SXSW Dispatch: “The Young Wife,” “Appendage,” “I Used to Be Funny”

For my final batch of reviews from the 2023 SXSW Film Festival, I’m covering three more (very different) films from female filmmakers: Tayarisha Poe’s The Young Wife (one of my top favorites of the fest), Ally Pankiw’s excellent I Used to Be Funny, which sees star Rachel Sennott taking a turn toward drama, and Anna Zlokovic’s horror feature Appendage, which is coming to Hulu later this year. Read my reviews below.

Leon Bridges and Kiersey Clemons in “The Young Wife”

THE YOUNG WIFE dir. Tayarisha Poe

The unique visual language at play in writer/director Tayarisha Poe’s sophomore feature The Young Wife is apparent right from opening, in which a montage introduces the audience to all the characters we’re about to meet over the course of protagonist Celestina’s (Kiersey Clemons) “non-wedding” day: her in-laws, her friends, her mother, and of course, her husband-to-be River (Leon Bridges). Celestina has invited all of her and River’s close friends and family to her family’s land to celebrate their union, but it isn’t a traditional wedding. She explicitly asks for no gifts and no flowers. And yet her guests, a little confused as to this bucking of tradition, shower her with a deluge of gifts and questions and set expectations anyway. As the day wears on and she waits for River to arrive, Celestina is overcome with doubts, about her marriage and about her future (she’s just quit her job, something she hasn’t told anyone, including River).

The editing in the film is key to accentuating Celestina’s panic, the quick cuts between Celestina and her bustling guests in addition to Clemons’ strong lead performance making it clear that no matter how much Celestina outwardly reassures everyone that everything is fine, she’s really brimming with uncertainties. That line between society’s expectations and personal choice is a fine one that a lot of people, especially young woman, grapple with, and Poe explores it with a lot of care and nuance. The production and costume design is sumptuous; ever since I first watched the film, I’ve struggled to put it into words, but there’s something psychedelic and retro about the old TVs inside the home, the wild patterns of the characters’ costumes, and the old-timey way things seem to work in this world (Celestina receives deliveries throughout the film from men who ride up on little bicycles stacked with parcels). The supporting cast is varied and wonderful as well, from the likes of Brandon Michael Hall and Kelly Marie Tran (putting on a delightfully affected accent) as members of Celestina’s friend group to Sheryl Lee Ralph playing her mother. While The Young Wife’s conclusion isn’t totally successful at bridging its leap from unending panic attack to joyous celebration, it’s a gem of a movie that further cements Poe as having a distinct directorial vision.

The Young Wife had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 12. Runtime: 97 minutes.

Rachel Sennott as Sam Cowell in “I Used to Be Funny”

I USED TO BE FUNNY dir. Ally Pankiw

Sam Cowell (Rachel Sennott) used to be funny, but while her old stand-up routines still live on the internet, she merely watches her colleagues perform at the comedy club she used to hold court at. Also the former au pair for a teenage girl named Brooke (Olga Petsa) who has just gone missing, Sam has obviously undergone some tragic event, although what exactly that is and how Brooke and her family play into it isn’t immediately clear. Writer and director Ally Pankiw’s debut feature I Used to Be Funny keeps the audience in suspense as to what is going on with Sam throughout its runtime, jumping between the present day and flashbacks that don’t unfold chronologically, while offering up a nuanced portrayal of a young woman suffering from PTSD.

I Used to Be Funny is equal parts comedy and drama, and while it ventures into some very dark places, it’s quite funny as well, striking a balanced tone between the two. In fact, humor as a coping mechanism is an integral part of Sam’s—and Brooke’s—journey towards healing. It helps that the protagonist is played by Sennott, who utilizes her signature sarcastic comedic delivery throughout the film while also getting to dive into an emotional, dramatic role the likes of which she hasn’t really gotten to do before—and she’s great at it. She also exhibits natural chemistry with her costars, including Petsa (with whom she forms an almost sisterly bond) and her best friends Paige (Sabrina Jalees) and Philip (Caleb Hearson), who as much as they kid around clearly care a lot for Sam’s well-being. And the film’s commentary on cancel culture, especially when it centers around women, is present without being overwhelming. I Used to Be Funny is a stunning showcase for both Sennott and Pankiw.

I Used to Be Funny had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 13. Runtime: 105 minutes.

Hadley Robinson as Hannah in “Appendage”

APPENDAGE dir. Anna Zlokovic

Anna Zlokovic’s expansion of her 2021 short of the same name, coming to Hulu later this year, arrives at a cross between elevated indie horror and Frank Henenlotter’s cult smash Basket Case. It feels like a jolt of fresh air in the current horror landscape, an unabashedly weird movie that isn’t afraid to inject elements of camp into what’s otherwise a serious character study.

Hannah (Hadley Robinson), is a young woman who’s brimming with insecurities. She’s a fashion designer whose exacting boss—when she presents a new project—berates her for her unoriginality. Her fussy parents are so focused on their jobs and high society dinners that they ignore Hannah’s obvious issues, correcting her every misstep. She has a solid relationship with her best friend Esther (Kausar Mohammed) and boyfriend Kaelin (Brandon Mychal Smith), but that little voice inside her head soon starts damaging her interactions with them, prompting her to think she sees things that aren’t really there. Her internalized doubts begin externalizing themselves in the form of a large, pulsing growth on her side that just gets bigger and bigger over time, and let’s just say, takes on a life of its own, one that’s rooted in Hannah’s past traumas.

Appendage’s metaphors about internalized anxieties are too blunt to be wholly effective, and the narrative struggles to marry Hannah’s mental struggles with the strange journey she ends up going on with her growth. There’s a lot that feels very real in Robinson’s portrayal of Hannah, from the physical ticks she engages in when she’s super anxious (like flicking her finger nails) to her talking to herself, calling herself a “fuck-up” even when she just messes up the tiniest little thing. But it frequently feels like Appendage is struggling to make the leap from a tight short to a feature length film, losing a lot of focus in the process. But if I’m being a little cagey about the plot, it’s because I was truly delighted and surprised by the bizarre turns it takes, and commits to over the course of the film, right down to the amusing creature effects. Even if it doesn’t stick the landing in a lot of ways, it’s still a blast to watch.

Appendage had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 11. Runtime: 94 minutes.

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