For big-screen thrills and maybe some controversy, another South by Southwest beckons

There's just something that makes a movie particularly right for the South by Southwest Film and TV Festival. It’s a feeling, perhaps. A certain rowdiness, where the laughs are a little louder, the action hits a little harder. Think of it as the movies turned way up.

“When you see it, you know it,” said Claudette Godfrey, SXSW vice president of film and TV, now in her second year leading the festival. “It's very hard to describe. I think they have a unique flavor of the storytelling.”

Even if it is hard to pin down exactly, there will be many upcoming examples of what makes a movie work well at the annual Austin, Texas, showcase. The festival opens Friday with the world premiere of Doug Liman’s remake of 1989's “Road House” starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a former MMA fighter who finds work as the bouncer of a bar in the Florida Keys.

That screening, in the historic Paramount Theatre, will be directly followed by the premiere of “3 Body Problem,” the much-anticipated new sci-fi series from David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, creators of “Game of Thrones.”

Also among the festival’s high-profile premieres are “Monkey Man,” a stylish action movie starring, directed and co-written by Dev Patel; “The Fall Guy,” David Leitch’s anarchically uproarious adaptation of the ’80s TV show with Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt; and “Civil War,” Alex Garland’s grim fable of an America in violent crisis, with Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny.

Among other titles playing on the TV side are “Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show,” a documentary about the personal life of the comedian, and the Season 3 premiere of “Hacks.”

Excitement has also grown around the title “My Dead Friend Zoe,” a semiautobiographical veteran’s story from writer-director Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, making his feature debut. It's a heartfelt drama that includes among its executive producers Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.

While the host city, a place with the famous slogan “Keep Austin weird,” is seen as a stronghold of tolerant values, it's still in Texas, with all the social and political baggage that brings. Simply premiering at the festival can bring about unintended consequences for some films.

The documentary “The Truth vs. Alex Jones” looks at the trials in Texas and Connecticut in which Austin-based media personality Alex Jones was ordered to pay around $1 billion in damages to the families of children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, following years of Jones’ inflammatory conspiracy-laden tales about the shooting. The film is scheduled to air soon after SXSW on HBO.

Director Dan Reed was given extensive access to the Austin courtroom during the Texas trial, resulting in gripping footage of genuine legal drama.

“Austin is a town I grew to love over the time we spent there preparing and then wrapping up after the trial,” said Reed. “But am I nervous that this is Alex Jones' hometown? The film tells the truth, and I think many people might conclude that he lied a lot and he probably doesn't like to hear that. So would he be upset and come and stage a demonstration and shout ‘1776’ outside the movie theater? Well, I hope so.”

At the time of our interview earlier this week, Reed had not yet been in touch with Jones regarding the SXSW screenings.

“I'm assuming he is aware,” Reed said. “I exchanged many text messages with Mr. Jones and he told me that he wasn't interested in sitting through an interview and that he wasn't going to watch the film when it came out. So I'll notify him — just as a courtesy, of course — but I don't imagine that he'll be running to the Zach Theatre on Monday the 11th.”

Other notable documentary premieres include David Altrogge’s “Clemente,” a tribute to baseball player Roberto Clemente; Jeremy Workman’s unexpectedly inspirational “Secret Mall Apartment,” executive produced by Jesse Eisenberg, about a group of artists who construct an apartment within a shopping mall; and Sarah Gibson’s “Stormy,” about Stormy Daniels.

“I Wish You All the Best” is an earnest and tender adaptation of Mason Deaver’s novel about a young person’s struggle to identify as nonbinary, starring Corey Fogelmanis, Cole Sprouse and Alexandra Daddario. It is the debut as director and screenwriter for Tommy Dorfman, best known as a performer on the series “13 Reasons Why.”

In 2023, more than 140 bills that affected the LGBTQ+ community were introduced in the Texas legislature. For Dorfman, a trans woman, the decision to simply attend the festival comes with potential difficulties.

“I think my film isn't particularly political and yet queer people have no choice but to live a sort of politicized life," said Dorfman about premiering her film in Texas. "It would be naive of me to say I don't have any fear. But at the same time, I can't think of a better place to premiere this film, in the heart of the conflict. As a community, it's unavoidable.”

Dorfman's project comes to the festival looking for distribution. The filmmaker, who grew up in Georgia, believes in the importance of showing up.

