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SXSW 2017: “Madre,” “Us and Them," "Most Beautiful Island"

Film festivals are going to be one of the artistic frontlines when it comes to dealing with the issues of Trump’s America. We’ve already seen a proliferation of stories about racial inequality at Sundance, and this year’s SXSW boasts a few features that could be called “topical.” Two films set in very different worlds tell horrific stories of class warfare while a third film details how communication breakdown and gender inequality can lead to tragedy. All three have their strengths, although one stands out.

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That one is, you guessed it, going to Netflix later this year. The company that feels most likely to soon take over the world announced the acquisition of Aaron Burns“Madre” just before its SXSW premiere, and it’s a smart pick-up by the people dominating your free time. “Madre” has echoes of “Rosemary’s Baby” and the cult horror film “Inside,” which means people will be talking about it, and it’s nice to see Netflix stretching their catalog to include original films not in the English language. It’s a movie that can sometimes feel a bit exploitative of the issues with which it plays, but it’s anchored by a phenomenal performance, and it’s creepy and disturbing enough to provoke a response. Let’s just say—make sure the kids are in bed before you queue this one up.

Daniela Ramirez plays Diana Prieto, a woman pregnant with a second child and nearly consumed on a daily basis with the care of her first, a severely autistic boy named Martin (Matias Bassi). His care is becoming more and more difficult as he gets older, and as Diana deals with her own self-care that comes with a late-term pregnancy. Her husband Tomas (Cristobal Tapia Montt) is always away on business—and, one suspects pretty early on, a little bit of pleasure too—leaving Diana to struggle on her own. Salvation comes in the form of a supermarket employee named Luz (Aida Jabolin), who seems to know how to deal with Martin. She tells Diana that her son David (Nicolas Duran) was once autistic but that he’s completely normal now. Diana hires Luz as a nanny, and miracles seem to happen. Martin isn’t just calmer, he shows almost no signs of autism. He shows signs of other stuff, however.

It's not long before Diana is deeply suspicious of Luz, who is teaching Martin Filipino, her native tongue, and here’s where “Madre” descends into Paranoia Horror with a dash of “Aren’t Pregnant Women Crazy?” Diana gets an app to translate what Luz is telling her son, and it’s predictably unpleasant. The family dog disappears and Martin starts drawing pictures of what look like animal sacrifices. And then there are the hallucinations. Is Diana merely imagining things or is Luz really turning her son against her? Sadly, not quite enough is done with the rich pot of social and gender issues that could have been developed here. David has a scathing speech about how Diana and people wealthy enough to afford nannies see their kids more as possessions than family members, and I wished writer/director Aaron Burns (a collaborator on several Eli Roth projects) had developed some of those themes more completely. At one point, the film verges on asking how much confusion and distrust we’d be willing to put up with to reduce our stress and help our children. But then it kind of goes back into pure horror territory. There’s also a disappointing lack of visual strength to the film. And those who think issues like autism are misunderstood enough that they shouldn’t be used for horror devices may want to skip this one. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it got under my skin, thanks largely to Ramirez’s committed performance.

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While it’s a completely different experience, Joe Martin’s “Us and Them” produces similar results in that it too is anchored and carried by a remarkable acting turn, and it too has some really interesting themes that feel underdeveloped but could get people talking. Martin’s film is a commentary on the class warfare issues that will arguably be the biggest story of the next couple decades as the chasm between the haves and the have-nots continues to grow, but it’s delivered in a home invasion thriller that riffs on Quentin Tarantino, Michael Haneke and Guy Ritchie. A very promising first act gives way to a tonal shift that I don’t think the movie quite takes cleanly, but Jack Roth is an actor to watch.

Of course, the fact that “Us and Them” feels structured like it was written by someone who watched “Reservoir Dogs” dozens of times is even more apropos given that Roth is the son of the great Tim Roth. Jack has the same palpable charisma that his father did at a young age, owning the camera with gritty style. He plays Danny, the leader of a trio of economically struggling young men who decide to stage a home invasion of someone on the other end of the class spectrum. It’s an understatement to say things don’t go exactly as planned.

“Us and Them” jumps back and forth between the action of the invasion and the conversations leading up to it, deepening some of the themes but also created a fractured structure that keeps everything at arm’s length. This becomes a problem when “Us and Them” gets pretty serious, especially in an extended swimming pool sequence that starts to feel like this could turn into torture porn. Roth continues to anchor the film and Martin has style to spare, but this is one of those projects that most of all makes you excited for what its star and director will do next.

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Something similar could be said about Ana Asensio’s tense “Most Beautiful Island,” produced by and co-starring the legendary Larry Fessenden. Like Martin’s work, Asensio’s film tells the story of people making dangerous life choices when they are at the end of their economic ropes, although her film has the added element of how this country treats immigrants, especially female ones. The film opens with shots of beautiful women crossing crowded streets and plazas in New York City. Who is filming these women? Or at least watching them? The short film that follows may have worked better as an installment of a horror anthology series, but it’s certainly engaging and should keep you asking questions.

The Spanish writer/director is also the star of her debut, playing a woman named Luciana, who lives in New York City and seems to be slipping under the threshold of poverty. Bugs come out of her wall, and she conveys the honest fear that she could end up on the street if she faces one more economic setback. She works as a nanny for a pair of awful, spoiled children, but her friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) has a job for her. All she has to do is wear a pretty dress and go to a party. She’ll get paid two grand to be eye candy. No one will get hurt and she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to do. Of course, it’s too good to be true, and the bulk of “Most Beautiful Island” consists of that “party.” As much of the tension here comes from what’s unknown and unseen about what happens there, I won’t spoil it. But Asensio cleverly lets our imaginations run wild by keeping this event’s true activities behind closed doors for much of the running time, raising our tension along with Luciana’s.

While Asensio gives a striking performance here, too much of the rest of the film feels amateurish. Dialogue is under- or over-written, with some actors playing the whole thing almost like a B-movie horror piece and others going totally straight. The interactions too often don’t feel genuine, which reduces the truly powerful message of the film: immigrant women are essentially seen as playthings for some people in this world. While none of these films are perfect, it’s nice to have young, talented filmmakers willing to tackle the issues of not just Trump’s America but whoever follows him into the White House.


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