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SXSW 2023: If You Were the Last, Upon Entry, Scrambled

If You Were the Last” grabs two photogenic stars, Zoe Chao and Anthony Mackie, puts them into space, and presents them as cozy and appealing as they can possibly be. Their characters are astronauts in a NASA shuttle that has been floating through space for over 1,000 days with no successful communication. A question lingers between them and is meant to take us from one cutesy scene to the next: Will they bang? It’s an intriguing question to base a movie around, but unfortunately, “If You Were the Last” doesn’t have the derring-do for its concept. Even though it’s about two married adults considering a connection that could alter their friendship, the movie annoyingly handles it all like teenager’s play. 

Directed by Kristian Mercado and written by Angela Bourassa, the world of “If You Were the Last” owes a lot to the handmade comedies of Michel Gondry, with its own creative way of creating space travel without a giant budget: it uses cardboard for these shuttle, construction paper and string for the controls, and simple graphics for their monitors (like a smiley face, or a frown). When “If You Were the Last” begins, it’s a welcome and clever way for a mostly two-hander indie to visualize space travel. We don’t need such frills to get it, and it helps signal the tone too. 

Unfortunately, the movie takes this as an invitation to be too quirky for its own good, which takes away from the more curious, mature predicaments. At least Mackie and Chao are plenty amusing and spunky. They dance together, they watch “Alien” (the movies are available on little cassette tapes), they confess their feelings about each other to a skeleton that is revealed to be their third shipmate. Their chemistry is more impressive than anything else here, depicting a long-term closeness that somehow didn't bring in sex hundreds of days ago. But it’s all so light—Mackie especially plays at a register that suggests a teenager, despite being an adult and married.

Their dialogue, both the characters' individual lines and the general way they broach such subjects, is counterintuitive to the movie's “Will they or won’t they?” curiosity. There isn’t much tension created from it but hard-worn whimsy, as with a scene after when the two decide they can cuddle. Mackie’s character Adam then says something like, “[We need to talk] about how you squished your boobies against me!” A similar cringe factor comes later when they talk about other pleasure loopholes that may not violate their marriages.

Maybe “If You Were the Last” is trying to say something with its tone about how awkward such a talk can be, but that innocent charm runs thin. The movie also has a habit of cutting away when the two embrace each other, affirming their closeness in the middle of their debate, and then the script moves on as if nothing happened. A better film could develop on those beats and explore the messier terrain of platonic friendship, especially when horniness and attraction are staring right back at you. “If You Were the Last” is game for fluffy rom-com-like tension, but it fears its own premise. What a missed opportunity. 

A far better movie that’s largely about two people in an uncomfortable space can be found in the Spanish “Upon Entry,” written and directed by Alejandro Rojas and Juan Sebastián Vasquez. In 74 minutes, the movie creates considerable thrills depicting a couple being interrogated after traveling from Spain to the United States. At first, Diego (Alberto Ammann) and Elena (Bruna Cusí) face questions from customs in New York City after giving their fingerprints and showing their passports. They have two hours to make their connection to Miami, where they are permanently moving. And they plan on meeting Diego’s brother outside to say hello. One tense scene after the next, we realize those things won’t be happening. 

With their passports sealed in a plastic bag, the couple is quietly ushered to a waiting room in the airport's basement, where they just sit with others scattered around in silence. No cell phones are allowed. No food. No answers. They are then ushered down a bleak hallway, venturing deeper and deeper into a system that isolates them from the world and controls their every move. Diego and Elena don’t know what’s happening, and their interest in complying with each stern demand and repeated question wears on their faces. 

Exposition is usually the force that defeats a movie, revealing a writer’s lack of tact. Here, it has the opposite effect. For a film that takes place mostly with interviews happening in real-time, “Upon Entry” is more or less only exposition, and it’s effectively tense and uncomfortable. Each question from the interrogation (led by actors Ben Temple and Laura Gómez) helps us learn more about them and a backstory that is more complicated than we might have assumed. And credit to the bold writing, "Upon Entry" flourishes with the gray areas of its characters and situation. The movie becomes a microscope on the system and everyone in view, magnifying these types of experiences and creating excellent humanist drama. We start to have questions about the couple, too. 

The wealth of questions and answers in “Upon Entry” leaves a feeling of uncertainty about what point each interrogator is trying to get to, coupled by their stern demands. We are left in the dark as the main characters, and the movie’s missteps are few—sometimes it's too hammy of a scowl from one of the agents or a moment in which the power goes out. But the larger impression is there—so much is going on outside the room that Diego and Elena do not know about. 

One could expect a movie like “Upon Entry” to go into more metaphorical territory, to lean more into its overt horror, but it does not. It does not have to. The thrills from this movie are plentiful and poignant, made possible by confident direction that well knows the insidious potential of the systems in control. 

Leah McKendrick’s “Scrambled” freely joins the ranks of other on-screen women whose cringing but relatable choices in dating have made them our single, broke, disheveled heroes. But writer/director McKendrick faces the biological reality of this mold even more head-on, addressing the idea that whatever a woman like Nellie wants to do with her single thirties she still has to make some kind of decision about what to do with her fertility situation. Some of the script is too forced with its emotions, or its humor can be too broad, but "Scrambled" proves to overall be a charismatic directorial debut from a promising writer/director/star. 

McKendrick stars in the movie as Nellie, a 34-year-old Etsy jeweler who decides to go about the process of freezing her eggs. Maybe someday she’ll have kids, but she’s not ready to decide yet. (“I don’t even know if I want kids! I’ve seen Euphoria” got one of my biggest laughs.) Nellie is still figuring herself out as an individual and dealing with the break-up with an ex named Sean. Her recently married friend Sheila (Ego Nwodim) is supportive but busy, and her mother (Laura Cerón) is only so helpful. And the men in her life don’t seem to get it, like her father (Clancy Brown), or her smug finance bro brother (Andrew Santino), the latter written to be the walking embodiment of penis privilege. 

Meanwhile, everyone’s life around Nellie seems to be taking off, and other people’s major celebrations—a wedding, a baby shower, an engagement party—offer an illustrative backdrop that shows how isolated she can be. McKendrick is especially funny in these moments, trying to force a big smile through the awkwardness and masking her own frustrations. Throughout, McKendrick nails her intent of making us root for Nellie, and then being invested in each choice she makes, whether it proves disastrous or not. In a plot development that’s funny but also can make for some hit-and-miss character jokes, Nellie retraces her romantic history to maybe see if there’s still a chance for connection; she meets up with her exes and sees how weird some of these guys turned out to be. One dud even pops back into her life wearing an ankle bracelet. 

Throughout the script’s batch of gritty dating jokes, we see Nellie injecting herself with prescribed medication, preparing her eggs for the big procedure. For all of the emotions that McKendrick tries to throw in this story, she most effectively illustrates, and wrestles with, how lonely the process can be if you’re doing it alone. That’s where we feel the most for her character, and also where McKendrick can be a little too tidy with setting up an emotional monologue here or a surprise character development there. But “Scrambled” never loses sight of its sincerity, and McKendrick uses this space to lovingly illuminate, if not destigmatize a fertility option not given nearly as much visibility as other choices. She does so with a wealth of life wisdom and big laughs in the process. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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