SXSW 2024: Dandelion, A Nice Indian Boy, I Don’t Understand You, I Love You Forever


Brian Tallerico March 15,

Film festivals have long been a safe place for personal stories, usually independently produced passion projects for creators to explore their own interests and sometimes even their life journeys. Sometimes a film like this can almost feel too close to the creator, a case where someone not so close to the story might have offered a fresher perspective. Sometimes they resonate with more strength by being so true. These four films in this dispatch aren’t all true stories, per se, but they all feel like they reflect what truly matters to their creators, for better or worse.

For better comes in the case of Nicole Riegel’s excellent “Dandelion.” The writer/director of “Holler” introduced her newest work by commenting on the difficulties for women in creative spaces like independent film or the increasingly unprofitable world of original music. “Dandelion” is a deceptively smart character study, a movie that feels like an Alt-Folk “Once” for a while before pivoting to something else entirely. Through it all, star KiKi Layne gives her best performance since “If Beale Street Could Talk” as the title character, a Cincinnati-based troubadour who is exhausted from playing unrewarding gigs at a local bar and quarreling with her mother Jean (Melanie Nicholls-King). 

As a sort of last chance to escape her life, Dandelion attends a music showcase in South Dakota, where she meets a very charismatic man named Casey (Thomas Doherty). The pair alternate a growing romance with impressive songwriting—Riegel never loses sight of the creative spirit of Dandelion. A lesser filmmaker would have discarded that aspect for pure sexual chemistry, but creativity is an essential part of not just this dynamic but Dandelion’s entire being. Of course, it helps a great deal that the excellent original music is written by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National (and “Cyrano”) fame.

Riegel’s approach is organic and grounded, focusing with cinematographer Lauren Guiteras on Dandelion and Casey’s hands, arms, and expressive faces as they create. Riegel loves close-ups, and I love the decision to keep us in so tight on this pair as they fall in love with music and each other. It’s a raw, sweaty, human film with a stronger visual language than nearly anything else I saw at SXSW. As with “Holler,” there’s a heartbeat in Riegel’s filmmaking that’s often lacking in independent cinema, which too commonly looks like it was made for a streaming service. “Dandelion” takes its time visually and narratively, respecting how creativity comes with ups and downs—lyrics change, tunes shift, relationships are redefined. It all plays out like a folk song, right down to the whopper of a final act.

Without spoiling anything, Dandelion has to find the creative courage within herself. Casey may have helped light the match for her fire to burn, but the brilliant screenwriting element of the back half of this movie is that Riegel never lets it become just another story of how a woman needs a man to inspire her. When Dandelion finally reaches a song that feels like it’s truly, finally, expressing her voice, it’s one of the most moving moments you’ll see in a film this year.

One doesn’t need press notes to sense that Roshan Sethi’s “A Nice Indian Boy” is personal for its creator too. A lot of films at SXSW this year felt like political statements, but Sethi’s film feels more like a call of kindness in this world. It is a remarkably sweet film, the kind of nice comedy that feels increasingly hard to make well in a landscape when so many films come with cynical agendas. It is sometimes disappointingly sitcom-ish in its structure and visuals, but the amount of love that Sethi and writer Eric Randall (working from a play by Madhuri Shkar) have for these characters is obvious and contagious. You’ll grow to love them too.

Naveen (a gentle and genuine Karan Soni) is a doctor who struggles to meet the right guy. He’s tired of going to Indian weddings while being nowhere near scheduling his own. His sister Arundhathi (Sunita Mani) is married, which has made his parents Megha (Zarna Garg) and Archit (Harish Patel) very happy. Naveen meets a photographer named Jay (Jonathan Groff), who seems almost like his opposite in terms of personality, but the extrovert and the introvert find love, and eventually Naveen gets the wedding of his dreams.

