Molly is on a road trip, headed back to her hometown to say goodbye to her dying, senile grandfather. She has been estranged from him for some time, and the trip home is full of apprehension and inner tension, despite all her attempts to cultivate inner equanimity and calm.
When she arrives at her grandfather’s house, she discovers disorder and squalor. But beyond his present dementia, there’s also his bigotry and racism, which makes it hard for Molly to be around him, especially since he uses a racial slur to refer to Molly’s girlfriend.
But Molly must care for her grandfather until the rest of her family can join her — which gives her an opportunity to confront him. But in doing so, she begins to realize the limits of how much a person can really change.
Writing-directing team Briana Pozner and Justine Lupe — who is a regular on acclaimed series Succession, and also co-stars here — offer up a short drama that’s an unvarnished yet compassionate portrait of familial fault lines. Its observations of how political polarization around race and bigotry can seep into family dynamics give it a timeliness, but the film is as much an examination of how love and loyalty can undergird even the most fraught relationships, making them even more complicated and tender at once.
Essentially a two-hander, the storytelling rests on excellent writing and performances. The dialogue and plot are exceptionally pared down, especially in the beginning, which captures Molly’s state of mind as she travels to her grandfather’s farm. Small details note her nervousness, from the affirmations she listens to or the way she grips an object, and this inner agitation is matched in the restless, handheld camerawork.
The film settles visually when Molly enters her grandfather’s realm and she discovers the disordered state of his home as well as just how senile and debilitated he has become. Veteran character actor M. Emmet Walsh as Molly’s grandfather captures a lost, almost childlike dementia and senility, but his presence retains an innate sense of menace and dominance that makes his volatility all the more unnerving, and viewers can sense the emotional violence of his bigotry and the way he loomed over her.
Lupe’s own performance as Molly also travels difficult terrain, as she negotiates her anger at her grandfather’s bigotry, but also the very real memories of love and connection she once had with him. She attempts to break through to him and challenges her grandfather’s bigotry in his state of quasi-innocence. But the exchange gives rise to a small but cutting moment of conflict that tests her familial loyalty and the strength of her love for him.
An official selection at Aspen and Palm Springs, “South of Bix” exists in a unique moment in our cultural discourse about race, with calls for people to have difficult conversations about attitudes and ideas with friends and family in their circle. But beyond this current relevance, it also ends with a distinctively ambivalent emotional note and visual image that perhaps anyone with family they both love and yet vehemently disagree with can relate to. There is acceptance — or perhaps it’s resignation — but also a recognition of a love that can fray and knot itself with conflict but can never truly break. For Molly, no easy answer or solution exists, and her grandfather likely will never change, but she finds a willingness to sit in the discomfort, and offer up compassion anyway.