There are only so many hours in a day — especially when Daylight Savings springs forward right in the middle of the SXSW Film & TV Festival — meaning some movies are bound to slip past even relatively diligent reviewers (like, in the case of yours truly, this year’s narrative and documentary Grand Jury winners Raging Grace and Angel Applicant). Nevertheless, in addition to my personal Top Five picks (posted 3/21), here are some other cinematic sights that caught my attention in Texas.
At some point in the not-too-distant past, non-white dolls were hard to come by (and, in some parts of the United States, literally forbidden). Fortunately for everyone (except perhaps political commentators who cry “woke” at the thought of children playing with toys that resemble them), a Mattel employee named Beulah Mae Mitchell launched a quiet revolution that led to the eventual release of the first Black Barbie — a story chronicled decades later by her niece, Lagueria Davis, in a mostly fascinating examination (if also, towards the end, a somewhat repetitive talking heads discussion) of the past and present of pop culture representation.
There are serious themes about the North/South American immigration “crisis” lurking around the edges of director Rosemary Rodriguez’s modern reimagining of the Nativity story, as well as a seriously disturbing demonic villain (Jack Huston) who weaponizes the family medical histories of his victims in disturbingly grisly ways. But there’s also plenty of enjoyable B-movie goofiness inherent in the odd but generally entertaining premise of a pregnant virgin (Natalia del Riego) and her platonic carpenter friend (Benny Emmanuel) fleeing cartel gunmen, a newborn-killing “Herod virus,” and the power of Satan until the inevitable “a-slay in a manager” showdown finale.
JOIN OR DIE
Directors Pete Davis and Rebecca Davis help to spread the gospel of social scientist Robert Putnam in this agitprop documentary about the origins of social capital theory and the ways that joining groups with fellow citizens (from bowling leagues to Odd Fellow lodges) can help to heal America’s divisions and strengthen democracy. Yet while the film is breezy, timely, and upbeat, there’s a notable lack of discussion about the opposite side of the coin: namely the consistent parallel problem of people joining anti-democratic groups from the Ku Klux Klan to the Proud Boys.
LITTLE RICHARD: I AM EVERYTHING
Unable to attend his own induction into the Rock & Roll of Fame in 1986 while recovering from a car accident, “Little Richard” Penniman finally gave the speech he’d been denied while appearing onstage to induct (and not so subtly compete with) the late Otis Redding a few years later while trumpeting his own undeniable influence on the latter (not to mention every pop culture peacock from James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger to David Bowie and Prince) — a legacy he’d later disavow as passionately as his own queerness during periodic deep dives into conservative Christianity. In other words, he was a brilliant, complicated man and documentarian Lisa Cortes effectively captures the many fascinating nuances of his journey.
LOVE TO LOVE YOU, DONNA SUMMER
Similar themes reverberate throughout the life of the late, great Queen of Disco in a documentary that’s notably warmer and more intimate, thanks to both the somewhat sweeter personality of its subject and the fact the film was co-directed by one of the singer’s children (Brooklyn Sudano, collaborating with Roger Ross Williams). Yet Love to Love You doesn’t shy away from the sharper edges of the Donna Summers story, from the abusive men in her life to the controversy that occurred when her religious faith made it seem she’d turned her back on the gay community that idolized her during the height of the AIDS crisis — all of it scored like a jukebox musical to the beat of her dazzling discography.
Set in 1990s San Jose, this slight but charming SXSW Audience Award crowd-pleaser (written and directed by Imran J. Khan) follows the coming-of-age tale of a teen (Atharva Verma) navigating adolescent woes both specific (transitioning from Muslim to public school) and universal (e.g., painful romantic crushes and unwanted lip hair). One of the strengths of the film is its all-too-rare willingness to feature a protagonist who’s not only Pakistani-American but actually looks and behaves like an actual adolescent (rather than a twentysomething H&M model) following a bittersweet path to personal growth which, like many before and since, leads inevitably to an awkwardly empowering drama club overseen by Alecia Silverstone (in a pitch perfect stroke of comfy sweater casting).