(Welcome to The SXSW Diaries, where we will be chronicling every single movie we see at the Austin-based film festival.)

Welcome to SXSW 2019 day five. In this edition: Villains recalls the best of the early Coen brothers, Olympic Dreams is a standard story set in an extraordinary location, and The Peanut Butter Falcon is a quirky but winning blend of comedy and drama.

Villains

Sometimes, all a movie needs is one house, a handful of characters, and an escalating series of bad choices. In its increasingly twisted simplicity, Villains feels like the descendant of thrillers like Blood Simple, small movies where everything that can go wrong will go wrong for hapless, morally dubious characters. But Dan Berk and Robert Olsen‘s film also owes a tremendous debt to the classic stage farce, as the small cast of killers and crooks continuously steal the upper hand back from one another as they attempt to survive a few very, very bad days in a very, very bad house.

It star Bill Skarsgård and It Follows star Maika Monroe are magnetic as a pair of bumbling crooks, whose road trip to a Florida pipe dream is funded by a series of borderline incompetent gas station robberies. But as sweet as these two really are (and the actors share a chemistry that is equally sexy and funny), they’re not the brightest tools in the shed: they run out of gas while fleeing their latest crime. Seeing an opportunity to steal a car in an isolated country home, they break in, search for keys and find…something else. Let’s just say that the homeowners (Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Donovan) are hiding a dark secret and they prove to be, well, not particularly cooperative hostages.

Once the principal cast of four major characters is introduced, Villains becomes the “petty crooks versus murderous psychopaths” movie you didn’t know you needed. Berk and Olsen make incredible use of their single location and tiny cast, finding continuously surprising ways to utilize a limited number of rooms and even more surprising ways for these four characters to bounce off one another. While Skarsgård and Monroe are radiant and adorable, Sedgwick and Donovan are perfectly cast as their vile counterparts – an older couple who are deeply in love, still super into each other, and happen to have a predilection for kidnap, torture, and murder. And while we’d expect a terrific performance from Sedgwick, Donovan turns out to the revelation, as the former Burn Notice star puts on his best Bill Paxton suit and transforms into menacing and lethal force of Southern hospitality by way of guns, knives, and whatever else he can get his hands on.

Villains occasionally overplays its hand, with a denouement that asks for emotions that don’t feel quite earned (it’s thiiis close, really). And yet, everything else is so confident, so wicked, so funny and so deranged that it’s hard to hold much against it. This is a straight-up satisfying movie, a thriller that finds pleasure in exploring its characters and mines gold out of examining how these two very different couples love each other in ways so odd and specific that they can’t help but feel real. The twists and turns keep the plot moving, but the performances keep the blood flowing.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

Olympic Dreams

Olympic Dreams is yet another indie movie about a lonely man and a lonely woman who find each other and bond over their melancholy, even as that melancholy is derived from sources that could not be more different. But don’t turn away just yet. The very nature of how this film was made, where it was shot, and the story of is production (which is essential to understanding the power of the whole thing) makes this movie a must-see, even as it hits a few too many familiar beats.

During the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, filmmaker Jeremy Teicher, comedian Nick Kroll, and 2016 Olympian-turned-actress Alexi Pappas were allowed to make a movie in the Olympic Village as part of an artist-in-residence program. Typically off-limits to media, family, coaches, and anyone else who isn’t an athlete, a trainer, or an approved official, this is a setting that has remained hidden from most eyes. Until now. Teicher, carrying his own sound equipment and wielding the production’s sole camera, followed Kroll and Pappas (playing a volunteer dentist and a participating athlete who failed to place on day one of competition) as they wandered the Olympic Village in-character, sharing stories, bonding, and building a powerful friendship. It’s a bit like Richard Linklater, a bit like Lost in Translation (with the Village standing in for Tokyo).

They film in mess halls and dormitories and training areas and game rooms. They film amidst crowds of athletes who don’t know they’re in a movie. Other athletes were recruited, often with almost no warning, to appear and play minor roles. Dialogue and character development were largely improvised. Key locations were acquired on the fly and subplots were built out of who and what was around them at the time. As a piece of experimental, quasi-documentary filmmaking offering a fascinating look at what it’s like to actually be at the Olympics as an athlete, it’s a profound accomplishment. Getting to see these locations, the hidden machinery of such an incredible event, never gets old. Kroll, subdued but still very funny, proves a wonderful choice for the male lead, as his comedian’s instincts often bring the best out of the non-actors from around the world who enter his orbit. And while a skilled sound mixer had to rescue the location sound (a process that demands its own article, really), it’s shocking how well this hangs together as a movie, how good it looks and how good it sounds. It never feels cobbled-together or cheap, despite all of the challenges the production faced.

