Now that we’re onto Day 143 of SXSW 2019 (not really, but it has been a long week of movies), here’s a look at three more movies I had the chance to check out this year during the festival, including Daniel Isn’t Real from Adam Egypt Mortimer, the religious drama Them That Follow (which I had sadly missed at Sundance in January), and the criminally fun romp Villains by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen.
Daniel Isn’t Real: After Halloween (2018), I was as an instant fan of Miles Robbins’, who played Vicky’s heroic boyfriend Dave in the sequel, so I was incredibly happy to see him involved with Daniel Isn’t Real, the latest genre effort from director Adam Egypt Mortimer. An innovative and thought-provoking descent into madness, Daniel Isn’t Real was one of the biggest highlights for me out of this year’s Midnighters slate at SXSW, and is an exemplary effort from everyone involved, pushing storytelling boundaries and delivering up some truly nightmarish visuals to boot.
In Daniel Isn’t Real, we first meet the precocious Luke (initially played by Griffin Robert Faulkner, with Robbins taking over duties as we pick up with the character later on), who has a lot on his plate: his parents are splitting up, his mother (Mary Stuart Masterson) is suffering from an often debilitating mental illness, and he just happens to stumble across a brutal mass shooting in his NYC neighborhood one day, coincidentally at the same time he’s befriended by an imaginary friend named Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid). At first, Luke is happy to have a new pal in Daniel, with the duo sharing giggle fights and other kid-friendly shenanigans. But things take a darker turn after Daniel eggs Luke on to commit a prank that takes things too far, and at the suggestion of his mom, Luke decides to “lock” Daniel away inside a doll house, in hopes that the act will resolve any issues surrounding Daniel’s existence once and for all.
Eventually, Daniel reappears in Luke’s life (this time played by Patrick Schwarzenegger), but this time, our college-aged protagonist leans on his non-existent friend as a means of building confidence and putting himself out there in the world, especially when it comes to talking with girls. But the more time they spend together, the more Luke falls under the intoxicating spell of his hypothetical pal, and he begins to lose his grip on reality, affecting Luke’s relationships with everyone he cares about in this world, while also putting himself squarely in harm’s way.
An unflinching examination of what can happen when the id, the ego, and the super-ego are all at war with each other, Daniel Isn’t Real is a provocative slice of psychological horror that takes a decidedly left turn in the last 20 minutes or so once we see Luke beginning to slip away and Daniel take over, and for some viewers, it will probably be a make-or-break moment. For me, I enjoyed how Mortimer leaned more into the hellishly fantastical elements to the story (which was based on the novel In This Way I Was Saved by Brian DeLeeuw, who also co-wrote the screenplay for Some Kind of Hate, Mortimer’s feature film debut), and both Robbins and Schwarzenegger are both hauntingly great in Daniel Isn’t Real, making it a movie that genre fans should definitely keep on their radars in the coming months.
Movie Score: 4/5
Them That Follow: As someone who was raised Pentecostal Charismatic, and would also attend more hardcore Pentecostal churches whenever I’d be visiting with my grandparents in West Virginia as a kid, films like Them That Follow are always of great interest to me, as I continue to reconcile these ideals that I grew up learning versus who I’ve become as an adult. Co-written and co-directed by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, Them That Follow is a quiet and intimately crafted dramatic thriller that examines the dangerous side of blind faith and how far some are willing to go in order to achieve grace in the eyes of God.
The story is centered around Mara (Alice Englert), who is the daughter of Pastor Lemuel (Walton Goggins), the leader of a church tucked away from the world deep in the Appalachian mountains, where he and his parishioners utilize the practice of snake-handling as their way to prove their devotion to God. For Mara, her path in this world is seemingly already carved out for her, as a young man in the church named Garret (Lewis Pullman) has been practically hand-picked to take her hand in marriage, but the young woman doesn’t want to let the men in her life to continue to make all her decisions, especially when it comes to matters of the heart, as Mara has fallen deeply in love with community outcast Augie (Thomas Mann), but struggles with doing what is expected of her and what she truly wants to do with the rest of her life.
While the story itself is more of a character study than it is an explosive drama built around huge moments, for me, that was more than enough to keep me invested in Them That Follow, as I was able to fall immediately in line with all the engrossing characters and relationships, and the journey we take with Mara is wholly satisfying once we get to the end of the film. Englert is truly excellent in the film, but as whole, Them That Follow boasts one of the best ensembles from top to bottom I’ve witnessed in some time—from the aforementioned Goggins, Mann, and Pullman (who continues to make a name for himself after last year’s The Strangers: Prey at Night) to recent Oscar winner Olivia Colman and Jim Gaffigan’s beautifully understated role here as well, there’s so much about this story that I really related to, and I think both Savage and Poulton show great promise with their collaborative feature film debut.
Movie Score: 4/5
Villains: Heading into SXSW, I had suspected that Villains would end up being one of my favorite films of the fest, and boy, was I ever right. Co-written and co-directed by Robert Olsen and Dan Berk, their hilarious crime caper quickly stole my heart with its infectious charms, whip-smart script, and a quartet of lively and memorable performances, making Villains one of the best dark comedies I’ve seen in years. And beyond the fact that it is hilarious and sometimes disturbing, what makes this story truly stand out is that it isn’t afraid to revel in this idea of fragmented humanity, and how much love can save us—whether you’re two 20-somethings in the prime of your life, or you’re an older couple who have been dealt a raw hand by fate.
Starring Bill Skarsgård, Maika Monroe, Kyra Sedgwick, and Jeffrey Donovan, Villains follows young lovers Mickey and Jules (Skarsgård and Monroe) as they use their life of petty crimes as a means to get them to their dream life: living near the beach down in the sunny state of Florida. But after a convenience store robbery, the lovers end up stranded on the road, and decide to check out a house in the area for a potential new getaway car, not realizing that the owners of the property (Donovan and Sedgwick) they have chosen to break into aren’t the type of people who take kindly to visitors—especially those looking to steal from them. And as a series of cat and mouse games begin between the two couples, with both preying on the weaknesses of the other, that’s when Villains veers into wickedly fun territory, with Berk and Olsen consistently finding new ways to keep their characters and audiences on their toes.
Sharing some cinematic DNA with other cult favorites like True Romance, The People Under the Stairs, or even Raising Arizona, Villains is by far the most fun I’ve had with a festival movie in ages, and it’s a film that I hope gets an opportunity to be seen by as many people as possible, because it feels like something very special. Also, kudos to both filmmakers for putting Skarsgård (who has played his fair share of villains over the last few years) into a project where he can really show off his comedic chops, and I think the palpable chemistry he shares with Monroe (who is equally kickass in this) in Villains is just undeniably wonderful. Here’s hoping this one finds a home soon, so fans won’t have to wait too long to experience Villains for themselves.
Movie Score: 4.5/5
In case you missed it, check here to catch up on all of our live coverage of the SXSW 2019 Film Festival, including more reviews, interviews, and breaking news from Austin!