Nick Kroll, left, and Andrew Rannells, right, in "I Don't Understand You." Source: IMDb

2024 SXSW Final Dispatch: Comedies and Coming-Out Stories Rule the Moment

Matthew Creith READ TIME: 7 MIN.

My five-day experience at the 2024 South by Southwest Film & TV Festival concluded with two days full of compelling and comedic revelations. For one, chemistry is everything when it comes to making a comedy film. It's not as easy as it looks on screen, especially given that some projects simply aren't as original as others.

But, when you come across some original and drop-dead funny pairings in a slapstick comedy of errors, you take every chance to witness it firsthand. Such is the case with "I Don't Understand You," the newest feature film from writers-directors and real-life partners David Joseph Craig and Brian Crano.

Nick Kroll and Andrew Rannells make for a fantastic gay duo in "I Don't Understand You," set in rural Italy where an American couple takes an anniversary vacation as they await news from a potential mother-to-be (Amanda Seyfried) whether she wants them to adopt her baby or not. Dom and Cole had been the victim of an adoption fraud in the past and hoped their trip to Italy would rekindle some romance amongst the vegetarian pizza and fine wine. However, their Italian countryside adventure takes a dramatic turn for the worse when they find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere during a powerful storm.

What happens next will boggle the mind and leave you on the edge of your seat laughing in delight as the two men struggle with language barriers, out-of-this-world misunderstandings, and power outages that leave several bodies behind. Yes, there is murder, mayhem, and murky circumstances in what became one of the best comedies I watched at the festival. Kroll and Rannells embrace the absurdity of the film's premise, hinging on the idea that two gay men traveling abroad are constantly offended by what they perceive are cultural differences, slighting their queerness, but, in reality, are just simple errors in judgment.

If that wasn't enough, their baby is coming, and the new dads have no way of getting out of Italy for the birth. "I Don't Understand You" is a demented comedy full of outlandish one-liners, romance, second-guessing, and insecurity. At the film's screening, Craig and Crano divulged that elements of the story were steeped in reality as they, too, were victims of an adoption scam and chose to make a movie in honor of the son they ended up adopting. The result is a flick that's equally hilarious and heartwarming, shot as a thriller with ominous music that would lead the audience to believe Dom and Cole won't make it out of Italy alive.

A still from "The World According to Allee Willis."
Source: IMDb

Next was a music-based documentary that pays tribute to the life and work of songwriter and artist Allee Willis, aptly titled "The World According to Allee Willis." Willis, the mastermind behind some of the most iconic songs by bands like Earth, Wind & Fire and Pet Shop Boys, has left an indelible mark on pop culture. Her success is not just measured by the Grammys she won or the Tony and Emmy nominations she received but by the enduring relevance of her work. She penned the theme song to the beloved television series "Friends," a testament to her talent and the longevity of her creations.

But beneath the surface of Willis' achievements lay a profound emotional journey. Her place in the music industry was intertwined with her sexual identity, a complex aspect of her life that she often kept hidden. Yet, she bravely documented her struggles, using filmmaking as a new form of self-expression. This documentary, directed by Alexis Spraic and produced by Mark Cuban and Willis' romantic partner, Prudence Fenton, weaves archival footage and Willis' filmmaking style to bring her story to life.

When Fenton entered Willis' life, it cemented a transformative journey for the two. The self-proclaimed workaholic found a new source of inspiration and love in Fenton. This documentary peeks into their relationship, the art and music they created together from the early 1990s to 2019 when Willis sadly passed away, and the enduring legacy of their collaboration. It's a testament to the power of love and the potential for personal growth and change, even for someone as accomplished as Willis.

Karan Soni, left, and Jonathan Groff, right, in a scene from "A Nice Indian Boy."
Source: IMDb

My last day in Austin for SXSW bookended a nice trend that film festivals have become known for: Comedies and Dramas from unique perspectives starring talented casts. First up for the day was the Roshan Sethi-directed film, "A Nice Indian Boy," starring out actors Karan Soni and Jonathan Groff. Based on the play by Madhuri Shekar, the movie takes family backgrounds and parental expectations to new heights, signifying a slight change in cultural perspectives of gay relationships in the modern era.