That’s about it. And that’s all it needs to be. There’s a simple sweetness to “A Nice Indian Boy” that’s charming, largely due to the fact that everyone involved seems to be on the same page. Groff is always a welcome presence in just about anything, and the typically supporting Soni proves he can carry a film. Even the parent roles that usually come off as two-dimensional feel different in Garg and Patel’s hands. The fact that Naveen’s parents put on Out TV in an effort to understand their son could fit on a network sitcom, but the team here somehow makes it work. It’s because this is a film that deeply loves its characters, and while I think there’s a version that takes a few more risks and has a bit more visual confidence, it’s impossible to deny that this film lives up to its title by simply being so very “nice.”

Writer/directors David Joseph Craig and Brian Crano introduced their dark comedy “I Don’t Understand You” by noting how it was inspired by and dedicated to their son. Making a film that conveys the difficulty of the adoption process—both in practical terms and emotional ones—is an admirable venture. Thousands of couples can relate to the apprehension that comes from considering yourself strong enough to raise another human life. And that foundation of emotional honesty sometimes salvages this tonal misfire but can’t quite pull together a movie that is constantly coming apart with bad screenwriting choices and direction that never figures out how to tell this quirky story.

Nick Kroll and Andrew Rannells are well-cast as Dom and Cole, respectively, a couple that is adopting a baby that is about to be birthed by a woman named Candice (Amanda Seyfried). After seemingly agreeing to terms with Candice, Dom and Cole decide to take a final trip, their own babymoon. They head to the Italian countryside, where “I Don’t Understand You” becomes a very different movie, a comedy of errors about communication that eventually leads to violence. Before you know it, Dom and Cole are hiding bodies, wondering how they’ll ever even meet the baby that was supposed to change their lives.

There are moments, usually between Kroll and Rannells, in which “I Don’t Understand You” threatens to become a better movie. Relatively early in the film, they tell a story about adoption fraud that’s the scariest thing in the entire movie—the idea that someone could do something as vile as to use a couple’s desire to be parents for profit is horrifying. But these moments that feel real are smothered by a script that gets increasingly ridiculous in ways that aren’t entertaining. Most problematically, we start to wonder if we’re supposed to be rooting for Dom and Cole at all as they make decisions that impact (and end) lives. Making a movie in which Americans basically carve a path of destruction in another country requires a truly deft tonal hand, and this one just doesn’t make sense.

A similar tonal problem betrays the intentions of “I Love You Forever,” written and directed by Elisa Kalani and Cazzie David. The buzz going around after the screening was that it was a thinly-veiled commentary on David’s relationship with Pete Davidson, which is actually more interesting than the film itself, a dark relationship dramedy that also misfires in terms of tone and lacks in filmmaking confidence. There are some funny beats in “I Love You Forever,” most of them courtesy of David herself actually in a supporting role, but this is a movie that wears out its welcome early, spinning around the same relationship ideas, and, worst of all, failing to give its lead enough character depth to justify spending so much time with her.

Sofia Black-D’Elia is genuinely fine here, but Kalani and David simply haven’t written her enough of a character. It’s baffling to me why a movie that’s in part about standing up to emotional abuse is content to present us with a protagonist that we know so little about. We actually get more personality traits from David’s Ally and Jon Rudnitsky’s Lucas, who are best friends to Black-D’Elia’s Mackenzie, a law student who semes to let guys like her regular hook-up Jake (Raymond Cham Jr.) take her for granted. When she meets a charming reporter named Finn (Ray Nicholson), she falls head over heels, only to pretty quickly discover that Finn is a needy jerk, the kind of guy who has a panic attack when she doesn’t text back immediately.

We haven’t often seen emotional abuse like this portrayed in film, and I think everyone will be able to see bits and pieces of past (and hopefully not current) relationships in the spiraling of Finn and Mackenzie. But there’s just not enough meat on the bones of this movie, which is also frustratingly shot and edited. Every time that the film shifted away from Mackenzie to her friends, I really just wanted to go with them instead of getting stuck in another one of Finn’s tantrums. I guess that’s part of the point in that the filmmakers want us to feel as weighed down by his nonsense as Mackenzie. But it doesn’t make this movie particularly lovable.