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‘We Can Be Heroes’ (SXSW review)

From the earliest Gen Con wargaming clubs in the 1960s to the Freaks and Geeks and Stranger Things kids rolling 20-sided dice in suburban ’80s basements, role-playing has been a coming-of-age ritual for imaginative adolescents for decades — a tradition that continues with the charismatic Generations Z & Alpha teens of the SXSW documentary feature premiere We Can Be Heroes.

Directors Carina Mia Wong and Alex Simmons specifically focus on a small cohort of campers and counselors living la vida LARP (Live Action Role Playing) at The Wayfinder Experience summer program in Upstate New York.

Over the course of a single high-spirited week, the participants create characters for themselves and improvise the outcome of a shared fantasy scenario while wrestling with (and/or finding respite from) personal and global real-world challenges.

For example, one camper named Abby reveals that she missed her entire high school experience after receiving potentially lethal diagnoses of SMAS and gastroparesis just as the world shut down thanks to COVID-19 — meaning her time at Wayfinder is a desperately needed literal and metaphorical breath of fresh air with peers before heading off to college.

The stakes are lower yet no less heartfelt for Dexter, a homeschooled and (perhaps not uncoincidentally) socially awkward New York lonely boy who’s terrified of ticks while his LARP-ing alter ego, Infernius, “is NOT afraid of beasts.”

Yet even his self-chosen fantasy identity (a wizard who’s never cast a spell that’s worked) is plagued with self-doubt, just as Infernius and Dexter are both reduced to hapless stammers around their mutual red-sneakered camp “crush.”

Your heart goes out to all of these kids (even a particularly spiky one who claims ” with people that I dislike I am not tolerant at all”) and it’s fun to witness their achingly relatable arcs across the film’s breezy 86-minute running time (including their fictional adventures exploring The Last Green, a bittersweet fairy realm threatened by forces not dissimilar to global warming and all the myriad other existential threats awaiting the players outside of their momentary Wayfinder safe haven.

May the odds be ever in their favor, may the Force be with them, and may they be heroes.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Jennifer Wood, Krista Manis,
Carina Mia Wong, Alex Simmons
Directed by Carina Mia Wong, Alex Simmons
Featuring Dexter, Cloud, Abby, Miranda, Kate, Max,
Luisa (formerly Alex), Eli, Adelaide, Judson

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