Full disclosure: after covering the jam-packed South-by-Southwest line-up for more than a decade, 2020 is the first and only time I’ve ever managed to see EVERY film in the festival’s narrative feature competition because THIS year…
…well, y’know, SXSW was cancelled and only two of the films were actually made available to reviewers watching from home in the grip of COVID-mania.
Nevertheless, I’m still counting this as a personal best, and as for my Top Two picks…
Hollywood routinely wastes hundreds of millions on visions of the future as shallow and blatantly artificial as Elon Musk’s epidermis. Yet indie writer/director Noah Hutton, working with a mere fraction of those galactic budgets, has managed to create a believably cohesive, fully imagined near future “gig” economy satire where contract non-employees known as cablers hike through the wilderness connecting quantum hubs (basically an advanced form of computing technology allowing Wall Street to screw over the 99% faster than ever before).
Our guide to this brave no benefits world is Ray Tincelli (played with endearing New Yawk charisma by Dean Imperial in his feature debut), a working-class jamoke with shady connections who takes up cabling to help pay the medical expenses of a brother suffering from a nasty new variant of chronic fatigue syndrome known as omnia.
Yet despite all the chirpy corporate PR messaging about the easy money awaiting those willing to “challenge your status quo,” Ray quickly learns the downsides of his latest “side hustle,” like the fact there’s a CBLR app telling him when he’s allowed to rest or go the bathroom — and, even worse, he can instantly lose payment for hours (or even days) of work if one of the corporation’s tireless automated drones steals and completes a job he’s been assigned.
Hutton’s inventive storytelling weaves a clever web throughout as Ray crosses paths with fellow toilers in the wild, including a sardonic political agitator (Madeline Wise from HBO’s “Crashing”) and several friendly strangers who suddenly turn inexplicably hostile.
As of this writing, “Lapsis” doesn’t yet have a distributor or release date, but keep the title in mind for future reference, ’cause it’s definitely nice work if you can get it.
2. I’LL MEET YOU THERE
Though set in the present day, the culture of Pakistani-Americans and the practice of Islam may seem just as alien to some viewers as any science fiction landscape.
Yet the best part of “I’ll Meet You There” (a title taken from a line by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi) is the way director Iram Parveen Bilal likewise shapes her film’s plot (co-written with Rajeev Dassani and Uttam Sirur) as a journey of discovery.
For instance, though raised Muslim in Pakistan, Majeed (Faran Tajir) turns his back on religion after the death of his wife and moves to Chicago, where he works as a cop while raising Dua, his daughter (Nikita Tewani) in secular American society — until the unexpected arrival of Majeed’s father (Muhammad Qavi Khan) results in a life-altering family visit to the local neighborhood mosque.
Fascinated by a heritage she’s never really explored, Dua begins reading the Koran and grows closer to her grandfather even as her father continues his calls to prayer as part of an undercover counterterrorism joint operation with the FBI.
That plot description makes “I’ll Meet You There” sound like a standard police procedural, when in fact Bilal’s investigations as a filmmaker are far more focused on the contradictions and misperceptions of East/West cultural identity, bolstered by a trio of central performances strong enough to overcome the script’s clunkier stretches of exposition and some occasional flatness in the supporting cast and production values.