SXSW brought out the big guns with a star-studded film lineup: Nicolas Cage, Channing Tatum, Anne Hathaway and Daniel Radcliffe all had a film showing at this year's festival. However, for every big studio production, there are a dozen independent films and even less time to watch them all.
There are hundreds of films to choose from at SXSW, from feature-length movies, to documentaries, to episodic content, to local short films, but here are a few we checked out this week.
Crows are White
Encircling the subject of religion and how it impacts our lives, director Ahsen Nadeem travels to Kyoto, Japan to meet with an ancient Buddhist sect of monks who complete acts of extreme physical endurance in the name of enlightenment. Hoping to find the answers to his own troubles as he struggles to tell his strict Muslim parents that he has married a woman outside his religion, Nadeem enters the monastery to a less-than-thrilled reception and is quickly put to the test. For a few days, Nadeem follows a monk named Kamahori on his daily walks and rituals until he is abruptly escorted out and asked not to return.
When Nadeem returns, hoping to masquerade as a tourist, he meets a monk named Ryushin, who would rather spend his days listening to heavy metal and searching the city for the best ice cream sundae. Ryushin agrees to visit with Nadeem in secret and the pair forms an unlikely friendship.
Over the course of five years, Ryushin and Nadeem watch each other through their ups and downs. Nadeem values Ryushin's comfort with himself, despite breaking the rules—a trait Nadeem wishes to foster in himself. "Crows are White" will take you over three continents, intertwining the director's own story with the monks', telling stories of two religions and Nadeem's personal reckoning.
"Crows are White" is playing twice more on March 16, with one showing at 12:30 p.m. and another at 1 p.m., at Violet Crown Cinema.
Following the brief rise and lengthy fall of Leslie, a single West Texas mother, after winning $190,000 in the lottery and quickly drinking it away. The film, directed by Michael Morris, begins years after her lottery win with Leslie—homeless, an alcoholic and down on her luck—waiting to be picked up by her now young adult son, James, who gives her a roof over her head and clothes on her back with one condition: no drinking.
After she breaks James' rule less than one day later, her son sends Leslie back to her hometown to confront the consequences of her actions and the people that she hurt in the process. After being kicked out of every place she was given to stay, motel clerk Sweeney takes a chance on Leslie and gives her a job.
Sweeney's influence leads Leslie to come face-to-face with herself and gives her the chance to turn things around. You may not feel sorry for Leslie but you'll root for her, share in her joys and sorrows, and hope she makes it through to the other side.
To Leslie is playing one last time on March 18 at 9:45 p.m. at Alamo Lamar A.
Who do you call to clean up the mess on the worst day of your life? Australians might call Sandra Pankhurst, a trauma cleaner who cleans spaces that nobody else would go near—hoarder homes, meth labs, crime scenes and shudder-worthy sights—with extreme kindness for the folks that live in them.
"Clean," directed by Lachlan McLeod, not only goes into the details of what it takes to be a trauma cleaner but tells the tale of how Pankhurst started the first trauma cleaning business in Melbourne. From an extremely traumatic background herself, Pankhurst was adopted and rejected by her new family at a young age, transitioned from male to female as a young adult, and went into prostitution all before starting the business.
You'll follow McLeod as he visits with clients to learn how the service has changed their life but you'll also bear witness to ongoing changes in Pankhurst's life, like living with a terminal lung illness from cleaning unprotected and getting in touch with her birth mother for the first time in her more than 70 years on Earth. "Clean" shows the fragility of life and gives hope of human connection.
"Clean" has one more screening on March 17 at 6:30 p.m. at Alamo Lamar A.
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Paxton Smith’s 2021 valedictory speech at Lake Highlands High School in Dallas wasn’t the same speech she had previously shared with school administrators. She dropped the approved speech and made a case for women’s reproductive rights after lawmakers passed the Texas "Heartbeat Bill.”
Her advocacy made news on NPR, YouTubeTV and in The Guardian. Just over a year later, the “war on (women’s) rights” she forewarned has come to a head as the U.S. Supreme Court voted Friday morning to overturn Roe v. Wade, ending constitutional protection for abortion access.
“It is up to the people to show up and show the courts and the politicians that we won’t sit back and let this happen,” Smith told Austonia Friday morning. “We will show up, we will fight back. Before, we were scared of them, now they should be scared of us.”
Now a University of Texas sophomore and abortion rights activist, 19-year-old Smith said she wanted to give the same speech in the “the most public way possible” to reach “as many people as possible who don't agree that I deserve this right.”
