The French Dispatch," "C'mon C'mon" and "Spencer" at austin360.com.

'Down With the King'

In a deeply visceral opening scene, gangsta rapper Money Merc (Freddie Gibbs) helps farmer Bob (Bob Tarasuk) peel the skin off a hog carcass.

Merc is eager to get his hands dirty. Sequestered by his manager in a luxurious cabin in the Berkshires so he can focus on his next album, Merc instead becomes preoccupied with Bob, the farm and forging a connection to something deeper than a fickle music industry with an insatiable hunger for formulaic hits. 

Real-life gangsta rapper Gibbs paints a powerful portrait of a troubled artist. He’s forceful. He’s vulnerable. He’s immensely likable.

Placing rap icon Merc in a remote hideaway, writer and director Diego Ongaro brings together urban and rural and Black and white America in ways that are poignant, if occasionally predictable. The chemistry between Tarasuk and Gibbs feels easy. As Merc frolics in Bob’s field herding cows, then coaches his older friend on how to deliver killer bars, we glimpse an alternate universe where this is a lighthearted buddy comedy between the two men. His friendship with Michaele (played with rich depth by Jamie Neumann), a local who feels as smothered by her hometown as Merc feels by the industry, underlines the universal struggle to find a life that feels authentic and full. 

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As the story unfolds against a backdrop of pastoral America at its prettiest, with tree-covered mountains and placid hidden lakes, the character of Merc seems tailor-made for Gibbs. Earlier this year, Gibbs told NPR that white executives exploit the Black rappers they hire, forcing them to crank out tracks to “run up their streaming numbers.”

“It's like a (expletive) slave plantation,” he said. 

Like Merc, Gibbs, who is 39, has hinted in interviews about possible plans to retire from the rap game.   

He mines the emotional weight of his own experiences to deliver a convincing performance that sets the stage for a next chapter on screen. 

Grade: B+

— D.S.S.

Juliana DeStefano, right, plays Jenny, an overachieving high school senior who finds a new side of herself after best friend Drea (Mai Le, left) introduces her to the riot grrl movement.

'Acid Test'

This angry-girl coming-of-age tale packs raging punk riffs, hallucinogenic philosophy and a Kinko's-copied manifesto of defiant energy.

Overachiever Jenny (Juliana DeStefano) enters her senior year in high school in 1992 with the country reeling from the Rodney King riots and the Anita Hill hearings. The presidential election looms large with Ross Perot muddying the waters and Hillary Clinton riling the right. 

A middle-class kid on a legacy track to early admission at Harvard, Jenny’s straight-edge trajectory veers off course after she spontaneously decides to drop acid at a riot grrl concert with her best friend Drea (Mai Le). Inspired by the female punk movement’s unapologetic feminism, she begins to reexamine everything. She questions her white father’s dominant position in the household and the racial dynamics at play in his relationship with her Mexican mother, as well as her pre-ordained path as an Ivy Leaguer. 

To capture the raucous spirit that explodes from the film’s music scenes, Houston-based filmmaker Jenny Waldo hosted and filmed a concert with current riot grrl punk acts (including Austin’s Pleasure Venom). The movie mixes exhilarating shots from the show and archival news footage into a narrative arc anchored by a heartfelt story about love and family. With a diverse cast and a strong female perspective, it’s the riot grrl high school flick that Gen X ladies have been waiting for. 

Grade: A-

— D.S.S.

"Cusp" follows three teenage girls on a wild summer in rural Texas.

'Cusp'

By sheer serendipity, filmmakers Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt stumbled across a trio of wayward teenagers (Brittney, Aaloni and Autumn) at 2:30 a.m. at a gas stop in a small Texas military town. Impressed with the girls’ endless energy and charmed by their goofy interactions, they returned to film them for a 10-day stretch of summer partying and late -night hangs. 

While Hill and Bethencourt say they were drawn to “how free” the girls felt, the slice of life they capture is a harrowing snapshot of a small-town summer, which paints a devastating picture of bodily autonomy in a culture ruled by toxic masculinity. 

