15 Movies We Can’t Wait to See at SXSW 2019

A few words about some of our favorite films coming to the fest

The number of films hitting SXSW screens over the next fortnight or so is overwhelming. The Chronicle film team has been watching tirelessly and picked a handful of standouts. What makes them special? Maybe they have a local slant. Maybe they address pressing issues or star someone we have a crush on. Most likely, they’re just real damn good.

Saint Frances

At 34, Bridget (in a spot-on portrayal by Kelly O’Sullivan) is careerless, kidless, and sleeping with a twentysomething bartender when two life-altering events happen near simultaneously: Bridget has an abortion, and she is offered a summer babysitting job for 6-year-old Frances (powerfully acted by an endearing Ramona Edith-Williams). Life questions, hilarity, taboo conversations, and blood clots ensue. Written by O’Sullivan, directed by Alex Thompson, and making its world premiere at SXSW, Saint Frances is both a quintessential millennial comedy and a timeless commentary on the things women don’t talk about. – Sarah Marloff

Mickey and the Bear

As Mickey and the Bear opens, Mickey Peck cycles through the early morning routine familiar to most heads of household: divvying up meds and frying up eggs while calling out for her charge, the unseen Hank.

A rap on the door by the police, however, soon reveals that Hank is neither partner nor child, but a father in need of collection after spending the night in jail for driving under the influence – an occasion proven all too familiar by Mickey’s blasé utterance to the officer: “I’ll get my shoes on.” – Beth Sullivan

The Garden Left Behind

“Every time I leave the house I don’t know if I’m going to come back.” According to filmmaker Flavio Alves, those words from co-producer Kristen Parker Lovell made an impact on his script for The Garden Left Behind.

His film tells the story of Tina (Carlie Guevara), an undocumented, Mexican trans woman living in New York with her undocumented grandmother (Miriam Cruz). It doesn’t take long for viewers to fall for newcomer Guevara – one of nearly 200 trans women who auditioned for the role. Working off-the-grid as a cab driver, Tina seeks a gender dysphoria diagnosis from her therapist (Ed Asner) in order to access hormone replacement therapy. But despite her loving and refreshingly supportive grandmother and close-knit group of friends, the story goes from bleak to grim, and is unrelenting in its depiction of anti-trans violence. – Sarah Marloff

Frances Ferguson

Frances Ferguson is a likable film about an unlikeable person, and if any phrase can be used to describe the work of Austin director Bob Byington, that one may as well be carved in stone. “I don’t think I seek out the outcast,” Byington said. “It’s that the storytelling tends to head in that direction, and then we hire charismatic actors to make up for that.”

Byington’s films are often defined by protagonists with a misanthropic streak – the grating, the deliberately awkward. Stories like 7 Chinese Brothers have put off-putting men in front of the camera. This time, enter Austin actress Kaley Wheless as the eponymous Frances, a perfect addition to Byington’s rogues gallery. A substitute teacher in small-town Nebraska, she becomes a celebrity of sorts after a transgressive little sin and sees the life she thought she despised fall away. Wheless said, “We’d been workshopping a short piece about a millennial character, where the main focus was her attitude, and that she was very blasé. Then I remember Bob seeing a New York Post article about one of these female teachers having a relationship with her student, and getting caught, and the whole media storm that followed.” – Richard Whittaker

The Art of Self-Defense

Most filmmakers use their Twitter feeds to publicize their work, and for his new movie, The Art of Self-Defense, writer/director Riley Stearns has been undertaking the necessary self-promotion. However, he’s only posted two photos of himself: one on the podium at the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation’s 2018 championships; the other as he stands, a nervous smile on his face, next to MMA legend Georges St-Pierre.

