Nick Offerman gives what may be his best performance ever in film about power of music

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In “Hearts Beat Loud,” a film absolutely tailor-made for South by Southwest, director Brett Haley (“The Hero”) delivers a heartwarming ode to the healing power of music.

“Hearts Beat Loud.”

Nick Offerman stars as Frank, a single father and occasionally cantankerous record store owner in Brooklyn. He’s having difficulty accepting the fact that his only daughter, Sam (Kiersey Clemons), is about to go away to college in the fall. To add insult to injury, she’s taking off across the country to attend UCLA. The father/daughter duo have always casually made music together for fun with impromptu jam sessions at home, but one particularly creative night results in a perfect little song that just so happens to provide our movie with its title. When Sam informs her father that she is not looking to do anything more than make some music in their living room, he’s disappointed but determined to change her mind.

Frank takes a recording of “Hearts Beat Loud” and does an internet search to find out how to release a song on streaming sites. A few clicks of the mouse later, their little home recording is uploading from TuneCore to Spotify under the name We Are Not A Band. A few days later, out at a local bakery, he hears their song playing in the store. Incredulously asking the cashier what is playing, he discovers that the song has already been placed on the curated “New Indie Mix” playlist on Spotify. “We’re on a playlist with Iron & Wine and Spoon!” he says. It’s a plot twist that, especially for struggling indie musicians, might seem a little far-fetched, but isn’t that the promise and magic of the movies?

PHOTOS: “Hearts Beat Loud” red carpet at South by Southwest

In the meantime, Frank’s landlord Leslie (Toni Collette) has been forced to raise the rent on the record store location, and Frank makes the decision to close down after 17 years in business. Not only does he have the expense of Sam’s impending college days to worry about, but his mother, Marianne (Blythe Danner), is slowly beginning to show signs of memory loss and has already been arrested for shoplifting in a local bodega. It’s clear that more time and resources will soon need to be devoted to her care. These are harsh realities to face, but Frank’s excitement over the possibility of success for We Are Not A Band takes precedent in the short term.

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Now, I will love Ron Swanson to my dying day, but I think this may be the best performance of Offerman’s career. He brings this character to life with a raw vulnerability and hopefulness that makes you want to root for him no matter the odds. And Clemons, who starred in the movie “Dope” and has spent some time on Amazon’s “Transparent,” is a revelation here. As Sam, she perfectly expresses the hopeful uncertainty of that transitional time in your life between high school and college. In supporting roles, Texas native Sasha Lane (“American Honey”) is terrific in her few scenes as Sam’s love interest, Collette gets in a raging karaoke cover of Chairlift’s “Bruises,” and it’s a real delight to see Ted Danson behind a bar again as Frank’s best friend Dave.

Just like with “Sing Street” a few years back, this is a movie where I wanted to own a soundtrack the nanosecond it ended. The brilliant original songs as performed by We Are Not A Band were written by Keegan DeWitt, who composed the score for Haley’s last two films. Hopefully, we’ll get them all on vinyl when distributor Gunpowder & Sky begins to release the film in select cities later this summer.

“Hearts Beat Loud” screened March 14 at SXSW; there are not other showings scheduled during the festival. Grade: A-

If you hated middle school (who didn’t?), you’ll appreciate ‘Eighth Grade’

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If you’ve ever wanted to relive the horror of your middle school days, look no further than Bo Burnham’s directorial debut film “Eighth Grade.”

“Eighth Grade.”

Following Kayla during her last days of middle school, we experience her day-to-day struggles with loneliness and crushes. At school, she’s quiet and shy, but at home, she’s a lovable teen who yells at her dad for being lame and makes inspirational “how-to” YouTube videos. Everything she talks about online, she seems to lack in person. Her social media accounts, Snapchat especially, allow her to build an  ideal life, one where she wakes up with flawless skin and makeup on.

This film is incredibly painful because the story is told well and hits so close to home that at certain points it will have you in tears, or make you cringe in your seat.

The use of social media time-stamps it a little bit. A non-millennial or even a teen who doesn’t use social media may not feel as close to it, but at this point, there’s no way to make a coming-of-age film set in this generation without giving Snapchat and Instagram a lead role.

Social media has definitely changed the middle school experience — mostly for the worse, the film argues — making it harder for kids to connect with one another or making it too easy to do so. Every generation has mean girls and guys who are hormonal jerks, but they don’t all have Snapchat stories and Instagram posts to heighten the pain.