And yet, Olympic Dreams stumbles over a number of indie film cliches, enough to fill out a film festival bingo card if you’re so inclined. In fact, the post-screening Q&A revealed that the film’s most egregious moment, a character decision that threatens to overwhelm and undercut so much of what makes the dynamic between Kroll and Pappas so special, was created in the moment via that above-mentioned improv. In other words, a single filmmaker and two actors making up their own movie in a one-of-a-kind location somehow managed to improvise their way into something too familiar for its own good.

Still, it’s impossible to dislike Olympic Dreams. Kroll and Pappas are so wonderful together, most of the real athletes they encounter provide a fascinating snapshot of what these folks go through, and seeing sights both familiar (massive stadiums, daunting courses) and unfamiliar (the Olympic Village as a full-on hair salon for its athletes?!) is a thrilling experience. Olympic Dreams is ultimately more successful as an experiment than as a narrative, but that’s perfectly fine.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

The Peanut Butter Falcon

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. A man with Down syndrome escapes the nursing home where he feels like a prisoner, meets up with a crook on the run, and embarks on a journey via homemade raft to attend a wrestling school he learned about through a beloved VHS tape. Yes, that sounds like a game of indie cinema Mad Libs, a 30 Rock joke constructed to make fun of film festival movies. And yet, The Peanut Butter Falcon actually works. And it works well. And it works because, in spite of all the seemingly treacly quirks, it’s a film that buys into its own spirit, its own sense of how we can all be better to ourselves and our fellow humans. It’s damn sweet. The right kind of sweet. The kind of sweet that knows a touch of the bitter can make something far more satisfying.

As Zak, the 22-year old wrestling enthusiast, Zack Gottsagen offers an unexpectedly nuanced performance. It’s no secret that cinema has rarely been kind to disabled folks, often relegating them to the butt of jokes or sources of unlikely and profound wisdom, but Zak is different. He’s hopeful. He’s sweet. He can be a bit of an asshole. He can be annoying. He can be a source of joy. Gottsagen, who actually has Down syndrome, makes a powerful case for disabled actors being given more opportunities to play characters like themselves onscreen. There’s a humor and a forthright honesty here that isn’t present in other films.

Still, The Peanut Butter Falcon would not work if Gottsagen didn’t have chemistry with the actor playing Tyler, the redneck crook who takes him on as a traveling partner and evolves into a loving big brother figure. And yes, the Shia LaBeouf Career Revitalization Tour continues here, as the actor continues to remind us why he was so promising before he vanished down a tabloid-sponsored hole of bad choices for far too long. LaBeouf is nothing if not generous here, letting Gottsagen shine as he offers world-weary support and tough love. It’s a graceful performance, powered by nuance and sad eyes and wry smiles. It’s not just that LaBeouf makes Tyler a joy – it’s that LaBeouf and Gottsagen are a joy together.

As you may imagine, The Peanut Butter Falcon can get a little too cute for its own good and it never quite manages to know what to do with Dakota Johnson‘s character, who spends most of the running time trying to track down Zak and bring him back to the nursing home. Some of the pitstops along the way don’t quite work, but others are thrilling, funny, and moving, depending on what emotional buttons writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz want to press at the moment. And while they’re first time feature filmmakers, they really know how to press those buttons. Even when it threatens to be too much, The Peanut Butter Falcon taps its brakes with a moment of disarming sweetness or a scene of stunning honesty or a big laugh.

The Peanut Butter Falcon name-drops Mark Twain and that feels like an appropriate comparison. There’s a sense of timeless adventure here (no time period is specified, but there are no smartphones or internet to be seen) and the film is as much in love with the American South as it is critical of it. It feels like an adaptation of a long-lost short story, something classical but whimsical, wise and fearless, probably a bit too silly at times but smart enough to know when to pull back.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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