“Just existing as a trans filmmaker in Texas frankly is scary, just as a human being,” Dorfman said. “But at the same time, I understand the complexities of rural, just real America, not coastal-city America, not New York, L.A.-blinders America. So I know what it's like to be afraid of it, but I also know what it's like to stand in it fearlessly. As divisive as the world is, I still think it's a minority who don't think that queer people belong here."

Other notable premieres at the festival include Michael Mohan’s “Immaculate,” an intense horror story set at an Italian convent starring Sydney Sweeney; Bernardo Britto’s “Omni Loop,” a time-loop tale featuring Mary-Louise Parker and Ayo Edebiri; Sara Zandieh’s comedy “Doin’ It,” with Lily Singh; and E.L. Katz’s survival tale “Azrael,” with Samara Weaving.

Written by and starring “Broad City’s” Ilana Glazer, “Babes” follows a single woman who gets pregnant and turns to her best friend (Michelle Buteau), a married mother of two, for help. The film will be released by Neon in May.

“Babes” also marks the feature directing debut for Pamela Adlon, following her semiautobiographical FX series “Better Things.” Adlon said they were prepping for production in New York City when the Supreme Court repealed Roe vs. Wade and it was not lost on her how the movie touches on issues of women’s reproductive rights.

“I was like, Oh, my God, we're making a movie about choice,” Adlon said. “And hopefully, the way I like to make things is to not hit you over the head. It's for everybody. I want everybody to see it and everybody to have their ears open and their hearts open. So I'm not trying to be heavy-handed about anything. And that's why I think it's very symbolic that it is premiering at a festival that takes place in Texas.”

Adlon was previously at SXSW in 2019 to launch Season 3 of “Better Things,” and appeared in two films that were part of the 2020 festival, an edition that had its in-person events canceled at the start of the pandemic. She can't control her excitement to be Austin-bound again.

“South-by is such a raw, punk-rock, all-forms-of-entertainment experience," she said, referring to the festival by its commonly shortened name among those who go. "And Austin is the bastard stepchild of Texas and it's just a place that I love. I'm pinching myself that this is all coming together like this.”

For the festival’s Godfrey, knowing there can be a disconnect between people’s preconceptions about Austin and Texas and the on-the-ground realities of the event is something she is mindful to acknowledge.

“I think it's more a challenge of making sure that the people who are participating with our event feel good about it. Having a really open dialogue with them and saying, ‘What are your concerns? How are you feeling? This is what we're thinking.’ And we're doing that every year."

The festival’s closing-night selection is the world premiere of “The Idea of You,” an adaptation of the romance novel by Robinne Lee directed and co-written by Michael Showalter and spotlighting Anne Hathaway as a divorced mom who begins a whirlwind affair with a much younger international pop star.

One of Showalter's early directorial credits, “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” premiered at SXSW in 2015.

“I think it's a more festive environment,” Showalter said, making a distinction from other film festivals. “Sundance is also a great festival and there's a seriousness to it, a gravity around it, whereas at South-by, there are more genre films, more comedies, more of a sense of fun. There's a popcorn quality. For me, it seems to take itself a little bit less seriously.”

“Road House” director Liman, whose previous films include “The Bourne Identity” and “Edge of Tomorrow,” has said he would not be attending the SXSW premiere in protest of the fact that his film will be going straight to streaming on Amazon's Prime Video on March 21 without a proper theatrical release. “Road House” also has been dogged by other controversies: R. Lance Hill, screenwriter of the original film, has sued Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and Amazon Studios for copyright infringement, also alleging that AI was used to simulate actors’ voices.

“The Idea of You” will likewise be going straight to streaming on Prime Video on May 2.

“We made the movie knowing that in all likelihood it would be streaming,” said Showalter, whose previous films also include the Oscar-winning “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” “The movie's going to play at festivals, there are going to be event screenings in many cities. And so even though the movie is releasing as a streaming movie, which I think is great, there will be many opportunities for people to see the movie in a theater as well. And so for me making the movie, I didn't differentiate between the two.”

Again this year, the SXSW festival overlaps with the Academy Awards. Last year, when this happened for the first time, a film that premiered at SXSW, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” won best picture.

A frequent question is why the festival doesn’t officially acknowledge the Oscars in some way with a viewing party or similar event.

“We're focused on our filmmakers’ experience and them having their screenings and having their sold-out crowds,” said Godfrey. “So it doesn't really make sense for us to host a viewing party of something that's not a part of our event while our event is going on.”

Given the upstart vibes SXSW so often traffics in, perhaps it is fitting that the festival be up against one of the most venerable institutions in the movie world. And continue to find its own way.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.