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SXSW 2024: Omni Loop, Desert Road, Things Will Be Different

I’ve had several conversations recently with people regarding how time has gotten weird since the pandemic. Maybe it’s because we were locked inside for so long, but some events of the last four years feel like they took place yesterday while others seem so far in the rearview mirror. I don’t think I’m alone in this, and I think this kind of weird fracturing of memory has not only led to more Mandela Effect conspiracy theories but it’s at the root of the recent spate of films in which time and space break. Reality just hasn’t felt real lately. There were several such films at SXSW this year, including a standout of the entire fest co-starring everyone’s favorite recent Emmy winner.

Bernardo Britto’s “Omni Loop” is a clever, moving riff on a “Groundhog Day”-esque piece of storytelling, one that comes at its concept from a deeply human and empathetic angle. So many of these films have been about people breaking out of a rut in order to learn how to live again, but “Omni Loop” is more about how we all should reconsider the repetitive nature of our lives and focus on what’s really important to us while we can. As someone who is approaching 50 and has watched his three children turn from babies into teenagers in the blink of an eye, Britto’s film really struck an emotional chord. It takes a bit too long to get going and ends a few too many times, but these are minor complaints for a really well-done piece of sci-fi storytelling, a movie that uses what seems like a familiar set-up in a new way.

Mary-Louise Parker gets her best part in years as Zoya Lowe, a woman who learns that she has a black hole growing inside her chest that will kill her—don't worry, just go with it and trust that it’s not as weird as it sounds. It’s mostly a stand-in for not just any terminal diagnosis but the parts inside our hearts and souls that we struggle so much to fill what really matters while we still can. It turns out that Zoya discovered a bottle of magic pills when she was young that can take her back briefly in time. She goes home from the hospital with her diagnosis, lives a week, her noses starts to bleed, and she takes a pill to do it all over again. Imagine not only having a week to live but a chance to re-do that week over and over again. What would you fix at the last minute?

“Omni Loop” is not as much of a drag as that sounds as it expands to something entirely different with the introduction of Paula (Ayo Edebiri of “The Bear” fame), a young woman who Zoya works with to discover how the pills work so maybe she can fight the inevitable or at least pass along the knowledge to someone else. Edebiri and Parker turn out to be an inspired duo, ably assisted by great supporting turns from Carlos Jacott, Harris Yulin, and especially Hannah Pearl Utt as Zoya’s daughter. There’s something so tender in the way it’s her “Hi, Mom” that sparks each new cycle of Zoya’s last week. They’re two simple words, but they have so much warmth in them that they say so much. And they’re emblematic of a film that contains so many big ideas without losing sight of it’s the small interactions and relationships that really define us. Sometimes just two words from the right person.

A very different kind of loop unfolds in Shannon Triplett’s very good “Desert Road,” a film that it truly feels that Rod Serling would have dug. “The Twilight Zone” regularly returned to travelers who break from reality, and that’s the basic template of Triplett’s film, a movie that consistently challenges perception of what’s really going on. Even at its conclusion, I’m not 100% it all adds up, but that’s fine for a film that’s more interested in how we move on than checking all the narrative boxes. Most of all, this is just a well-made mindf*ck of a movie, and a wonderful showcase for Kristine Froseth, who gives one of the best performances of SXSW 2024.

Froseth plays an unnamed woman traveling across one of those desolate patches of land in the Western part of this country where there’s little sign of civilization for miles. She stops at a gas station and has a somewhat unsettling encounter with a gas station attendant (Max Mattern) who may have skimmed her credit card. She drives off, calling home to Iowa and informing them that a long road trip is about to begin. It doesn’t. She blows a tire, getting stuck on a boulder. When she walks over the hill to the next gas station, she finds the one she left, with the same attendant. She calls a tow truck driver (Ryan Hurst), and then things start getting really weird. No matter where she goes, even off the road to another one that should be on the other side of a hill, she ends up back at the same gas station and the same broken-down car.

Getting stuck in time and space is an old idea in sci-fi, but it requires not just a sharp script but an engaging lead. Froseth keeps us in this complex story by anchoring us to her excellent performance, running with this woman down the desert road that she can never leave. There’s a bit of thematic inconsistency in Triplett’s script, especially when it shifts a bit in the final act to a story of closure more than survival, but it’s certainly never boring, the kind of film that could easily find a loyal audience with the right studio backing. A smart distributor should pick this one up while there's still time.

The final screwy film of SXSW for me this year was Michael Felker’s “Things Will be Different,” a movie with some neat ideas and sharp construction that nevertheless kept me at arm’s length more than the other two projects in this dispatch. There’s a very fine line between leaving your audiences with enough questions to answer on their own and making a movie that feels frustratingly opaque. As a directorial debut, Felker’s film is a promising one, but I can’t say it works for me on its own terms.

It's through no fault of stars Adam David Thompson and Riley Dandy, who are asked to navigate a lot of choppy waters here as performers, both narratively and emotionally. They play Jospeh and Sidney, a pair of siblings who have committed a crime and are basically hiding out in a safe house that defies reality, a sort of metaphysical space in which they can’t be reached, but also may have trouble leaving when they choose to do so. The thematic subtext of people stuck in their troubled existence is a solid foundation, but Felker can’t find the momentum in a story about people who have so little of it.

It may not be surprising to learn that Felker has been the editor for Jason Benson and Aaron Moorhead, two filmmakers who do this kind of time-bending experiment better than anyone really. And Felker’s editing on projects like “Synchronic” and “The Endless” were absolutely essential to their success. He knows how to put a project like this together, and that shows in “Things Will Be Different” too. It’s really a screenwriting issue above all else on a film that I think likely makes more sense to its creator than it will to viewers. That’s the tough part about films about people stuck in impossible situations—making viewers want to get stuck there too.

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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