The girls, aged 15 to 16, day-drink to kill the boredom, frequently ending up at parties that stretch till dawn. Older boys, initially hesitant about the girls’ ages, soon lose their apprehensions. Danger feels ever-present. 

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“As we spent more time filming, we were struck by how casually and often the kids, girls and boys alike, talked about things like sexual assault and rape. They were all matter-of-fact about it, as if it were an inherent, unavoidable part of growing up,” the directors said in a statement. 

The girls have survival strategies: Never go to a party alone, always have a ride, never be in a room by yourself with a guy. Yet almost all of them have stories about nonconsensual experiences. While the girls downplay the seriousness, the viewer is left wondering what sort of lingering trauma guides their actions. Are they self-medicating to dull the pain? 

The documentary captures a specific crew of Texas teenagers, but it’s easy to imagine similar scenes playing out in tiny towns around the country. It’s a queasy film that will leave parents of young girls shaken to the core. "Cusp" premieres on Showtime on Nov. 26. 

Grade: A-     

— D.S.S.

Amy Schumer, Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein and Richard Jenkins play members of a family celebrating a really bad Thanksgiving in "The Humans."

'The Humans'

Stephen Karam’s “The Humans” is a fantastic work of theater. Is it a good movie?  

Well. 

It’s a fantastic work of theater. 

There’s oodles to like about Karam’s adaptation of his own Tony-winning play. The opening credits cycle through keyholes of sky, piercing through tunnels created by high-rise buildings as seen from the ground. It’s tight and uncomfortable, unnerving and beautiful. It’s a great way to open up the very closed-in story.  

Retirement-age Scranton couple Erik and Dierdre (Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell) are visiting their daughter, Brigid (Beanie Feldstein), and her partner, Richard (Steven Yeun), in Manhattan for Thanksgiving. Along for the ride are their other adult daughter, Aimee (Amy Schumer), and Erik’s dementia-hobbled mother, Momo (June Squibb).  

The holiday is supposed to be a loving reunion. It turns into a disorienting night of secrets, fears and resentments laid out like a roasted turkey. 

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The film takes place entirely in Brigid’s shabby new apartment, where radiators clang, wallpaper bubbles and caulk degrades. There’s a simmering unease to the space itself, which gives a fitting home to an exploration of all the ways we tear apart the ones we love. That lurking rot is also a handy and elegant stand-in for the unaddressed trauma this family has suffered, including during 9/11. 

In a post-film Q&A at Austin Film Festival, Karam spoke about wanting to give “The Humans” life on the screen as a horror movie. It’s possible the transformation was too literal; jump scares typically pay off, after all, and unless you’re afraid of withering dialogue that scream the theme — “Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?” one character says — the style starts to feel artificial after a while. 

Houdyshell shows up an entire cast of greats and makes it look easy, playing a doting mom who gives way more than she gets. Everyone’s phenomenal, though, especially Schumer. 

The big screen might not be the perfect home for “The Humans.” It’s another high-profile film where you say after, “Oh, that was definitely a play first.” But hey, the tickets will be cheaper than Broadway. It’s in theaters and on Showtime on Nov. 24. 

Grade: B

— E.W. 

'Imad’s Childhood'

When five-year-old Imad, his younger brother, Idan, and their mother, Ghazala, arrive in a refugee camp in Kurdistan, the family is broken. Members of the Kurdish Yazidi minority, they were captured by the militant Islamic State group over two years earlier. While his mother was sold into sexual slavery and passed between a dozen men, Imad was taken by fighters who taught him how to shoot guns, place improvised explosive devices and behead dogs. Speaking only Arabic and unable to communicate with his family, Imad has been taught to hate women, including his mother and grandmother. His father remains missing. He is explosively violent and cruel. 

Aided by the incredible child psychologist, Berivan, a playful spirit with the patience of a saint, the family embarks on an excruciating struggle to emerge from the darkness. With tensions around immigration running high around the globe, director Zahavi Sanjavi’s powerful documentary shines a crucial light on a humanitarian crisis in a way that underlines our shared humanity. 

Grade:

— D.S.S.

