Last year, we covered much of 2022’s Sundance virtually, and 2023 marked the first year since 2019 where things returned to Park City in full swing! Though unable to attend in person, Allison and I managed to see a few gems that we both really enjoyed. Check out our full coverage for the fest after the jump!
THE AMAZING MAURICE
Full review at the link.
(Written by Allison Brown) Animalia starts off strong. The first thirty minutes explore an intriguing emergency evacuation escape thriller akin to films like 2020’s Greenland. This is paired with a horror narrative depicting strange behavior in the local animals due to the alien presence in the region. One chilling scene portrays dogs gathering in the street in a perfect circle in communication as if possessed. Unfortunately, the abnormality in these canines is never explained. Once the alien entity is revealed on screen, the story goes downhill fast. It is difficult to tell what is going on as lead character Itto (Oumaïma Barid) enters extraterrestrial fog with her two companions. As the story progresses from this point, the dialogue makes less and less sense. It is nearly impossible to follow as the characters speak in idioms. There is commentary on social class, societal status as a woman, money, and religion, but it gets easily lost within the confusion of the rest of the plot. As such with festival films, the sci-fi element is nearly absent and only merely suggested offscreen. The tonal shift between acts in editing style and content is abrupt, and scenes feel as if they were meant to be in a different film. Director Sofia Alaoui is confused as to whether she wants Animalia to be a thriller, horror, drama, or science fiction film.
When obviously fictional Avatar: The Way of Water does a better job conveying ecological messaging and portraying oceanic ecosystems, there is an obvious disconnect here with book adaptation, Blueback. As a young child, Abby goes diving with her mom (Radha Mitchell) and befriends a giant wild groper fish; as an adult, Abby (Mia Wasikowska), now a seasoned researcher, receives a call that her mother has had a serious stroke. Concurrently, we experience two different versions of Abby going through vastly different life events that do not feel complimentary to one another in any way. The beauty of the sea is also difficult to observe with how dark and washed out in color the photography appears. With the selling point being a strong mother/daughter relationship, I wanted Blueback to deliver a poignancy that it never quite reaches. By splitting narratives, the two halves feel too disparate from one another to the point of frustration. While the filmmaker’s intent is to be commended, Blueback ultimately misses the mark.
(Written by Allison Brown) Adura Onashile’s debut feature, Girl, cements her reputation as a director to watch. Artfully constructed, both sound design and vivid visuals set the mood for a deeply moving and emotional piece of work. Grace (Déborah Lukumuena) and her daughter, Ama (Le’Shantey Bonsu), stay hidden from the world in their slight but “safe” apartment. Grace ensures that her daughter understands two conditions: they must keep to themselves and cannot trust anybody. Ama spends her days skipping school at her mother’s instructions and gazing out the window, while Grace only leaves to work as a janitor. Ama suddenly spots a fire across the street while her mother is away, and instigates a chain of events that eventually get the pair out of their shells. Grace uses fear and loyalty to manipulate Ama into remaining at home. As Grace is pushed out of her comfort zone by her daughter’s decision to make a friend, nightmares resurface, and she tries to pull back the reigns on Ama’s social progression. Grace’s trepidation towards life takes her away from being a proper parent in other ways as well. In a tragic scenario, when Ama gets her period, her friend must talk her down and fill in the gaps in sex education. Lukumuena is a fantastic actress; her character’s repressed pain and distress is well portrayed in her performance, and impossible not to empathize with. Grace’s anxiety and apparent agoraphobia stunt her daughter emotionally. My main gripe with Onashile’s masterful work is the lack of development in Grace’s backstory. The conflicted mother clearly suffers from past trauma, yet the audience is not let in on the exact details. A diagnosis from a medical professional or social worker may have helped to better explain Grace’s motivation behind her isolating behavior. I unfortunately did miss some of the dialogue as well due to the strong accents of the cast. I really wanted to love Girl, as it has so much potential. On a surface level, Onashile hits all the right notes. However, the story really needs more substance beneath the emotional setup.
There are normal exploitative military dramas, and then there is writer/director David Zonana’s indulgent and often difficult to watch Sundance selection, Heroic. In aiming to show the inner workings of the corrupt military, Zonana crafts a movie so off-putting that I often had to look away. We start as Luis, age 18, is being drafted into the Second infantry company. Little does he know, his world is about to change forever. The Sergeants here make things worse than fraternity hazing, forcing recruits to endure grueling “initiation” procedures. If able to stick things out for four years, they will officially end up in the Mexican army, regardless of their race or affiliation. I was absolutely disgusted by much of the behavior here—sergeants consistently use the f-slur, encourage Luis to “choke his girlfriend hard and fuck her in the ass,” and laugh at videos of people dying. What really put this over the edge for me though was the brutal slaying of an innocent dog, as it is slashed with a knife over and over again. Perhaps somebody will enjoy Heroic—for this viewer, it was simply an exercise in torment that I could not wait to finish.