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The manner in which Burnham uses Kayla’s reliance on social media to build character is smart. The film devotes a lot of time to scenes without dialogue, focused on just watching Kayla scroll through her accounts, showing us the kind of content she encounters. It could have felt either boring or excessive, but the fact that those moments helped push the story forward all while giving us insight into her character show that Burnham really understands the medium he’s working with and the story he is trying to tell.

In the film, there are definitely more than a few awkward, uncomfortable moments, but thankfully none that goes too far.

Kayla frequently worries about having no friends and girls not liking her at school, but it’s not because everyone is talking about her. It’s the fact that no one is talking about her that worries her. But as she finds out, being noticed or in the spotlight is not as desirable as it may appear.

Kayla’s YouTube videos often serve as her own internal monologues. The voice-over from those is often intercut with scenes where we see her either doing the opposite or following through on the advice she’s giving in the video. They signal her growth in the story without having her just say it all through exposition.

The things you experience in middle school often mark you for life, but they don’t define you, as Kayla learns. In that experience, there’s hope that the future will be better.

“Eighth Grade” premiered at South by Southwest on March 9. It will screen again at 8 p.m. March 16 at the Alamo South Lamar.
Grade: B+

Jim Gaffigan’s two-timing ways will make you laugh and cry in ‘You Can Choose Your Family’

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All families have their issues, but most are not as problematic as the one in “You Can Choose Your Family.”

“You Can Choose Your Family.”

The film takes place in the 1990s and centers around Philip (Logan Miller), a high school senior getting ready to graduate and go off to pursue a career in music. His father, Frank (Jim Gaffigan), is hard on him. Like, really hard on him. Philip gets into NYU, but Frank tells him he’s not ready for New York City. Philip wants to be a musician, and his father looks down on it. Philip wants to go out with his friend Lewis (Daniel Rashid) for spring break, and Frank forbids it. So, after years of dealing with Frank’s rules, Philip rebels, heads out with Lewis and comes across something that he certainly will come to regret.

During his travels, he discovers his father has a whole other family; a wife, daughter and son, just like his own family. Posing as a son of Frank’s friend, Philip integrates himself into his father’s other family, much to Frank’s dismay, as the two of them attempt to figure out how to deal with the situation.

Immediately following Philip’s discovery and Frank’s knowledge of Philip’s discovery, the film moves at a fun and fast pace, setting up all of the reveals you know are coming. It is consistently exciting, and the story heads in directions that are sometimes unexpected.

PHOTOS: “You Can Choose Your Family” red carpet at South by Southwest

How is Frank going to continue his double life? Will Philip tell his mother and sister? Why is Frank doing this in the first place? The film raises loads of questions and such perfectly thought out answers to them.

For such heavy material, “You Can Choose Your Family” handles the story in a light way, balancing comedy and emotion so that the true stakes are not lost. Gaffigan’s performance is so great, you’ll find yourself forgetting that Frank is a man who’s hard on his son and has kept up two families for a good portion of his life. Ultimately, he’s deceived two women who love him in the name of love itself. For all that the film asks you to take in, it doesn’t ever make you completely justify what Frank’s doing, but there are moments when you’ll feel sympathy.

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Despite the film’s conflict being set in motion by Frank’s deception, the story follows Philip, and it’s his journey for validation from his father that we embark on. There are moments when he feels like a kid who just wants to appease Frank, but he’s a teenage boy, after all, raised by a strict dad. There are going to be plenty of times when he fights back, too, even when Frank is at his mercy.

For such an incredulous premise, nothing in the story feels forced. It’s clear director Miranda Bailey understands family dynamics very well and put in great effort to make them feel genuine rather than idealistic in this film.

“You Can Choose Your Family” is an absolute emotional joy that will have you crying one moment and laughing the next.

“You Can Choose Your Family” premiered at South By Southwest on March 11; there are no more festival screenings. Grade: A

The moving ‘If I Leave Here Tomorrow’ chronicles Lynyrd Skynyrd

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“Musicians are a rare breed — once it gets in their blood, they have to go after it” — Judy Van Zant, widow of Ronnie Van Zant

Are you in the market for an incredibly well-made, super professional, smartly-edited, fully licensed and extremely unlikely to be controversial documentary about an interesting musician or group?

Then, brother, Stephen Kijak is your man.

