AUSTIN, TEXAS – MARCH 12: Atmosphere at the Convention center during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festival on March 12, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)
  • Festivals

SXSW 2019: As Good As It Gets

As far as festivals in big cities go, SXSW is as good as it gets. Unlike Berlin, where sliding on icy sidewalks from screening to press conference to party to another screening in the dead of winter, or Rome where the event locations are so spread out that it might take an hour and a half to get there on public transportation, Austin is an easy place to navigate and a pleasant one for attendees. The festival basically takes over the downtown area between the Colorado River and 11th Street with only a handful of screening venues a little farther outside the parameter.

Befitting its host city and a festival that started in 1987 as a music confab, growing into the worlds leading music performance and conference get together, there is a lot of music here with performances in various venues starting as early as 11 am which are sometimes tied to a film or documentary and regularly spill out onto the downtown streets every night. Panel discussions and other installations and presentations also happen in and around the festival headquarters, encompassing film, music and interactive. The formula has made SXSW into a relevant cultural crossroads of contemporary culture, a place where this year you could cross paths with  Kevin Hart, Elisabeth Moss, internet prophet Jaron Lanier, Bill Nye (the science guy) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

SXSW is also party central where premiere receptions and afterparties are just as convenient to get to. Such was the case when Olivia Wilde threw an epic fête after the world premiere of Booksmart, a film that got a rousing reception at the Paramount Theatre, with audiences giving a standing ovation and critics throwing such adjectives as “funny, smart, sad, heartwarming, hilarious, brutally honest” and “most original film of its genre”. It may not be surprising that Wilde, one of Hollywood’s most intelligent actresses and an activist in her spare time, made an interesting film. But this is her directorial debut and therefore a big deal considering that she is not just an unknown.

Booksmart is a film for anyone who has ever experienced a moment (or more) of unpopularity: it is the story of Molly and Amy who realize on their last day of high school that they have most likely wasted their entire teenage years on being scholarly overachievers who had no fun at all while their partying, drinking and drugging classmates got into the same Ivy League colleges despite having done a whole lot of dumb shit. (Yes, the film is filled with expletive language and countless f-bombs). The shy Amy and the brash Molly decide to do something about the missing part of their high school years and embark on a night of wild partying which goes inadvertently wrong.

Jenelle Riley, Olivia Wilde, Katie Silberman, Jessica Elbaum, Billie Lourd, Kaitlyn Dever, and Beanie Feldstein  at the Booksmart panel during the 2019 SXSW.

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Wilde enlisted a team of all-female screenwriters to tell this story that also deals with sexual confusion and adolescent struggles. The casting is interesting as well: Molly’s Beanie Feldstein and Amy’s Kaitlyn Dever are newbies as are most of the students. Wilde hired a few famous names for the adult parts, like her real-life husband Jason Sudeikis as the teacher and Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte who play Amy’s stuck-up parents. Billie Lourd, who plays slightly demented student deserves a special mention, which may not be surprising for the daughter of Carrie Fisher and granddaughter of Debbie Reynolds who has clearly inherited their genes. 

Booksmart’s world premiere at the Paramount Theater, with director and cast on hand, was the most coveted ticket of the festival’s first weekend. Olivia Wilde, always a fashionista, wowed in a variety of outfits during two days of interviews, press conferences and other promotional events and stunned on the red carpet in a red Dundas dress that perfectly fit the Texan location with its bohemian flair, while her husband showed up in a tie-dye t-shirt with his long hair tamed by a Panama hat. The now actress-director took the stage after the late-night screening and admitted to a longtime urge to make a movie. In a version of “But what I always wanted to do is direct,” she said: “It’s been coming for a while now. But it takes a lot of courage. I spent a lot of time observing other directors.” As for the genre choice, she said she was inspired by her favorite teen films when she was growing up, such as Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused and The Breakfast Club: “I thought we need one of those for this generation.”

After the premiere director and cast showed off their dancing skills – considerable – at the afterparty where Santigold, whose song is on the soundtrack was on hand to perform an eight-song set which included hits like Go, L.E.S., and Unstoppable. She pretty much brought the house down and that the celebration of the film coincided with Olivia Wilde’s 35th birthday added even more excitement to the soirée.  The first-time director was surprised with a cake when she introduced her musical guest onstage and the crowd broke into a loud and raucous “Happy Birthday to You”.