SXSW Dispatch: “Late Bloomers,” “Parachute,” “The Starling Girl”

For this dispatch from this year’s SXSW Film Festival, I’m reviewing three films from first-time female filmmakers that all center around women confronting their circumstances and grappling with what they want out of their lives. Two of those films had their world premieres at the festival (Parachute and Late Bloomers) while The Starling Girl recently premiered at Sundance. Read my reviews below.

Thomas Mann and Courtney Eaton in Brittany Snow’s “Parachute”

PARACHUTE dir. Brittany Snow

With her first feature as a writer and director, actor Brittany Snow confidently wades through tough waters. Parachute—a story that Snow acknowledges she rooted in a lot of personal experience—is equal parts funny relationship comedy and a dark drama about the effects of mental health and body image issues on an individual and those around them. Incredibly, Snow manages to strike a balanced tone between the two. Where Parachute easily could have felt like it was jumping between two different movies, Snow instead crafts a complex portrayal of a young woman’s ups and downs over the course of a couple of years of her life.

When we first meet Riley (Courtney Eaton) she’s just been released from a stint in rehab, where she was treated for an eating disorder and depression following a failed relationship. That doesn’t stop her from going out with her best friend Casey (Francesca Reale) that same night, where at a party she meets and immediately hits it off with Ethan (Thomas Mann), who just got out of jail that day and recently went through a break-up. As part of her recovery, Riley isn’t supposed to date anyone for a year, but that doesn’t stop her from getting involved with Ethan anyway, pulling back just enough to prevent their close friendship from burgeoning into romance even though they are always sitting at the cusp of that (and that is clearly what Ethan wants).

Parachute is populated by recognizable stars in small but memorable supporting roles, like Dave Bautista making great use of his comedy chops as the frustrated manager of a crappy murder mystery dinner theatre Riley gets a job at, or Gina Rodriguez as Riley’s composed therapist. It’s through conversations with the latter where the passage of time is largely revealed, something made even more nebulous through Snow’s frequent use of slideshow montages to move through events or depict the evolution of a relationship. But while she may not have as solid a handle on that aspect of the narrative, Snow and Becca Gleason’s screenplay confronts Riley’s issue with brutal honesty, rooting her struggles with, for instance, eating in specificity that comes with firsthand experience (such as her waking up in the middle of the night to eat cake batter straight from the bowl, or constantly berating herself and pinching the fat on her body). They also wisely wait to integrate Ethan’s backstory, including his troubled relationship with his parents and his father’s drinking problem, into the narrative after we have become familiar with what Riley is experiencing, acknowledging that everyone is going through something without straying too far from Riley’s point of view. Eaton maintains her likeable persona while pulling off the more troubling scenes, such as when Riley’s breakdowns cause her to revert to almost childlike behavior. And Eaton and Mann share a chemistry that crackles from their very first meeting and continues throughout the film. While Parachute’s finale doesn’t feel like it fully earns the resolution it’s reaching for, there’s plenty that’s great about the film that points to Snow having a promise directorial future.

Parachute had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 11. Runtime: 97 minutes.

Margaret Sophie Stein and Karen Gillan in “Late Bloomers”

LATE BLOOMERS dir. Lisa Steen

Louise (Karen Gillan) is a mess. Twenty-eight years old, a sort of musician with a wealthy roommate but no actual job, still reeling from a break-up that occurred a year ago, she gets a rude awakening when, after a drunken night out leads to her tracking down her ex to his new place, she falls off a window ledge trying to bust in and breaks her hip. She ends up in physical therapy with a group of elderly people, including Antonina (Margaret Sophie Stein), a Polish immigrant who doesn’t speak any English but makes her apparent dislike of Louise clear through her cranky expressions and occasionally violent body language. Louise doesn’t want anything to do with Antonina either, but what sense of right and wrong she still possesses gets the better of her when a delayed bus prompts her to offer Antonina a ride home. Their day out initially upsets Antonina’s granddaughter, who she lives with but who can’t take care of her on her own, wanting to put the woman in a home so she can move in with her boyfriend. But ultimately, glimpsing that the typically hard Antonina has somewhat warmed to Louise, hires Louise as a caretaker for her—despite the fact that Louise can still barely take care of herself.