After six years as a self-described “jiujitsu guy,” the Texan filmmaker merges his professional and personal passions in his new psychodrama. But when he started writing the script about three years ago, he wasn’t interested in making another Karate Kid. Stearns said, “I was really interested in doing a martial arts movie, but maybe exploring ideas that maybe you wouldn’t think to explore in a martial arts movie.” – Richard Whittaker

Becoming Leslie

Twenty years ago, we didn’t think much about who Leslie Cochran had been, or would become, when we made him a hero of the moment. Landing in turn-of-the-century Austin in tiara and thong, he became the Weird Made Flesh, and when filmmakers Tracy Frazier, Ruby Martin, and others in Leslie’s orbit began to document the spectacle in 2005, his celebrity was at its peak even as signs of his decline were becoming easy to see. Now, Frazier and Martin’s long-in-the-making documentary Becoming Leslie brings Austin’s Queen of Soul into literal focus, both as a man who changed Austin, and one who Austin shaped into an activist, influencer, and role model.

Leslie’s been gone since 2012, and while my generation may view Becoming Leslie wistfully as a portrait of a man and a city we miss, the film’s power really lies behind the spectacle – the campaigns for mayor, the late-night TV appearances, all the way through to the end-of-life reminiscence in The New York Times. “The swift changes of Austin become a backdrop to time passing, and the city as a character mirrors Leslie’s story,” the filmmakers note, and for those of Austin’s new era, who know the name or bought the fridge magnets but weren’t part of that story, Becoming Leslie meets your biographical needs, and does much more. – Mike Clark-Madison

Running With Beto

An unconventional campaign deserves an unconventional campaign biography, and Austin-based director/producer David Modigliani began the process of making his documentary Running With Beto in a suitably unconventional way. He met Beto O’Rourke in April 2017, on a sandlot baseball field where Modigliani’s Texas Playboys, an Austin amateur hardball club, faced off against O’Rourke’s El Paso team, Los Diablitos. Modigliani was a playwright-turned-documentary filmmaker (including his 2008 portrait of outgoing President George Bush’s hometown, Crawford), and O’Rourke was a fairly obscure congressman who had taken it into his head to run for the U.S. Senate. But an impromptu post-game speech on a hay bale persuaded Modigliani that the lanky center fielder might be “a generational political talent” with “a magnetic personality that could make his race more than just a statewide story.” – Michael King

Community First, A Home for the Homeless

At Community First! Village, a self-sustaining development in East Austin where the formerly homeless live in RVs and tiny homes, everyone you meet has a story. All bound together by what founder Alan Graham calls a “catastrophic loss of family,” the villagers support themselves and each other through work that keeps the entire community churning. In Community First, A Home for the Homeless, producer and director Layton Blaylock explores some of the individuals that make this incredible community into what it is and their harrowing journeys from the streets to homes of their own. – Nina Hernandez

Nothing Stays the Same: The Story of the Saxon Pub

It’s an old refrain in a now familiar song: the changing landscape of a growing city, skyrocketing rent, and the loss of beloved, decades-old institutions. In the live music capital of the world, that rapid change has catalyzed around questions of affordability for artists and viability of venues. Director Jeff Sandmann’s first feature-length project, Nothing Stays the Same: The Story of the Saxon Pub, tackles those issues through the lens of renowned songwriter-haven the Saxon Pub, yet also documents a twist in the script that captures a glimmer of hope amid Austin’s continued development. – Doug Freeman

What We Do in the Shadows

“I’m so lucky! I got to be a vampire! It’s incredible.”

Perhaps the only thing more joyful than FX’s pilot episode for the new series What We Do in the Shadows is Natasia Demetriou’s reaction to being able to play a bloodsucking demon of the night. The original 2014 mockumentary of the same name by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (who also directed the pilot and serve as showrunners) followed a group of male vampires who live together in New Zealand: In a refreshing change, the TV series adds a lovely lady, Nadja, to the mix. She’s a vampire who loves boasting about her previous love affairs and rolling her eyes at the two undead men – lecherous dimwit Laszlo (Matt Berry) and house leader Nandor (Kayvan Novak) – she is forced to tolerate as housemates. – Jenny Nulf

Girl on the Third Floor

Every neighborhood has that house: the one with the stories and the history, the one everyone walks past a little faster. That’s the house in Girl on the Third Floor – both onscreen and in real, chilling life.

