Saturday, March 20, 2021

SXSW with Abe: Swan Song

I’m thrilled to be covering SXSW for the third time. This year, I’m not in Austin, but watching films virtually and reviewing them as soon as I can.

Swan Song
Directed by Todd Stephens
Narrative Spotlight

People who don’t conform to what society expects of them often need to find their own supportive communities. One way of fitting in is to become known for a skill and to hone that craft. There is a degree of respect afforded to those who have proven themselves to be talented in a particular area that can overshadow any notions of them being peculiar or unusual. A career doesn’t last forever, however, and someone who felt deeply embraced in the prime of their lives may find difficulty getting back to a place of happiness and satisfaction, a sentiment explored in this decent human story.

Pat (Udo Kier) used to work as a hairdresser and run his own salon in Sandusky, Ohio. Now, he lives in a nursing home and leads a muted existence, hassling those charged with helping him and expressing little hope for his own future. When he is approached to style the hair of an old friend, Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans), for her funeral, Pat initially resists but then decides to set out for a long walk across town to reclaim the glory he once had and do one last job to prove to everyone – and to himself – that he still has what it takes.

Writer-director Todd Stephens describes this film, which he considers the third part of his “Ohio Trilogy” that also includes “Edge of Seventeen” and “Gypsy 83,” as an homage to the real Pat Pitsenberger. He remembers Pat as someone who contradicted the pressure for everyone to look and dress the same in his own hometown, walking around in bright clothes and fabulous outfits, paving the way for other gay men like Stephens to be able to have the courage to be themselves in small towns. Even if this showcase feels slow-paced and occasionally aimless, its fidelity to Pat’s identity is laudable, and this film definitely creates a space for him to be his authentic self.

Kier, who has recently appeared in violent roles in films like “Bacurau” and “The Painted Bird,” shared that he embraced the opportunity to move away from the “boring” standard of looking evil and killing people to play this real person and pay tribute to Pat’s legacy. It’s a fun and certainly different part for Kier, and he’s surrounded by a competent ensemble that also includes Michael Urie and Jennifer Coolidge. The film’s themes are indeed resonant but its execution is less riveting and emphatic, not nearly as engaging as its featured protagonist.


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