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SXSW 2024: Dickweed, Secret Mall Apartment, She Looks Like Me

Some documentaries hinge on the wild nature of their story. Can you believe that happened? Can you believe those people did that? Can you believe that connection between two people who never knew each other? The best of these films use their twists to illuminate something about the human condition, whether it’s a need for community or the importance of parental support. These three films all falter slightly in different ways, but they also all contain stories that people tell at dinner parties, the kind of variations on the human condition that we love to see when we look at a big screen.

Jonathan Ignatius Green’s “Dickweed” feels like a product of the Podcast era, one of those too-crazy-to-be-true crime stories that have littered the podcast landscape for the last few years. The propulsive nature of the crime at its center does a lot of the work for Green’s film, which often feels a bit too much like something someone would see on ID or a very special “Dateline NBC” (which I believe has actually covered this story, if I’m not mistaken, given I was familiar with many of the details and watch that show somewhat religiously - don't judge me). While “Dickweed” doesn’t break out of its true crime form quite enough to be truly memorable, it also doesn’t do anything wrong. It feels to me like a perfect fit for Netflix, which has turned true crime into an industry. It would be #1 there for days.

The title of Green’s film refers to both the grotesque nature of the criminal in this case and the crime he committed. In 2012, a weed dispensary owner in Newport Beach named Michael was kidnapped in the middle of the night. He was taken to the middle of nowhere, and ordered to tell his trio of kidnappers where he buried a million dollars. The problem is that Michael had no idea what these monsters were talking about. They zip-tied him, forced him to eat dirt, and poured bleach on him. And they cut his dick off. Yep. “Dick” and “Weed.” You get it now.

The horror that happened to Michael baffled not just him but the police. Why torture this man for nothing? If he did bury a million bucks in the desert, did they think mutilating him would them find it? And then why didn’t they kill him? Anchored by extensive interviews with Michael and the investigators, “Dickweed” unwraps a fascinating hunt for a sociopathic fugitive. Other than the tone that often feels like it’s mocking its victim a bit too much (like in the title), the only real issue with “Dickweed” is that it feels overly familiar in terms of form, the kind of true crime thing you can watch on Netflix every day. It will fit in nicely.

There’s a similar “did you hear that crazy podcast” angle to Jeremy Workman’s “Secret Mall Apartment,” a documentary about a group of Rhode Island creatives who literally built an apartment in the Providence Place Mall in the early 2000s. After discovering space between two of the buildings in the massive structure, these artists decided to try and literally live there, bringing in cinder blocks to wall it off from prying eyes, furniture to sit on, and even a gaming system. They would hang out, go down to the food court to grab leftovers that were being thrown away, and spent a lot of time trying to upgrade their unique situation. Hidden in a massive structure that was seen as evidence of gentrification in Providence was basically an artistic co-op—creative passion living like a barnacle on the ship of capitalism.

While one of the leaders of the Secret Mall Apartment was caught and exposed, most of the other residents hadn’t come forward before Workman’s film. The timing of it feels perfect as these now-older artists revisit a formative chapter in their lives, speaking about its difficulties and rewards. Workman allows for a few diversions that deepen our relationship to these people, including a fascinating tape art project. The whole thing sometimes feels a bit underdeveloped thematically, but it definitely conveys that the existence of the Secret Mall Apartment led to the kind of environment where creatives inspire other creatives to be their best selves. Yes, they were essentially stealing real estate, but don’t corporations do that every day to a much lesser end than creative expression?

To be clear, I don’t think artists should go breaking into malls looking for places to live, and I think it’s something that would be a lot harder to pull off in today’s land of cameras and motion detectors. However, I also do stumble on TikToks all the time about people investigating run down malls, a relic of a time gone by. The truth is that artistic communities like this one still thrive across the country and will for generations to come. You can’t say the same thing about the mall.

Finally, there’s “She Looks Like Me,” a film with a truly remarkable true story that’s admirably respectful and even idolizing of its subjects even if it loses focus a bit too often over its long runtime. The two figures at the center of “She Looks Like Me” are models of strength, in character and physically. And there’s an interesting but slightly underdeveloped theme here about the importance of parental support for a young person, especially one with different needs. But “She Looks Like Me” ultimately would have worked at half its length, a version that homes in a little tighter on its messages instead of cutting back and forth between them.

Jen Bricker was born without legs, abandoned at the hospital and adopted by her parents, who are arguably the true heroes of this story, a pair who brought in another child into a home that already had three. Most importantly, they never held Jen back, encouraging her to do whatever she wanted. Jen speaks movingly of an ordinary childhood in which she never felt othered until she grew up. Her parents, other kids, teachers, her gymnastics trainers—Jen could do anything. And she did. She was incredibly successful and grew up idolizing a famous face who looked like her: Dominique Moceanu. Imagine learning your role model shared an incredible secret with you from your background? That’s the core of “She Looks Like Me.”

Writer/director Torquil Jones sometimes tries to do too much in one film, paralleling Moceanu’s story with Bricker’s in a way that necessitates the film get into some difficult places like the abuse rampant in gymnastics and the hideous human garbage that is Larry Nassar. In the back half, the film sometimes loses focuses as it tries to tell not just Bricker and Moceanu’s stories but all of gymnastics in the last few decades, but the two ladies at the center of this story really do hold it together over any of its criticisms. They’re both remarkable interview subjects, open and genuine in a way that’s empowering and moving. Were they born with that kind of courageous DNA? I’ve always believed strongly in nurture over nature—and, to be fair, at least Jen got a lot of the former—but “She Looks Like Me” could be considered evidence that there are certain innate qualities and passions with which we’re born.

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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