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SXSW 2024: Roleplay, Gasoline Rainbow, Grand Theft Hamlet

Documentaries have always held a prominent position at the SXSW Film Festival, and the best of the non-fiction form here in Austin feel like they encourage personal expression. It’s a festival (and a city really) that’s built around artists and innovators, so it makes sense that their documentary programming leans to similar themes. All three of the docs in this dispatch are worth watching because of the way they encourage emotional honesty, mostly refusing to put people into boxes. We’re all so much more interesting when we’re outside of them.

One of the best docs I’ve seen so far this year is Katie Mathews’ “Roleplay,” a film that truly surprised me because it does what so few films like this are willing to do: It lets its subjects be messy, unpredictable, and human. Films like “Roleplay” have a habit of being overly scripted and coerced, pushing their subjects into soundbites to make sure the audience “gets the point” of the movie. Mathews has a deceptively subtle voice as a director, providing a supportive platform more than insisting on cinematic results. It leads to a film that’s all the more powerful by virtue of feeling so very real.

“Roleplay” is about sexual assault at Tulane University, somewhat used as just a case study for the violence that occurs on campuses all across the country. At Tulane, a school still mired in good-ol-boy stereotypes—one of the most fascinating throughlines occurs when a young white woman tries to argue with her Black friend that going to a frat party with a Confederate flag on the front porch isn’t that big a deal—a group of students get together to create a theatrical piece from their real-life experiences with sexual coercion. Mathews brilliantly steps back from the process, documenting the creative experience as these people share stories, open up about their own experiences and fears, but never getting in the way of the growth. “Roleplay” succeeds by being un-invasive, recognizing that these people have so much to say about every aspect of college life in the 2020s.

The stories of coercion remain essential, but “Roleplay” expands to become more than just a commentary on the disturbing fact that people are unsafe on college campuses as it captures so much about the lives of its young, vulnerable, fascinating subjects. Issues like alcoholism, privilege, representation, allyship, sexuality—it’s all embedded in the project and the space given to the people who participated in it, all of whom I consider heroic for being this open and honest on camera. The phrase “offer my voice” is used at one point, and I thought I was better for having heard these voices.

There’s a similar “act of listening to young people” angle to the latest project from the form-breaking geniuses known as the Ross brothers. The directors of “Western,” “Contemporary Color,” and “Bloody Noses, Empty Pockets” are back with a film that once again defies categorization in a fascinating way. Like their last project, a purist might argue that “Gasoline Rainbow” isn’t a doc. Five young people who didn’t know each other were “cast” as friends who decide to go on a road trip to the coast because they’ve never seen the ocean. That’s it. They clearly weren’t given dialogue or ground rules. So what unfolds is pure. It’s them in their encounters, emotions, anxieties, and desires.

A lot of the runtime of “Gasoline Rainbow” consists of driving, listening to music, and getting high, which could make it a tough sell for some viewers, but I found the window into young life in the 2020s consistently fascinating. Even when they’re doing nothing, these kids are alive. There’s energy in their voices and the motion that reminded me of that feeling when you’re young that anything is possible. I worry that young people today have lost the inherent optimism of youth, reminded by the internet on a daily basis of some of the horror of the world they will have to face. And “Gasoline Rainbow” doesn’t ignore the issues, but kids don’t sit around talking about climate change or how they’ll pay the rent. They get high. They drive. They listen to the “Lord of the Rings” soundtrack. And they want to see the ocean.

The Ross brothers are organic, brilliant filmmakers, people who know how to capture their subjects without getting in their way. Again, traditionalists, or even those looking for more structure, will be turned off by a film that admittedly feels a bit repetitive and long. But that’s life for young people, right? Days that feel the same and a long road ahead of them. There’s a phenomenal exchange in the film that’s almost a throwaway that captures what it’s all about for me. “Where the fuck are we at?” “I have no clue, man—just follow the road.” These kids are just following the road, and we’re lucky to be along for the ride.

Finally, there’s the almost unbelievable “Grand Theft Hamlet,” a movie that takes place entirely in “Grand Theft Online,” the massive online world associated with the “Grand Theft Auto” franchise. Yes, it never leaves a video game, and yet still somehow becomes a study in the impact of isolation and the importance of communal creative expression. As a former theatre kid and a video game enthusiast, “Grand Theft Hamlet” clicks with me on multiple levels—while I suspect some viewers will grow weary of watching a video game for the length of a feature, others will be surprised by how much can be done in an online world when people fill it with their creative passion.

In January 2021, the United Kingdom was shutting down for the third time, meaning actors like Sam Crane and Mark Oosterveen had nowhere to perform. They spent their days driving around the world of “Grand Theft Auto,” and Sam’s wife Pinny Grylls, a documentarian, decided to start recording what they were doing there. Why not? There’s nothing else to do. One day, they stumbled on a theatre in the hills of the gaming world and had an idea: Could someone perform Shakespeare in a video game? Over the next few months, they held auditions (that were sometimes interrupted by gunfire) and started to put together a show, one that only grew more ambitious within a world with no financial or physical constraints.

There are a lot of ideas to unpack in “Grand Theft Hamlet” but one that I love is how much it displays the eternal timelessness and relevance of the Bard. What better play for a world of violent betrayal than Hamlet? And the fact that it’s a play that essentially features a form of avatars—people putting on costumes to deceive or enlighten—makes its use here in a video game even richer. But what really makes the film work isn’t just the concept but the vulnerability of Sam, Mark, and Pinny, who basically put their emotional upheaval on screen through these goofy video game characters. They represent not just the power of theatre but the deep human need to express yourself for those who choose that life. We haven’t even scratched the surface of “Pandemic Stories” that will unfold on screen over the next generation, but you won’t see another one quite like this. 

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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