For the dispatch from the 2023 SXSW Film Festival, I’m tackling three films that made their world, international, and U.S. premieres in the festival’s Visions section. Read my reviews of Until Branches Bend, Tobacco Barns, and Molli and Max in the Future below.
UNTIL BRANCHES BEND dir. Sophie Jarvis
At the start of Until Branches Bend—the feature debut for Swiss-Canadian writer/director Sophie Jarvis—Robin (Grace Glowicki) is going about her job at a cannery in her Okanagan town inspecting peaches when she notices something strange: a peach that has been chewed through, and a suspicious-looking insect, still alive, inside. She immediately brings it to her manager (Lochlyn Munro), but he takes it away and assures her there is nothing to worry about. Some lingering doubt nibbles at Robin like a bug on fruit, however, so she takes matters into her own hands, taking a picture of the insect to a specialist. Events quickly spiral out of control; not only are everyone’s jobs at the cannery put in jeopardy, but seeds of doubt are put into the townsfolks’ minds as to whether or not she is telling the truth. And soon, we start to wonder too.
Complicating matters further is the fact that Robin is pregnant, desiring an abortion but running into financial and legal walls that make it more difficult for her. At every turn, we watch the world around her strip away her autonomy, when it comes to her body, when it comes to her livelihood, when it comes to her trustworthiness. The film illustrates this constriction through its vivid, occasionally terrifying, sound design, mimicking the buzzing of swarms of insects. Robin stuck in a life is probably didn’t envision for herself, her free-spirited younger sister Laney (Alexandra Roberts) a manifestation of the dreams she used to have.
Glowicki turns in a more than capable lead performance, embodying all of Robin’s doubts and frustrations. Jarvis also imbues the story with some more subtle themes that round it out and give the setting a tangible sense of place, especially when it comes to big companies moving in and taking over the work of small farmers. The conflict takes a turn toward the abstract in the final act that doesn’t quite stick the landing, but Until Branches Bend remains an assured and intriguing first film from Jarvis.
Until Branches Bend had its US Premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 13, with additional screenings on March 15 at 11 am and March 17 at 11:15 am. Runtime: 98 minutes.
TOBACCO BARNS dir. Rocío Mesa
For little Vera (Vera Centenera), visiting her grandparents in their rural Spanish town for the summer is a magical, exciting time. For teenager Nieves (Ada Mar Lupiáñez), it’s suffocating. She spends her summer working for her parents on their farm, and sneaking out at night to escape responsibilities she does not want and spend time with her boyfriend. Tobacco Barns, the debut feature from director Rocío Mesa, skillfully switches between the perspectives of both of these girls, Vera’s days spent playing, getting into mischief with the local kids, and becoming fascinated by her grandparents’ abandoned tobacco barn, Nieves feeling the pains of adulthood closing in on her. The pair share very few scenes in the movie, but their stories are linked by shared encounters by a strange, hulking creature made of tobacco leaves that moves through the landscape.
There are so many striking images in Mesa’s film: the hundreds of leaves hanging in the barn, the neat rows of trees that tower above Vera and the other kids. The creature itself, all practical effects, is also wonderfully designed, deeply weird but with a friendly face that intrigues much more than it terrifies. Mesa cast all non-professional actors in Tobacco Barns, and they all give natural, deeply felt performances that complement the story and setting well; even the banter between characters who remain largely in the background, whether they are Nieves’ fluttery friend or the older folks watching the world around them slowly develop and change, help give the film a tangible sense of place. The elements of magical realism don’t blend seamlessly with the grounded nature of the rest of the film, and Mesa perhaps leaves too much up to interpretation regarding the creature’s symbolism. But she exhibits such a firm grasp on both childhood nostalgia and coming of age, and the fears and joys that go along with both. Tobacco Barns is a gem of a film.
Tobacco Barns had its international premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 10, with additional screenings on March 16 at 4 pm and 4:30 pm. Runtime: 98 minutes.
MOLLI AND MAX IN THE FUTURE dir. Michael Lukk Litwak
When Harry Met Sally is one of the most beloved romantic comedies of all time (I’d probably peg it as the best of all time if you were to ask me). Many filmmakers have attempted to riff on it in the years since, not always successfully, but writer/director Michael Lukk Litwak puts a fresh spin on it with his feature Molli and Max in the Future, first and foremost with its setting, moving the narrative to another galaxy populated with weird creatures, space travel, and futuristic technology.
There are always parallels to our world, however, which keeps the story grounded no matter how strange everything happening in the surrounding environment is. That starts first and foremost with our leads, Molli (Zosia Mamet) and Max (Aristotle Athari), who meet when Max literally crashes his ship into Molli’s. The pair are initially combative, but there’s an undeniable spark between them. After quickly deciding that they shouldn’t try to be a couple, however, they become best friends, falling out and falling back in with each other over the years through bad career choices and relationship ups and downs.
Mamet and Athari have really fun chemistry that’s crucial to making the audience root for them to get their acts together and get, well, together. They’re game for all the tongue-tying sci-fi jargon Litwak’s script throws at them, and they’re funny. And the script is frequently funny too, although it’s at its best when it focuses on the central relationship, or dating troubles, or the awkwardness of trying to figure out someone else’s feelings for you. But the thing about When Harry Met Sally, one of the things that makes it so enduring, is that while it is set during a specific era, it almost feels like it exists out of time. Molli and Max in the Future falters when it attempts to play off real-world recent events, like the Trump presidency or the pandemic.
The story is still a good time for rom-com devotees, however, delivering on every satisfying beat we love to see in the genre. But the most impressive aspect of Molli and Max in the Future is its visual effects, which create an inventive DIY aesthetic that consists of miniatures, practical effects, and CGI (a reel that plays over the end credits shows some of the behind-the-scenes). The film’s jazz score by Alex Winkler, meanwhile, contributes to that old-school rom-com vibe that we love, and don’t see enough in the genre these days.
Molli and Max in the Future had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 11, with additional screenings on March 14 at 5:30 pm and 6 pm and March 18 at 11:15 am. Runtime: 93 minutes.