There was no missing Beto O’Rourke at the SXSW premiere on Saturday of Running with Beto, the documentary about his 2018 Senate campaign.

Even if you’d somehow overlooked all the reports that he’d be at the festival, and ignored all the chatter in lines outside the theater, it was simply impossible not to notice the excited murmuring among audience members – many of them clad in Beto O’Rourke t-shirts – when he made his way down the aisle of Austin’s Paramount Theater to take his seat.

But before we could watch him take the stage, we had a movie to watch.

Running with Beto, directed by David Modigliani, takes a behind-the-scenes look at O’Rourke’s campaign in the 12 months leading up to Election Day. Zipping back and forth across Texas, it chronicles his quest to visit all 254 counties, his unorthodox-for-government social media strategy, and his meteoric rise from little-known congressman to national obsession. 

Naturally, O’Rourke is the star at the center of this movie, and he comes across well enough. Maybe a little too well: Even a handful of less flattering moments (like one in which O’Rourke snipes at deputy campaign manager Cynthia Cano about how crowded his schedule has become) can’t stop Running with Beto from feeling, at times, like a feature-length campaign promo.

Beto O’Rourke, the film and its rapturous SXSW reception make clear, is just getting started.

More interesting are scenes of the people in his orbit, including voter registration specialist Amanda Salas, gun control activist (and now Houston City Council candidate) Marcel McClinton, and campaign manager David Wysong. 

Most delightful of these is Shannon Gay, a cheerfully foul-mouthed campaign volunteer. (“What is it about these arrogant fuckwits that they think they can make these decisions?” she says of Texas senator Ted Cruz, in explaining why she supports O’Rourke’s run against him.) She brings color and quotable lines to the film, but most importantly, she offers its best look at what O’Rourke has come to mean to his supporter.

Running with Beto‘s thesis could be summed up as, “Isn’t this guy great?” Those already in the tank for O’Rourke will surely appreciate this summary of how much he’s accomplished, and how bright his future looks still; those against him will probably remain against him. Modigliani does a better job of capturing the passion O’Rourke’s followers feel for him than he does the initial spark that ignited it. 

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But oh, what a passion it is. After the screening, the filmmakers and subjects finally walked onstage, O’Rourke to a standing ovation from the crowd, for a Q&A. Many of the questions began with emotional appreciations and thank yous, but the question that got the most dramatic reaction was – no surprise – “When are you going to announce your presidential campaign?” 

Although O’Rourke offered a noncommittal response, the audience made clear exactly what they thought of this possibility, with loud claps and cheers.

Running with Beto concludes, necessarily, with his defeat last November, and that can’t help but come across as a bit of a buzzkill after nearly an hour and half of fiery optimism and upward momentum. But it only feels like an ending if you haven’t been paying attention. O’Rourke, the film and its rapturous SXSW reception make clear, is just getting started. 

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