The house that serves as the single location for the directorial debut of hip-and-cool indie producer Travis Stevens (Starry Eyes, We Are Still Here) isn’t in just any neighborhood. Frankfort, Ill., is a leafy dormitory community in Chicago’s commuter belt. It’s the kind of community where a guy like Don Koch (Phil Brooks, aka former pro wrestler and MMA fighter CM Punk) would end up – if not wholly willingly. With a pregnant wife (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and a second chance after a career of sleazy business decisions, he’s heading out to the burbs to fix up his new family home. But maybe the house doesn’t want fixing up. – Richard Whittaker


Pollyanna McIntosh has always wanted to be a director. Scratch that – she’s always been a director: The Scottish actress began directing theatre fresh out of drama school in London and continued directing plays when she moved to Los Angeles. “It was never a question of, ‘Do I get to go and direct?’” says McIntosh. “It just made sense.”

After making her first short film, she began prepping her feature debut, but it was postponed due to her recurring role as Jadis on AMC’s The Walking Dead. In hindsight, that delay proved fortuitous for McIntosh, who received a call from producer and filmmaker Andrew van den Houten with an offer to direct another film: a sequel to Lucky McKee’s 2011 horror movie, The Woman (itself a sequel to van den Houten’s Offspring).

It was an easy decision for McIntosh, who had played the eponymous lead in McKee’s film, a feral woman discovered by a religious lawyer who brings her home and attempts to “civilize” her by violent means. “It felt like a really natural and cool choice” to revisit that world, said McIntosh, who decided the sequel should instead focus on a different female character. There was just one thing she needed to resolve first: “If I’m going to direct a horror movie, I’d have to be the one writing it,” she said, “because I have to make it personal.” And so Darlin’ – which premieres at SXSW this week – was born. – Britt Hayes

J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius

Hey, friend, do you have slack? Do you know Bob, the one true Bob, the Bob that is J.R. “Bob” Dobbs?

Welcome to the Church of the SubGenius, a fake religion that knew it was bogus, a faith with arbitrary rules that were designed to be impossible to interpret, and adherents that were (mostly) in on the joke. And above it all, the mythical Bob Dobbs, a messiah of unknown provenance. Where exactly did that strange figure, the proto-atomic family father, the Ward Cleaver of the Illuminati appear from …?

“I have the great-grandfather of all reproductions of that image hidden away,” said the Reverend Ivan Stang (aka Douglass St. Clair Smith), who literally clipped it from a yellowing book of clip art.

The Church of the SubGenius was the first religion to not simply admit that it was fake, but to relish the insanity; and with J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius, which receives its world premiere at SXSW this week, the curtains are pulled back and the robes are hoicked up as the founders shake the walls of the nonsensical temple. – Richard Whittaker

Sword of Trust

Great directors often have great muses. Scorsese and De Niro. Anderson and Murray. Scorsese and DiCaprio. Now, Lynn Shelton and Marc Maron, whose new comedy Sword of Trust gets its world premiere at SXSW. “I want the world to see what [Maron] is capable of as an actor,” Shelton said. “It’s sort of like this secret. People need to know – this guy’s amazing.”

The pair had worked together on projects like Netflix’s GLOW, and Shelton, Maron, and co-writer Mike O’Brien began writing a script for a different film. However, the process was too slow-going for Shelton, who was eager to get on set with Maron. He proposed she write something new, and he’d give her two weeks of his time to shoot it. “[Shelton] seems to have a very good handle and understanding of me as a performer,” Maron said. “I trust her instincts throughout what I do. She definitely gets the best out of me, that’s for sure.” – Shalavé Cawley

It Started as a Joke

How to describe the alternative comedy of the Russian-born comic Eugene Mirman, familiar to many as the voice of Gene Belcher on Bob’s Burgers? Wacked, whimsical, absurd, playful? Heavy on the conceptual satire? Mirman would add warm and anecdotal. Back in 2008, Mirman and a few of his comedian pals from the found-space, downtown-Brooklyn comedy scene got to riffing about the then-popular Manhattan (uptown and midtown) comedy festival scene with its big corporate sponsors and, to them, silly, meaningless programming groupings, like the “Uptown Comics” or “Nice Jewish Ladies.” That material proved comedy catnip, and the one-off show they put on morphed into a 10-year run of the eponymous Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, which Mirman friends Julie Smith Clem and Ken Druckerman made into the documentary It Started as a Joke. – Anne S. Lewis

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