Director Lisa Steen’s Late Bloomers is the sort of millennial coming-of-age tale that thrives on the indie film scene. The odd couple relationship that builds between Louise and Antonina is funny and sweet and gives a fresh spin on a familiar premise. While the film does predominantly center around Louise, Antonina is equally as stubborn when it comes to accepting the stage of life she’s in, whether it’s conceding that she needs help using the restroom and wearing adult diapers, or recognizing that she would be better taken care of in a care facility. Stein’s role is tricky, but even where the audience likely can’t understand what she is saying, her expressions, body language, and tone of voice speak volumes. The role of Louise is a good fit for Gillan as well; it’s the sort of awkward, messy character that plays to her strengths. It all feels a little too slight though, Anne Greenfield’s screenplay playing with a lot of pieces but failing to flesh a lot of them out to the extent required to build to the appropriate emotional crescendo, whether it’s the relationship between Louise and her roommate (played by Jermaine Fowler), Louise’s music dreams, the gentrification of Antonina’s neighborhood, or Louise’s strained relationship with her parents, flashbacks revealing that she still feels guilty over an incident that occurred with her mom, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Late Bloomers, while it wraps things up rather tidily, still has a lot of charm, and when the heartfelt moments do land, they pack just the right, satisfying punch.

Late Bloomers had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 10. Runtime: 89 minutes.

Eliza Scanlen in “The Starling Girl”

THE STARLING GIRL dir. Laurel Parmet

Seventeen-year-old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) feels out of place in her small Kentucky hometown, a Christian community whose entire way of life centers around the church. The layers of misogyny built into their devotion to getting into heaven extend from the way the women dress—long skirts and sweaters, long hair pulled neatly back, keeping them as covered as possible—to the community viewing their main purpose when they reach a certain age a getting married so they can bear children and support their husband. Anything else is seen as sinful, like the way Jem moves her body, her movements in her church dance troupe a little freer and looser than the other girls’, or the fact that the outline of her bra can be glimpsed through her dress, something an older woman at the church is quick to draw everyone’s attention to and shame Jem to the point where she has to leave to go cry.

Jem’s desire for something more out of life is mirrored by two men: her father (Jimmi Simpson) who played in a band called The Deadbeats before he got married, and is so unsatisfied with his small existence he’s turned to the bottle (his alcoholism is something Jem’s mother, played by Wrenn Schmidt, tries to brush under the rug as much as possible); and Owen (Lewis Pullman), the married youth pastor who just returned from a mission trip to Puerto Rico and who is equally stifled by his job and his role in the church and his unhappy relationship with his wife. The exquisite nature of Parmet’s direction is such that we recognize the darkness at the core of the affair that blossoms between Jem and Owen (Owen adopting so many of the tactics that predators use on the young women they take advantage of), but also understand why Jem wants to be with him. She sees in him qualities similar to her own, and likely also sees how they could have a life together outside of their current oppressed existences.

Parmet elevates what could have otherwise been a formulaic tale of the intersection of faith and desire with her nuanced script, well-developed characters and setting, and the way she calibrates certain scenes to ring with tension or humiliation, steadily building a case for Jem to go find herself outside the restrictions of her community. Scanlen is reliably great, using her powerful eyes and expressive face, which she can effortlessly contort into rage or confusion or joy or desperation, to build out her character. Parmet’s vision throughout The Starling Girl and the way she manages to pull out so many thoughts and feelings women frequently internalize to the surface makes for a rapturous debut.

The Starling Girl had its Texas premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 12 and is slated to be released this year by Bleeker Street. Runtime: 116 minutes.

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