However, she says the response was “actually overwhelmingly positive” and supportive of her cause. According to a recent UT poll, 78% of Texas voters support abortion access in most cases.
The speech opened up further opportunities for activism: she advocated for reproductive rights at the International Forum on Human Rights in Geneva, interviewed with Variety magazine and spoke to tens of thousands at Austin’s Bans Off Our Bodies protest at the Texas Capitol in May.
Smith also serves on the board of directors for the Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project, a national nonprofit organization that helps fund abortions or emergency contraceptives—like Plan C pills—in all 50 states. Most recently, Smith has been attending protests in Washington, D.C. leading up to the ruling.
“This is land of the free. This is where you get to choose how you live your life,” Smith said. “Overturning Roe v. Wade violates everything that we have come to believe about what it means to live in this country. I think a lot of people aren't willing to accept that this is a human right that is most likely just going to be gone for over half of the country within the next couple of weeks.”
Bracing for the next steps, Smith gave some tips for supporters:
- Find a protest to attend.
- “I would say invite somebody to go to those protests with you, invite a couple of friends, invite people into the movement,” Smith said.
- Talk about the issue on social media—use the platform you have.
- “Have these kinds of conversations where people can just talk about their fears and then find ways to go and advocate for yourself,” Smith said.
- Volunteer at a nonprofit near you.
“I feel like a lot of the reason things have gotten as bad as they have within the abortion rights world is that people are not making a scene, not protesting, not putting the effort into ensuring that the government doesn't take away this right,” Smith said. “I want to emphasize that if you're not doing anything, don't expect the best scenario, expect the worst because that's the direction that we're going in.”
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Like Austin, Santa Barbara transcends being a geographic place and has become an aspirational lifestyle brand. While Austin’s lifestyle, at its best, is casually hip, Santa Barbara is casually luxurious on the California coast.
What’s so special about Santa Barbara?
There’s probably nowhere in the United States more beautiful than Santa Barbara. A ribbon of a city tucked between a coastal mountain range and the Pacific Ocean, it looks southward toward a chain of islands that rise out of the sea 30 miles away and paint a perfect backdrop. The city itself is primarily Spanish architecture with red tile roofs. It’s easy to believe you’re in Europe. The landscapes, which in their original, pre-settlement state were much like the Texas Hill Country–live oaks and native grasses–are now lush, well-watered plantings of palm trees, roses, birds of paradise and agapanthus.
The Mediterranean climate in Santa Barbara is close to perfect. Average highs range from 60s in winter to high 70s in summer. In the last few years, summer temperatures have spiked higher. Wintertime lows are in the 40s. Summer is nice and fall is glorious—crisp and clear with low humidity.
The chance of summer rain is 0%. Rain comes, when it comes, in the winter.
Late spring and early summer can be foggy, especially in the mornings. The locals call it “June Gloom.”
Santa Barbara has beautiful beaches, from El Capitan in the west to Fernald Point in the east. All of them are a place to pack your cooler, set up your chairs and lather up with sunscreen. But here the beaches are more of a setting than an experience. A place to get some sun, take a walk or let your dog loose. The water is cold, mostly braved by young children splashing in the surf and by wetsuit-clad surfers. Walk the beach, or sit and look in the early morning or late afternoon, and you’ll see a passing parade of dolphins and pelicans, and sea lions frolicking and foraging in the kelp forests beyond the breakers.
It’s hard to turn away from the ocean, but when you do, there’s a range of 4,000-foot mountains just behind. Spidered with hiking trails and greened with chaparral brush and trees, the mountains are a crinkled, photo-friendly backdrop, especially in the moments before sunset when the hills glow softly in what’s called “the pink moment.” Invisible from below, the upper canyons conceal big predators like bears and mountain lions.
Here’s a rule of thumb: where wine grapes grow, life is good. And lucky for us, wine grapes grow here. Warm, sunny, summer days and cool nights with occasional foggy mornings are a recipe for world-class wines. Santa Barbara is full of tasting rooms and the nearby Santa Ynez Valley is packed with vineyards and low-key, world-class wineries.
The famous and the wealthy discovered Santa Barbara 100 years ago and they never forgot it. Keep your eyes open and you might see the Duke of Sussex walking his dogs on the beaches of Summerland, Ellen and Portia watching Brandi Carlile perform at the Santa Barbara Bowl, or maybe Oprah and Stedman getting coffees to go at Pierre Lafond.
