SXSW: Five films that are sure bets at this year’s fest

‘Descendant,’ ‘Cha Cha,’ ‘Emergency,’ ‘Fire of Love’ and ’32 Sounds’ deserve attention


South by Southwest is hoping this is its comeback year, with in-person film screenings, multiple live concerts and a post-pandemic can-do attitude. The weather, however, is not cooperating on opening weekend. But never mind.

Here are five top screenings taking place during the film festival, so catch them if you can.

This batch of recommendations centers on movies that have already screened elsewhere, like at Sundance. So there’s no guesswork on whether they’re good. They are.

1. “Descendant.” Former Austinite Margaret Brown returns to her home state of Alabama for a documentary about the descendants of the last slave ship to arrive on American shores — well past the ban date on the slave trade in 1808.

In 1859, Timothy Maeher of Mobile, Al., bet that he could bring some slaves to the United States without getting caught. He succeeded, and the slaves arrived in 1860 and were unloaded at a place called 11 Mile Island. To cover his tracks, he had the ship, named the Clotilda, set afire and sunk.

After the Civil War, the slaves from that ship settled in the area, known as Africatown. “Descendant” tracks the efforts of National Geographic and other organizations to discover the remains of the Clotilda. But it also delves into the systemic racism that has rained down on the Clotilda descendants, in the form of environmental degradation and continued exploitation. It’s quite a tale — and one that Brown tells quite well.

The movie screens at noon March 13 at the Paramount Theatre on Congress Avenue downtown. It screens at 6 p.m. March 18 at the AFS Cinema, a satellite venue on Middle Fiskville Road.

Related: ‘Descendant’ documentary tells a story of a great injustice

2. “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” Director Cooper Raiff’s dramedy won an audience award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and Apple TV has acquired distribution rights. It focuses on a young man, Andrew, played by Raiff, who has graduated from college but goes back home to live with his parents because he can’t decide what he wants to do with his life.

He discovers a talent, however, when he gets a party started at one of his younger brother’s bar mitzvah outings. So Jewish folks begin to hire him to liven up their bar and bat mitzvahs. Along the way, Andrew meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt).

Johnson is fantastic as Domino, and Raiff has personality and charm galore. Then again, he writes and directs and stars in his own movie, so it’s all a bit calculated. Still, it works.

The movie screens at 7:30 p.m. March 18 at the Paramount Theatre. It screens online, starting at 9 a.m. March 19.

RJ Cyler, left, Daniel Eise Watkins, right, and Sebastian Chacon, in the back seat, star in “Emergency.” Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

3. “Emergency.” Director Carey Williams focuses on the widely divergent paths of two best friends, both of whom are Black, when they are faced with a serious question: Should they call the police when they find a young white woman passed out on their living room floor? Sean (RJ Cyler), says hell no. He’s a stoner, and he has seen some things that make him feel very leery around police.

His best friend Kunle (Daniel Watkins), however, is a preppy who is destined from Princeton graduate school and believes in the system. His views clash with Sean’s as they prepare for an unusual night on the town.

The movie screens at 1 p.m. March 12 at the Stateside Theater. It screens online at 9 a.m. March 13, and has two more festival screenings: at 11:30 a.m. March 16 at the Zach Theatre and at 6 p.m. March 19 at the Alamo South.

Related: ‘Emergency’ packs a powerful punch

4. “Fire of Love.” The documentary from Sara Dosa looks at two French scientists, Katia and Maurice Krafft, who are fascinated by volcanoes and risk their lives to photograph the fiery eruptions. The film makes use of the hundreds of hours of footage that the Kraffts shot before dying during a volcanic explosion.

The movie won the Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

The movie screens at 6:15 p.m. March 11 at the Violet Crown. It screens again at 6:45 p.m. at the Violet Crown and online at 9 a.m. March 12.

5. “32 Sounds.” Director Sam Green brings us an experimental documentary that explores the power of sound to bend time, cross borders and shape our perceptions. The documentary does this, in part, through the music of JD Samson.

The festival’s in-person screening will provide headphones for each audience member for what is being called a “special enhanced spatial audio experience.”

When it screened at Sundance earlier this year, Variety’s Peter Debruge was quite taken with “32 Sounds.” He wrote: “Full to bursting with humor, emotion and curiosity, ’32 Sounds’ is a uniquely mind-expanding plunge into a dimension of the human experience so many of us take for granted, a rare and rewarding sonic journey with the potential to enrich our lives.”

The movie screens at 10:30 p.m. March 11 at the Paramount Theatre. It screens online at 9 a.m. March 12.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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