Starting with his outstanding “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man” (2006), Kijak has made excellent docs on the Backstreet Boys, Jaco Pastorius, the Rolling Stones and X Japan. He works his slick magic again with the moving “If I Leave Here Tomorrow,” bankrolled by CMT and likely airing on the network later this year.

Rising out of a Jacksonville, Fla., garage band called One Percent, Lynyrd Skynyrd took their name from both the name “Leonard Skinner” from “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” and a high school coach who happened to have the same name.

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The band honed its chops the old-fashioned way, rehearsing and writing morning, noon and night at “Hell House,” a cabin in the middle of nowhere where the band could work out music. It was also close enough to water than Ronnie could go fishing while writing lyrics in his head, Biggie Smalls-style. These were the salad days — as one member puts it, “Hell House was the reward.”

Al Kooper, who helmed the first two albums, was floored by the band’s airtight prowess on even the guitar solos. Those records cut like butter, while the rest of their output was sometimes marred by writing-in-the-studio and, um, lifestyle choices.

Kijak talks to folks who are around and gets tremendous archival footage (and stunning bell bottoms) of those who are not. There’s guitarist Gary Rossington and Ronnie’s brother Johnny Van Zant, who lets us see the Jacksonville neighborhood where the band was born.

There’s the fascinating Artimus Pyle, the “left wing liberal hippie” who replaced original drummer Bob Burns (who all but had a nervous breakdown due to, well, the hazards of being in Skynyrd).

PHOTOS: “If I Leave Here Tomorrow” red carpet

“I think they felt (the band was) supposed to smoke every cigarette and drink everything provided and eat whatever they wanted and throw the rest against the wall,’ Pyle says. “That was our road manager’s duty – to carry a briefcase with probably $250,000 in cash to bail people out of jail and placate hotel owners.”

There’s Ed King, the California kid who hailed from the Strawberry Alarm Clock, co-wrote “Sweet Home Alabama,” and filled out the three guitar lineup until he bounced in ’75 after Van Zant’s temper got to be a bit much.

Kijak also cuts between band history and an inevitable look at the October 1977 plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zant, King’s replacement Steve Gaines and Steve’s sister Cassie (as well as assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray), effectively ending the band for a decade. Surviving members recount the horror of crashing in the middle of nowhere in the farmland of Gillsburg, Mississippi (“like hearing 10,000 baseball bats on the side of the fuselage” as they started to hit the trees).

“The one thing I want the world to know about my band is how bravely my band met their death,” Pyle says in the documentary. “Everyone knew it was gonna end badly. There was no panic, no chaos; everybody was in prayer, in deep thought.”

“If I Leave Here Tomorrow” plays again at 1:45 p.m. March 17 at Alamo Ritz 1. Grade: A-

Tracy Morgan and Tiffany Haddish keep laughs coming in new TV show

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Tiffany Haddish and Tracy Morgan starring in a new TBS comedy together? It seems like a match made in heaven, and fortunately, the show lives up to expectations.

“The Last O.G.”

“The Last O.G.” follows Tray (Tracy Morgan), a man fresh out of prison, determined to get his old life back. When he gets out, he discovers that Brooklyn is not what it once was, and even worse, Shay (Tiffany Haddish), the woman he’s in love with, is now married to a white man and has two kids — children he finds out are his own. Motivated now more than ever to get Shay back and build a relationship with his kids, he starts to alter his life for the better.

The first two episodes of the season, which screened at South by Southwest, are promising, and the premise is very strong. Having Morgan star as Tray is perfect; he brings personality to the role in a way only he can. Since the end of “30 Rock,” the world has missed a Tracy Jordan character in our television lineup. Tray is no Tracy, but the resemblance between the two is there. The character is just as fun and silly to watch as Jordan ever was, except this time, we have much more of a reason to root for Tray and his goals.

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The newly released Tray is out of touch with the times, which opens up opportunities for a lot of generational comedy that feels somewhat fresh. In the second episode, he goes on a job hunt, with an old suit and an old style of thinking about how to interact with customers. After being reprimanded by a rather controlling coffee shop manager, he probably won’t change much, but it’s fun to watch that dynamic.

Haddish, the break-out comedian from “Girl’s Trip,” has been having a good year, but here, she really keeps the fire going. She is a hilarious stand-up comedian, and she was excellent in “Girls Trip” as the wild member of the friend group. But in “The Last O.G.,” her acting versatility is displayed. Her character is still funny, but she’s definitely more sensible. In fact, compared to Tray, she’s one of the more practical characters in the story, and Haddish plays the role wonderfully.

