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SXSW 2023: National Anthem, Molli and Max in the Future, Northern Comfort

One of my favorite films of South by Southwest this year is a movie that I saw early, on opening night. After the chaotic energy of opener “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” there was something comforting about dropping into a character study as accomplished as Luke Gilford’s “National Anthem,” a tender and moving piece about how it often takes other people to help us find ourselves. Gilford has a strong eye—he captures the wide-open spaces of this beautiful country with a blend of awe and grace—but it’s his work with performers and characters that announces a major talent. There’s so much open emotion and honest beauty in this film that keeps walking up to the edge of clichés before taking a left turn into something genuine. Watch for this one. And everyone in it.

The always natural and impressive Charlie Plummer (“Lean on Pete”) plays Dylan, a young man who has been forced to grow up too soon as a de facto father figure for his little brother. His mother (Robyn Lively) is usually working or drinking, and Dylan has to work odd jobs to help put food on the table himself. One day, he’s picked up by a truck driver with a job at a ranch called the House of Splendor, a community of people encouraged to be free with their gender and sexual identities. He is instantly captivated by pretty much everything that is happening at the House of Splendor, but especially Sky (Eve Lindley of “Assassination Nation”), a beautiful force of nature who allows Dylan to explore his own identity. Sky is a partner to Pepe (Rene Rosado), the head of the ranch, which sets up a structure that feels like it will lead to a traditional love triangle. There are so many early red flags in this script that set my critical radar on edge for the tropes into which “National Anthem” could fall. Love triangle, drunk mom, jeopardized kid, etc. And yet Gilford (mostly) avoids the clichés by being true to his characters, trusting his performers, and never forgetting the power of a great Western backdrop.

Gilford is telling a classic story—the coming-of-age piece about sexual discovery through people a protagonist has never encountered in his life before—but he does so with so much empathy and honesty. The scenes at House of Splendor are so remarkably genuine that it starts to achieve the air of eavesdropping as if we’re watching real people go about their life on a homestead or at rodeo events. It helps that his cast clearly understood the objective here. Plummer seems simply incapable of giving a false performance. There’s something so wonderfully in the moment about what he does here as the soft-spoken Dylan finds his voice. And Lindley does her best work to date, finding the free spirit of Sky that conveys why Dylan would become so mesmerized by her. Everyone is good, but a special bit of praise belongs to Mason Alexander Park as Carrie, who takes what could have been a small role and makes it unforgettable as the most supportive and encouraging member of the House of Splendor. They make so many smart little choices in a role essential to breaking “National Anthem” out of the aforementioned potential cliché traps. In a sense, they represent the potential of the life that Dylan can now lead. We all have that first crush, but we don’t all have someone to hold our hand through the heartbreak of it all.

“National Anthem” has a visual language that accentuates its character arcs. Gilford doesn’t just love these people—he loves how they live off the land and find joy through expression at rodeos and drag shows. It might sound cheesy, but in an increasingly tech-dominated world, it's nice to see people who find new joy in a classic way of living by making it their own. "National Anthem" is a film that feels both progressive and old-fashioned at the same time. Maybe we could all use some time at the House of Splendor.

There is an undeniable joy in the filmmaking behind the kooky “Molli and Max in the Future,” too, and that creative spirit carries it through some rough narrative patches and is complemented by truly charming performances from its two leads. In fact, its title characters are so fun to be around I found myself wishing the entire project had just been a two-hander. When writer/director Michael Lukk Litwak stays focused on their quirky chemistry, this odd duck of a rom-com has enough charm to power a spaceship. When he diverts to supporting characters or becomes a tick too enraptured with the oddities of his vision of the future, the writing falters a bit. Still, this is a deeply likable film with a tone that’s not really like anything else out there. I could easily see it developing a loyal cult audience who fall in love with Molli and Max.

A lo-fi sci-fi excursion, “Molli and Max in the Future” plays out like a genre hybrid of Wes Anderson, “The Fifth Element,” and “When Harry Met Sally.” Not something you see every day. Filmed entirely against a green screen for an obviously (but charmingly) low budget that uses the Unreal Engine in creative ways, the film starts when Molli (Zosia Mamet) runs into Max (Aristotle Athari) with her spaceship. Forced to take him to his destination, the two strike up a conversation that reveals a fun, instant chemistry. Mamet and Athari are playful and charming, giving these early scenes the energy of a great but unusual rom-com.

Of course, the requirement of a rom-com is delayed gratification, and the film then charts how these two keep splitting up and running into each other over the next 12 years or so. In between, they have some goofy adventures, including Molli joining a space cult and Max becoming a sports hero and spokesman. But the movie falters when it gets to other partners for the pair and spends too much time with a game show about choosing who will run the galaxy, a very-thinly-veiled Trump commentary—even in the future, we will pick an aggressively annoying reality star who promises to take us to the Trash Dimension. However, even when “Molli and Max” doesn’t feel like it's landing, it’s never boring. The ambitious film makes me want to see what Litwak does next.

The tone is so essential for both films above, and that’s where the final movie of this dispatch falls so flat for me. I’ll be very brief with Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson’s “Northern Comfort” because I always feel uncomfortable bashing passion projects with low budgets at film festivals, but this one baffled me. It’s a sequence of bad filmmaking decisions, amplifying characters who never once felt like they exist in the real world. It’s a film about relatable anxiety that doesn’t take the time to feel true, using its characters like quirky pawns instead of letting us feel what makes them tick. "Northern Comfort" is on a definite wavelength, and I suppose someone could be on its level, but I never was even once.

Sigurðsson’s film is about a group of people trying to overcome their crippling fear of flying. Sarah’s (Lydia Leonard) is so bad that she has lied to her partner, pretending to be in Los Angeles on business but never leaving her London flat. She can’t keep this up. The work with her group, which includes a special forces veteran played by a miscast Timothy Spall, has progressed to the point that they’re ready for a test flight, which turns out to be a jump across the pond to Iceland. Of course, it goes very poorly, and the group gets stranded in the land of ice and snow, ending up at a luxury resort, where, well, things get weird.

I take that back. Things were weird already, and in a way that deflates everything this movie should be trying to do. The forced humor, the unbelievable behavior, the awkward performances. It all made me, sorry, a bit uncomfortable.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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