It’s so easy to be healthy here. A list of daily activities:
- walk the beach
- mountain hike
- ebike ride
In one morning, you can splash your feet in the Pacific, walk on the beach, ride your bike in the mountains, and have time to clean up and have a leisurely wine-soaked lunch. The climate and soil will grow anything, and there are farmer’s markets almost every day. Any kind of bodywork or spiritual help you can think of, it’s here. Namaste.
Other things to do
What to do depends on you. If you’re traveling with someone special, or with small children, or if you’re a surfer or kiteboarder, your activities will be different. But here are a few for everyone to consider.
- Visit the Mission and the Rose Garden
- Santa Barbara Courthouse (self-guided tour, climb stairs to clock tower for view)
- Stearns Wharf (touristy but fun, with beautiful views)
- Funk Zone and Harbor (for visitors it’s the heart of the city)
- Santa Barbara Bowl (outdoor amphitheater with ocean views)
- Montecito (wealthy community of celebrities, tycoons and trust funders)
- Wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley (one hour drive, numerous wineries and the charming town of Los Olivos)
Where to eat
This and the other recommendations are just samplings. There are lots of great places, and you’ll have fun finding your own special spots.
- Clark’s (coming soon, Montecito. This is Clark’s, the McGuire Moorman Lambert oyster bar on Austin’s 6th St. They expanded to Aspen and now to Santa Barbara)
- Shoreline Beach Cafe (at the beach, some tables are in the sand)
- Brophy Bros. (harbor seafood house with bar and great views)
- Carazon Cocina (downtown, tacos)
- Santa Barbara Public Market (casual, various)
- Shalhoob’s Funk Zone Patio (casual, funk zone)
- Finney’s Crafthouse (bar/restaurant, funk zone)
- Arigato (sushi, downtown)
- Ca’Dario (Italian)
- The Lark (LA style, funk zone)
- Bouchon (fine dining, downtown)
- The Stonehouse (fine dining, Montecito style)
Coffee & breakfast
- Jeannine’s (breakfast and lunch, two locations)
- Handlebar Coffee Roasters (coffee shop, two locations)
- Caje (coffee shop, Haley Street)
- Tre Lune (known for dinner, but serves an outstanding full breakfast)
Beer, wine & cocktails
- Figueroa Mountain Brewing (beer, funk zone)
- Melville Winery Tasting Room (wine, downtown)
- Riviera Bar (cocktails, downtown)
- Santo Mezcal (cocktails, downtown)
- The Pickle Room (cocktails, downtown)
- Harry’s Plaza Cafe (cocktails and food, locals place, Loreto Plaza)
- Lucky’s (Cocktails and steakhouse, Montecito)
- Test Pilot (never been but want to try it!)
Where to stay
You’re not going to spend much time in your room, so keep that in mind when choosing your accommodations. Any of the big hotels along the beach, or the boutique hotels in town, are worth a look. And some spectacular places are available on Vrbo and Airbnb. Just be sure the location works for you. What’s called “Santa Barbara” could be a 20-30 minute drive from downtown. That can get you something really special, so it can be worth it.
A few recommendations:
- Hotel Californian (perfect location—walk anywhere)
- El Encanto (tranquil, beautiful views)
- San Ysidro Ranch (laid back luxury, Montecito)
- Rosewood Miramar Beach (seaside luxury, Montecito)
- Motel 6 (the first-ever Motel 6, some rooms have ocean views)
Flying: There are no direct flights to Santa Barbara. Fly private if you can. For the rest of us, here are your best choices:
- Southwest Airlines via Las Vegas
- American Airlines via Phoenix or Dallas
- United Airlines via Denver or San Francisco
Driving: Another option, fun for some and not for others, is to drive.
1. Measured from Austin’s Steve Ray Vaughn statue to Santa Barbara’s Dolphin Family sculpture at Stearns Wharf, the trip is 1,474 miles and takes about 22 hours.
2. Driving up from Los Angeles can be fun if you avoid morning and afternoon rush hours. Rent a car and drive through Santa Monica and up the Pacific Coast Highway. Stop in Malibu and get a cup of coffee, a drink or some lunch. Distance: 96 miles. Time: 2 hours+.
3. Driving down from San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most beautiful drives in the USA. It’s 7 ½ hours on Google Maps, but don’t go if you’re in a hurry. Take two days and spend the night in Carmel, or further south, along the Big Sur coast. At Pismo Beach, take the 101 and when you get to the wine country town of Los Olivos, switch to highway 154 for a spectacular first view of Santa Barbara as you crest San Marcos pass and glimpse the ocean, and soon after, the city of Santa Barbara on its shore.
If you go, let us know how it went, and pass along any recommendations you think we should add (or subtract). Enjoy your trip!