Sometimes comedies can be a little slow to start, with some of the pilot jokes not exactly hitting the mark. But “Last O.G.” is genuinely funny in a way that makes you belly laugh, or at the very least ask yourself, “What the heck just happened?” It’s a fun watch, and though it’s a half-hour comedy, the show has a serialized structure, and the end of each episode leaves you wanting more.

The quality of storytelling is one of the show’s great strengths. We get glimpses into other’s lives briefly, but only through Tray’s perspective. It’s his story, and we’re following him the entire time. So, we move at his pace. In the first episode, he gets out of prison and finds Shay. During the second episode, he looks for a job. Both of these stories are simple in nature, but they give the world and the characters room to grow, and the audience room to laugh.

It will be exciting to see where the rest of the season goes. There’s a lot of setup and material to work with in the coming episodes. So far, the show has established characters we can love, along with comedy that hooks us.

“The Last O.G.” premiered at South By Southwest on March 12. It will premiere on TBS on April 3. Grade: A-

‘Brewmaster’ documents the passion and culture of beer nerds

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There may be more wineries than breweries in America, but the discrepancy has shrunk considerably over the last decade. The number has skyrocketed, almost quintupling over the last 20 years to almost 8,000. Driving the movement is a passionate group of beer nerds, almost all of whom seem to have beards Tirola’s documentary, “Brewmaster,” which made its world premiere Friday at the Alamo Drafthouse during South by Southwest, explores America’s thriving beer scene and the history of brewing in America by telling the stories of about a professional and amateur beer makers. The common element of all of these (mostly) men is a curiosity and passion that fuels the tinkering and artistry that is helping quench America’s thirst.

The film highlights a few of the leaders in craft beer, from Boston Beer Company (Samuel  Adams) co-founder Jim Koch to Alagash founder Rob Tod and Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garret Oliver, telling their genesis stories in the business, but just as compelling are the stories of the common folks obsessed with brewing.

Drew Kostic practices law by day and spends all of his free time obsessing over perfecting his home brews and devising a plan to create and find his own brewery. Tirola goes along for the ride, as Kostic hits local pubs with friends and takes his brews to tasting events held in gymnasiums, hoping to turn people onto his recipes.

Brian Reed is another enthusiast, a (bearded) man whose love of suds has led him to multiple attempts at passing the Master Cicerone exam, a feat accomplished by only about 15 people.

Tirola bounces between these two men’s stories but wisely does not follow their pursuits with blow-by-blow detail, instead cutting between some light historical documentation and many stories about people’s personal memories and histories with beer.

The history never gets granular and the science of brewing is only touched upon briefly, making the cheery love letter of a documentary accessible to even beer neophytes.

”Brewmaster” screens again at 6 p.m. March 16 at the AFS Cinema.

Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson flip the script on gender roles in a Western

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Westerns may not be as popular as they once were, but their impact on pop culture and their notions of masculinity have remained embedded in our world. The picture of a rugged cowboy on a horse, often rescuing a damsel in distress, is something most everyone is familiar with.

“Damsel.”

“Damsel,” the latest film by the Zellner brothers, works almost as a parody of a Western. The film first follows Samuel (Robert Pattinson) and a parson he recruits (David Zellner) on their journey to rescue the love of Samuel’s life, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). He wants to marry her, painting an ideal picture of their would-be life together to the parson, and he believes he can be her hero.

The real hero of the story, however, is not Samuel or any of the supposed chivalrous men in the film. It’s Penelope.

To see such a strong female character on screen handling her day-to-day struggles at the hands of such oblivious men — fighting off repeated marriage proposals and the sort of “damseling” that they all put on her — was cathartic and thought-provoking. And though Penelope’s tired of it, she’s also more than capable of standing her ground.

The story questions stereotypes of masculinity. All the men in the film have an over-exaggerated idea of themselves that would be glorified and rewarded in a traditional Western. The cowboy rescues the damsel, and the damsel is forever thankful. That’s not Penelope’s story, though, and she doesn’t want it to be.

The only real issue with her character is that she’s not as fleshed out as she could be. While the narrative makes a point to highlight her as the toughest of the bunch, we don’t get much about her story or who she is outside of her rough exterior when she’s not fighting off idiots. That said, we also don’t get much of anyone else’s background, either, which at times makes the level of engagement in the film fall slightly. Ultimately, we’re rooting for Penelope, mostly because we want her to get away from all these ridiculous and terrible men, but we have no idea where she’s going afterward.

