While there are a fair amount of films at SXSW every year that are advertised as being shot locally in Austin, La Barracuda isn’t just one that’s shot in Austin but also catches traction beyond pandering to the home crowd.
Directors by Jason Courtland and Julia Halperin (Now, Forager) construct a genre-bending look at sisterhood and the effect of two half-sister’s vastly different upbringings. While it’s one part a nature-nurture story, it’s setting amid the Austin music scene adds one more layer of depth, and showcases Sophie Reid’s superstar potential as the musically gifted Sinaloa, the daughter of a famed country singer that died without ever truly knowing her.
Sinaloa’s recounts one month when she was nine years old her father stayed with her family while working on an album in Brighton. Most of his other time, when not on the road, was back at his ranch in Austin, raising his other daughter, Merle (Allison Tolman). Both daughters were sheltered from knowing each other
After her father’s passing, Sinaloa sees Merle’s name in the obituary notice, making her aware for first time of the second family in Austin. She packs her things, leaving behind what either is a dead body in her bed or a one-night stand, to meet her lost family in Austin.
As she introduces herself as Merle’s lost sister, there’s an understandable assumption she’s either not who she says she is or is just looking for a cut of her dad’s will. The only one not suspicious of her is Merle’s fiancé, Raul (Luis Bordonada), who offers rides and housing for Sinaloa while she treks her way through the music industry, quickly showing she has her father’s talents — talents that Merle never picked up.
From there La Barracuda continues to be a minefield of emotions. The director couple not only has family members taking sides against and with Sinaloa, but also turns the tables around on the audience, framing ideas that she may not be who she says she is as she gradually becomes psychologically unstable (or always has been).
If she was off-kilter in some sense, she’s at least shown to be compassionate for Merle. At first standoffish, Merle wants at least to feel like the sisters are related. The pair are true complementary pieces with each other: Merle is the successful career woman with a steady relationship while Sinaloa is the adventurous-type that inherits the talent of their father.
Even though their dad’s voice is never heard, somehow, there’s an immediate connection with the audience that he’s living through the voice of Sinaloa. There’s a surprising emotional catharsis both for the audience and the sisters.
The greatest compliment for the film’s musical stylings, though, is how authentic it all feels. The mix of British and Texan music work seamlessly. Sinaloa’s talent is immediately clear from her first strums, but as she sits around a family campfire with Merle’s mother (JoBeth Williams) looking down in disdain, it’s clear she’s not some prodigy that’s destined for bigger things. Other musicians are shown to be just as good as her to keep the film bound to reality.
That said, it’s only a great compliment to the music in general around Austin. Reid’s talent shouldn’t be dismissed. She was chosen from over 400 auditions — both big names and small — but was hired because she can both act and, more importantly, play and sing. The newcomer is able to go toe-to-toe with acting veterans like Tolman and Williams (great to see her on screen as always), holding domain over each while Courtland and Halperin dissect the power structure of the broken family. The more power Sinaloa gains, the more unstable she begins trying to cope with the neglect for the past 20 years which ultimately once again brings question as to why she traveled across the pond in the first place. Was it to get what’s hers or connect with only remaining blood ties?
La Barracuda is well worth the watch for any fan of music-oriented films, and comes with the added bonus of a psychological thriller as the final act rolls around with plenty of fun turns in between acts.