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LOL at SXSW Film: 4 comedies for your watchlist

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Jillian Bell, from left, Michaela Watkins, Marc Maron and Jon Bassstar in "Sword of Trust," which premiered at South by Soutwest this year. [CONTRIBUTED BY ARIK SOKOL]

A genre for all! We're rounding up some films to watch out for out of this year's South by Southwest Film Festival. In this roundup: comedies.

"Sword of Trust"

With her latest film, maverick director Lynn Shelton ("Your Sister's Sister") returns to her roots with a largely improvised comedy shot in Alabama. The film, which made its world premiere at SXSW, leans into conspiracy theories and the Civil War for a hysterical story that still exhibits a lot of heart.

Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins) are a loving couple who take a trip to pick up their inheritance after Cynthia's grandfather dies. They think that they are about to get his house and have already started dreaming of what they'll do with the money they make from selling it. The only problem? When they get there, they discover that grandpa had a reverse mortgage on the house, and it's now owned by the bank. The only thing left for them is a handwritten letter, an oversized envelope and a large sword wrapped in a blanket. After reading the letter, the two women decide that despite the fond memories, maybe they should just try to sell off the sword and go home.

Enter Mel (Marc Maron) and his shop, Delta Pawn. Alongside his co-worker, Nathaniel (Jon Bass in a scene-stealing performance), they initially try to offer just a few hundred dollars for the sword. After a strong argument from the women and a little internet sleuthing, they determine that some people believe the sword is a "prover" item that actually shows the South won the Civil War. All four of them team up for an adventure to earn top dollar for their troubles.

The casting here is spot on and, because the actors largely improvised their dialogue, that is really a key component to the film's success. Maron is, not surprisingly, at the top of his game here ("What is this? 'Antiques Roadshow' for racists?") and even performs the film's score. Bell and Watkins, who are always funny, have such great comic timing that they bounce off each other in a way that makes them very believable as a couple in a long-term relationship.

Characters who believe the earth is flat and the South will rise again are easy targets, but Shelton never lets things slip into pure parody. She expertly guides her actors toward the biggest laughs and keeps the story moving. At the post-film Q&A, she revealed that the first cut of the movie was more than two and a half hours. By trimming that down to 88 minutes, it's lean, mean and outrageously funny.

— Matt Shiverdecker, special to the American-Statesman

"Frances Ferguson"

Austin-based director Bob Byington has consistently crafted artful, sardonic films for more than a decade now.

Within the opening moments of his new feature, we're told that it is based on actual events. It's a story that we hear about all too often these days — a young substitute teacher gets caught having an affair with a student. Taking place in North Platt, Nebraska, we're in a small community where everybody knows each other (or at least knows somebody who knows you), and such things quickly become talked-about scandals.

Our titular character (Kaley Wheless) is a perfect fit into Byington's world. She is unhappily married to Nick (Keith Poulson, "Somebody Up There Likes Me") with a 4-year-old daughter inexplicably named Parfait. Despite appearing to have a fairly standard middle-class existence, she comes across as a person trapped in a life that she doesn't know how to escape. There isn't anything specific bringing her down, and it isn't even as though she is a bad mother, but she does even seem indifferent even to her own child. It's seemingly every single thing and person in her daily life that makes her miserable.

The initial story seems purposefully obtuse. Frances interacts with Jake (Jake French) at school, and they begin texting each other, but we don't really see them spend much time together. We never see them in a physical relationship. Before long, Nick is watching television at home and sees a news story about Frances getting arrested for her improper relationship with the boy. He asks if that was her on the news. She responds, "I was arrested for being a sex offender, yes" in a deadpan manner, as though she was ordering off a menu.

Over the course of 75 breezy minutes, we follow Frances through her trial, release, probation and entrance into group therapy, wherein the lead counselor (David Krumholtz in quite a humorous turn) mostly has to deal with people hooked on opioids and other drugs who don't quite know what to make of a beautiful young woman arrested for sex with a minor. Byington isn't particularly interested in judging Frances for her actions, although it's hard to imagine that if the story was about a male teacher with a younger female student that it would be approached in the same manner.

Nick Offerman, who is also an executive producer, perfectly narrates the entire story and provides us with more context, helping the audience get a sense of why Frances would have gone down this path in the first place. Did she do it all on purpose to blow up her unhappy life? We may not get all the answers, but "Frances Ferguson" gives us a unique look at a story ripped from today's headlines.

— Matt Shiverdecker, special to the American-Statesman

"Yes, God, Yes"

Films don't often take the time to explore female sexual awakening. And when they do, sexuality is often the butt of a joke.

"Yes, God, Yes" has its funnier moments: Awkwardness can't help but also be comedic. But the film takes a sincere approach to exploring this experience, especially regarding how religion and adults often attempt to stifle it.

"Yes, God, Yes" follows a young teen, Alice (Natalia Dyer of "Stranger Things") as she learns about sex and masturbation from an AOL chatroom. The cringe-worthy way the priest from school conducts sex ed emphasizes that its all a sin unless for the purpose of procreation when married. The majority of the film takes place at a Catholic retreat for teens, where Alice continues to discover more about herself, her desires and sex than she has before, now with piqued interest. Dyer balances the curiosity, naivety and mischievousness needed to make Alice's journey authentic, and the film as a whole wonderfully captures the genuine amount of awkwardness in discovering sex as a Catholic teen.

— Natalie Mokry, special to the American-Statesman

"Olympic Dreams"

Jeremy Teicher and his wife, Alexi Pappas, were able to use an artist-in-residency program from the International Olympic Committee to make their utterly charming new comedy, which premiered at SXSW. Filmed entirely during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, we get an unexpected meet-cute between a cross-country skier named Penelope (Pappas) and a volunteer dentist named Ezra (Nick Kroll).

After failing to place in her event, Penelope is left to her own devices, stuck in the Olympic Village and feeling sorry for herself. She meets Ezra in the cafeteria, but he is in a weird emotional place, because his fiance called off their engagement right before he left for South Korea. He is interested in Penelope but can't fully allow himself to get close to her, because he can't stop pining for a relationship that he knows deep down had been on the fritz for a long time.

Despite the fact that she hit a personal best time, Penelope is frustrated with herself for not doing better on the world stage. When Ezra asks her how she's doing, her heartbreakingly honest response is, "It doesn't feel like I wanted it to feel."

The two keep running into one another with various degrees of success until one magical evening, when they get away from the Olympic Village and head into town to explore. This aspect of the story recalls the "Before Sunrise" trilogy; we get dialogue-heavy scenes that allow us to get to know these characters and encourage their relationship to blossom.

Largely improvised and filled with Olympic athletes from around the world, Pappas and Kroll excel in bringing Penelope and Ezra to life before our eyes and making us root for them to succeed. Sharply observational, the film does a great job of illustrating the potential loneliness of athletes at this level of competition. American skier Gus Kenworthy also turns in a surprisingly warm performance as (a version of) himself and conveys the right amount of sweetness and humor.

— Matt Shiverdecker, special to the American-Statesman