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However, it also is clear the backstories are kept hidden in large part to make the reveals throughout the film more surprising. And the story does interesting work following different characters throughout, almost like it’s teasing the possible rise of a traditional Western protagonist.

While the film may begin as a Western, though, there are a few aspects that work against the genre. This includes shots from the beach, a break from common Western settings, and more comedic elements. The shift in narrative and play on comedy was a welcome approach, making the story lighter and more fun to watch.

Overall, the film overall is a fun tale if you’re not a die-hard traditional Western fan. But the story doesn’t diminish its predecessors; it’s clear there are parts of it that revere the genre. Rather, it just provides an alternate look at gender roles so commonly displayed in Westerns, giving the damsel a chance to shine in her story.

“Damsel” premiered at South By Southwest on March 12. It screens again at 11:30 a.m. March 16 at Zach Theatre and at 11:30 a.m. March 17 at AFS Cinema. A wider release date hasn’t been set. Grade: B+

Documentary on hate groups treads fine line between reporting and giving platform, with mixed results

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There’s something to be said for giving a platform to terrible people and hateful organizations so that the world can witness their awfulness first hand. And while it is important to spread awareness on the dangers of these individuals and organizations, how to responsibly go about that is the question.

“Alt-Right: Age of Rage.”

“Alt-Right: Age of Rage” documents the growth and spread of racist white nationalist groups in America in recent years. Following leaders like Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor, the film displays their actions and ideologies while also showing the opposing antifa movement — the far-left-leaning militant groups that resist neo-Nazis and white supremacists at demonstrations and other events — and prominent antifa activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins.

The documentary shows tragedies at the hands of hate groups historically and currently, so it’s clear the narrative isn’t working to sympathize with such groups or make the claim that what they are doing is noble. But in giving them such a platform, the film at times portrays the groups as if they are part of a legitimate, valid movement.

A portion of the country may follow and believe in what such groups are saying and act upon it, but what those groups stand for is not based on anything other than hate and invalid reasoning. No matter how much Spencer tries to speak like an academic or Taylor attempts to indoctrinate the masses with his books, at the end of the day, they have no real grounds. And although the film does emphasize this aspect of their movement, with its expert interviewee to counteract more ridiculous statements, it’s hard to forget that a lot of people listen to these statements and believe them wholeheartedly.

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What the film does do well, though, is show the true horrors of the groups’ actions and their lack of remorse afterward. After last year’s deadly rally in Charlottesville, Va., the documentary shows Spencer mentioning his sadness over counter-protester Heather Heyer’s death, but clearly his eagerness to move forward and his ultimate shrugging off of the situation trump any sadness he claims to feel. Weeks later, the group shows back up in the same spot to protest.

It’s clear the purpose of this documentary was to provide awareness, and some will debate whether and how best to give both sides equal coverage. Giving a mic to a white supremacist doesn’t make them any more official or valid, but giving them their own side of the story does to an extent. Such criticism is not exclusive to this film but rather to any piece that attempts to document these types of groups. It’s a fine line to tread. Does giving them a platform glamorize or humiliate them? There is no consensus on the answer to this question. This documentary, therefore, stands as a representation of not only one way to make the world aware of such groups but also how the country is currently grappling with understanding them in relation to everything else.

Lamont Jenkins says at the end of the film that he doesn’t believe the country is actually divided because the majority are against this movement; there is one side with some stragglers lingering on the outskirts. However, the film does show the rapid growth of the movement, which prompts audiences to consider how this could one day fully morph into its own side.

“Alt-Right: Age of Rage” had its world premiere at South by Southwest on March 9; there are no more screenings. Grade: C+

‘Fast Color’ celebrates empowered women of color and moms as superheroes

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My favorite thing about South by Southwest is walking into a movie knowing nothing about it, aside from maybe who stars, and walking out with my mind completely blown. That’s what happened to me with “Fast Color,” the second feature film from Julia Hart (“Miss Stevens”). If you can imagine Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle In Time” merging with Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter,” you might be able to get a handle on how special this movie really is.

“Fast Color.”

In this case, I added “Fast Color” to my SXSW watchlist because of actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw. The film begins in a not-so-distant future under extreme drought conditions. We learn that it hasn’t rained in eight years and that crops have essentially stopped growing. Public places have posters on display that say “Report Water Wasters,” and when our lead character Ruth (Mbatha-Raw) stops at a roadside motel, it costs almost as much to rent her room as it does to buy a half-gallon of water from the front desk.