'Memoria'  

We all have our dreams. Yours might be to follow Tilda Swinton around Colombia from a healthy distance for more than two hours. That is not one of my dreams, I have learned. 

“Memoria,” from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, ostensibly follows Jessica (Swinton), who’s living abroad in South America. She experiences a mysterious thudding sound that no one else seems to hear, and she becomes obsessed with finding its origin, which leads her into the jungle and into the world of memory. 

Weerasethakul is a maker of so-called slow cinema, where action is secondary to mood. Audiences are meant to soak in images, sounds and feelings that at times seem interminable. It’s definitely more on the art side of the art-to-commerce spectrum.  

So, if that’s your bag, go for it. I’m not opposed to the idea, but “Memoria” did not work for me on even a vibes level. Across a dull cavalcade of slow-moving images (I did not take a tally, but I bet there are just more than a few dozen individual shots in the whole thing), it’s often more mundane than beautiful. Wordless long shots, and a few medium ones if you behave, are politely attractive at best.

Perhaps I am too hung up on the idea of plot to appreciate a film like “Memoria,” but I thought multiple times that if I had not read the plot summary, I would not even realize the premise from watching. And it's not bizarre enough to enjoy the ride, either.

I'm happy to be a philistine, and happy if “Memoria” sweeps others away into a better plane of existence. Your chance to see if that’s you: Neon, its distributor, is taking the movie on a never-ending, city-to-city exhibition tour instead of a traditional release.  

Grade: D

— E.W. 

"The Same Storm," starring Mary Louise Parker and others, opened up Austin Film Festival for 2021, telling a COVID-era tale of connection.

'The Same Storm' 

A COVID-19 movie filmed entirely using remote video technology like FaceTime: In most scenarios, that’s gonna be a pass from me. I don’t even like FaceTiming with my favorite people. 

But Peter Hedges’ “The Same Storm,” featuring 24 actors performing different vignettes in a daisy chain of human connection set amid the pandemic, is the 1% movie among that 99% of ill-fated scenarios. An anthology of short stories, each scene (again, filmed entirely via Zoom and the like) passes the baton to the next. In this case, the baton is an actor who carries over. 

Those scenes feel more intimate and powerful than they have any right to. “The moment we try to control the unknown, we lose our balance,” a virtual yoga teacher says in the first vignette, setting the tone for a film that has no single set tone (to its credit). Raul Castillo and Noma Dumezweni start that first story in “The Same Storm” with a gutting call from a nurse to a woman whose COVID-patient husband doesn’t have long time left. The action fluidly transforms into a video chat between Castillo’s character (looking to blow off steam) and a cynical sex worker played by Mary Louise Parker. Get the picture? 

Thanks to ever-shifting levels of heaviness and lightness, often within the same scene, Hedges’ experiment more than avoids feeling like a cold, gimmicky misfire. Plus, the performances are just so damn good; Castillo, Elaine May, Moses Ingram, Judith Light and Jin Ha give among the strongest. It’s like watching a really phenomenal acting workshop. 

“We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm,” goes the Damian Barr quote at the beginning of the film. By looking at our ongoing trauma with a kaleidoscope lens, “The Same Storm” might be a reckoning we could use. 

Grade: B+

— E.W. 

Eleanor Lambert shines as Jenny in "Time Now."

'Time Now' 

Following the death of her twin brother, Victor (Sebastian Beacon), Jenny (Eleanor Lambert) returns to her estranged family in Detroit in search of closure. 

Set in a bleak Midwestern March, an interminable winter that refuses to break into spring, director Spencer King creates a pervasive darkness that runs through the film. When Jenny discovers her brother’s world, an artsy warehouse party scene — soundtracked by Detroit native and R&B standout Dwele — it infuses the film with welcome bursts of color. 

But as Jenny searches for answers about her brother’s life and death, she must confront hard truths about herself, her brother and the world she tried to flee.  

Lambert, daughter of actress Diane Lane, shines in this gritty psychological drama that builds with a slow burn toward a jarring climax. "Time Now" opened in select theaters on Oct. 29. 

Grade: A-   

— D.S.S.