Split up into various chapters following the romantic trajectory of successful doctor Naveen (Soni) and freelance photographer Jay (Groff), "A Nice Indian Boy" might just be the love child of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." After a chance encounter while praying in a temple and again in a hospital, the new men start dating and discover that despite appearances, they have much more in common than initially suspected.

Jay is a white man adopted by Indian parents, who instilled in him the importance of tradition and the Indian film, "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge." Naveen is often embarrassed by his upbringing and his left-leaning Indian parents, who have slowly accepted his sexuality but want him to find a nice Indian boy to settle down with. Insecure, Naveen takes his time introducing his new boyfriend to his family, creating tension in their relationship. Much of their love story and the fundamentals of adult family dynamics come to a head when the two love birds agree to get married.

"A Nice Indian Boy" is a triumphantly wonderful romantic comedy about the power of family and modern interpretations of culturally sound shared experiences. Though Naveen is successful and a catch on paper, his perceived insecurities surrounding his parents and sister hinder his viewpoint of his relationship with Jay. Equally embarrassed by his own family traditions as he is by some of Jay's behaviors (vaping and anxious tendencies), Naveen goes on a journey of self-discovery that might lead him down the aisle of love. It's a sweet, funny movie about family, redemption, fear, and love from a very grounded perspective.

Cole Sprouse, Alexandra Daddario and Corey Fogelmanis in "I Wish You All the Best."
Source: IMDb

The day, and ultimately my time at the festival, ended with the premiere of the new movie, "I Wish You All the Best." Actor Tommy Dorfman steps into the role of director, producer, and screenwriter in a beautiful film based on the novel by Mason Deaver. Starring Corey Fogelmanis ("My Life with the Walter Boys"), Alexandra Daddario ("The White Lotus"), Cole Sprouse ("Riverdale"), Miles Gutierrez-Riley (The Wilds"), and Lena Dunham ("Girls"), the film dives headfirst into a coming-out story from a non-binary teenager's perspective.

Fogelmanis stars as Ben, a teenager kicked out of his North Carolina home by his conservative parents who don't understand Ben's admission to being non-binary. In a fit of desperation, Ben goes to live with their estranged sister Hannah (Daddario) and her husband Thomas (Sprouse), who set them up in a progressive high school to finish their junior year. There, Ben meets the charming Nathan (Gutierrez-Riley), a bisexual teen who quickly falls for Ben's stoicism and good nature.

Dunham plays Ms. Lyons, Ben's art teacher and quasi-life coach, in hilarious scenes full of heart and warmth. Everyone from Hannah to Thomas to Nathan to Ms. Lyons seems interested in discovering who Ben is and what can make them happier. But Ben isn't as upfront with Nathan as they'd like to be, especially when Nathan embraces their newfound friendship and blossoming romantic intentions and introduces them to new friends at school.

"I Wish You All the Best" presents as a coming-out story but quickly evolves into a familiar account for LGBTQ+ youth surrounding their chosen families. Ben and Hannah's sibling bond is pretty much non-existent, but blood is often thicker than water for these two, and they begin to form a loving relationship of their own. The film's premise makes a strong case for acceptance, even if it's just one town over from where one's roots are planted. Ben still loves his parents and wants the best for them, but they let their parents come to their realizations on their own terms without Ben's involvement.

The film is an outstanding feature directorial debut by Tommy Dorfman, an eccentric actor known for her work as Ryan Shaver on "13 Reasons Why." Sprouse and Daddario take to the guardianship role, weirdly transitioning the former teen idols into parental figures with ease. But it's Fogelmanis that makes Ben whole and creates space for their journey to succeed as much as it breaks the heart. It's a remarkably down-to-earth performance that speaks to Fogelmanis' range as a performer. Plus, the soundtrack is terrific.

by Matthew Creith

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