Ruth is on the run, but we don’t really know why until she begins to have severe convulsions and ultimately causes a minor earthquake. Her mysterious powers have government scientists trying to locate her for further study. But she has a mission to get back to her family and avoid capture.

When she finally makes it to see her mother, Bo (the always remarkable Lorianne Toussaint), she isn’t exactly a sight for sore eyes. Bo has been taking care of Ruth’s young daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney) for her entire life because of Ruth’s drug problems. It’s a cautious reintegration, but one that becomes paramount upon learning that Lila has her own special abilities and hates being isolated because of them.

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The strong supporting cast includes Christopher Denham from SXSW-alumni film “Sound Of My Voice” and David Strathairn. Supernatural elements elevate what is already an intriguing drama and help create a captivating world that features some really mesmerizing special effects work, especially for an independently produced film. Hart co-wrote the screenplay with her husband Jordan Horowitz, and it beautifully takes the notion of black girl magic literally.

In a post-film Q&A, Hart said that she really wanted to tell a story that celebrates the empowerment of women of color and also to have a chance to see mothers as superheroes.

In addition to the impressive effects, the film features stunning cinematography from Michael Fimognari (who recently shot “Gerald’s Game” and “Before I Fall”). It helps to have shot in the open skies of scenic New Mexico, but there also are shots rather handsomely bathed in deep blues and reds that just jump off the screen.

“Fast Color” is a thoughtful and compassionate sci-fi redemption story worth squeezing into your schedule this week. It screens again 4:45 p.m. March 16 at the Alamo South Lamar.

The future is now in the terrific ‘People’s Republic of Desire’

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About five minutes into Hao Wu’s “People’s Republic of Desire,” after you see live-streaming performers file into tiny offices to entertain hundreds of millions of people after being told that if they do their jobs well, they will “live like goddesses,” it hits you: This is a completely bonkers William Gibson sci-fi story come to life.

And yet, it is happening right now. Indeed, much of this material is a few years old.

“People’s Republic of Desire”

In China, in online live-streaming showrooms (meaning someone’s bedroom or home office with laptop webcam and decent microphone), thousands of folks — some talented, some pretty, some charismatic, and some none of the above — log on and live-stream, well, whatever it is they feel like, in an attempt to get the time and money of hundreds of millions of potential fans. These programs are a bit like real-time talk shows, complete with interaction with an online audience.

Some fans are members of China’s ever-emerging super-rich class, who lavish gifts on their favorite performers and act like sponsors. Stars can make millions of dollars a year through the purchase of “gifts” that translate into real money for the performers. The performers aren’t “camgirls” — there isn’t a visual pornographic element (or if there is, Wu doesn’t talk about it — though it is strongly implied that one performer has had real-life relationships with several financial supporters). A two-week competition, in which votes are literally bought, determines who is the most popular performer.

Far, far more fans (as in, millions more) are extremely poor, often migrant workers looking for fandom, community and connection. These are the diaosi, sort of a combination of “loser” and “nerd,” young folks working dead end jobs who can’t afford to support their favorite performers financially but still want to contribute here and there. Many of them make less than $500 a month.

Mercifully, Wu spends a fair amount of time explaining how all of this works, often using clever animation. “Desire” focuses on performers on the seemingly all-powerful YY.Com social media network and streaming platform. If performers get enough fans and attention, an agency will want to sponsor them in the hopes of making even more money (and taking a piece in the process.)

Singer Shen Man, 21, who lives in the city of Chengdu, is young and cute and has an OK voice and has absolutely no problem asking for gifts. Her bankrupt father has moved in with her — it’s a little hard to tell if she wants him there or if he is simply taking advantage of her.

Big Li, 24, from Guangzhou, has the bluster and voice of a classic American shock jock  and a strong diaosi-made-good vibe. His wife, who seems older and is definitely more mature than her husband, is a talent manager for YY and must balance concern for her clients and traditional wife-and-mother stuff.

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Wu follows the ins and outs of both careers, including interviews with both a megarich sponsor and a few diaosi, and man alive, we are in serious cyberpunk-as-everyday-life territory here.

Indeed, the deeply weird world of “Desire” make a perfect companion piece to another South by Southwest film: “Ready Player One.”

“People’s Republic of Desire” had its world premiere March 10 and won the Documentary Feature Grand Jury Award at SXSW 2018.