IN MY MOTHER’S SKIN
Picked up by Prime Video ahead of the premiere, any festival horror selections are typically must-watch for me. This is especially evident with Sundance, a fest with a great track record for horror that recently includes Fresh, Watcher, Speak No Evil, and Hatching. Sadly, In My Mother’s Skin lives up to none of these titles. Set in the Philippines in 1945 in the wake of WWII, the film follows a young girl Tala, who tries to find a way to provide for her sickly mother and fading family as her dad is away seeking help. There is talk of hidden treasure and the looming threat of Japanese soldiers; ultimately, it is a flesh-eating fairy that is the biggest problem. Tala places her trust in this “fairy” adorned in an elegant headdress. The direction is somewhat stellar overall, but in the end, In My Mother’s Skin emerges feeling like a bargain-bin Pan’s Labyrinth.
Full review at the link.
(Written by Allison Brown) Penélope Cruz festival film, L’immensità, suffers a similar fate to Parallel Mothers that came before: it is simply too ambitious. Director Emanuele Crialese tries to weave in too many weighty plot lines and variances in style into one narrative. I understand that it is loosely based on the director’s childhood, but it could have used a bit more refinement for a transition into film. The story successfully tells the struggle of transgender child Adriana/Andrew (Luana Giuliani), who is barely accepted by his mother, and even she refuses to call him by his chosen name. His coming-of-age story is tied in with a first love, Sara (Penélope Nieto Conti), who is the only one not questioning their identity. The mainstream township looks down on Sara and her siloed community, and assume them to be gypsies, where they have settled “past the reeds.” Clara (Penélope Cruz) warns her children, Andrew, Gino (Patrizio Francioni), and Diana (María Chiara Goretti), repeatedly that these outsiders are unsafe to associate with. This segment of the narrative receives almost no development, and only takes away from everything else. It either needs more elaboration beyond a hollow one-sided character who seems to solely exist to be Andrew’s love interest, or replaced altogether with an average girl from his side of the tracks. In the background, Clara and Felice (Vincenzo Amato) display a truly abhorrent marriage, but this plotline could have been explored in greater depth. Near rape and physical abuse is not something to be taken lightly. It feels as if Felice wins in the end with an abrupt, rushed, and bleak denouement. Crialese wastes time that could be spent expanding the two flimsily-built plots on black-and-white musical interludes that don’t really add anything. Perhaps, some of his intention in this choice was missed due to a personal lack of understanding for Italian culture. As usual, Cruz pulls off a solid performance with much layer and depth depicting her struggles as a battered housewife in 1970s Rome. Her character reminds me of Michelle Williams’ childlike Mitzi in The Fabelmans. Unfortunately, Cruz is not enough to save the film from the underlying depth that L’immensità is lacking.
The Longest Goodbye
(Written by Allison Brown) There is always a film during a festival where one can’t wait for the credits to roll, and for me, that documentary is The Longest Goodbye. It is unfortunately so lackluster, that there is not much to comment on, good or bad. Director Ido Mizrahy primarily studies the psychological difficulties of those chosen to partake in and prepare for long duration space missions. In addition to the scientific goals, NASA must consider the human element. People have real lives they are leaving behind to do a mission; the only way of communicating with those back home has one’s employer as an intermediary, leaving no room for privacy. Individual astronaut accounts lead the narrative, but the stories feel impersonal, and barely break the surface. Strictly for NASA superfans only, The Longest Goodbye is best skipped for another more intriguing selection.
Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls
Full review at the link.
(Written by Allison Brown) A meet-cute between tears in a public bathroom stall at a bizarre art gallery opening leads to love in Searchlight’s flashy new British rom-com, Rye Lane. In fact, it is rare that so many of a film’s most comical and pivotal scenes take place in the restroom. Recently single Yas (Vivian Oparah) stumbles in on similarly situated Dom (David Jonsson, HBO’s Industry) trying to have a private moment, as he loudly sobs. Apparently, Dom caught his girlfriend of six years snapping a selfie with a not-so-mysterious penis in the background, Dom’s ditzy best bud. Yas and Dom initially part ways, but she comes to the rescue at his time of need. This leads the two to spend the day on a spontaneous adventure, ultimately culminating in peak romantic comedy flair. They go shopping, attempt a break-in, end up at a random family gathering, get caught snooping in an elderly woman’s underwear drawer, and attempt karaoke. Director Raine Allen Miller weaves in bright and colorful cinematography that almost produces an 80s vibe. Anecdotal flashbacks sometimes have a surreal and hyperbolic quality. There is even an allusion to the last supper when the lead realizes that his friend attended a gathering at his ex-girlfriend’s place. The creativity of the team oozes out of every frame. Each anecdote lets the audience decide whether the storyteller is trustworthy, or if their recollection might be embellished as much as the visuals. The fast pace keeps every moment exciting. Look out for an A-list cameo at the most opportune moment at a restaurant called, “Love Guac’tually!” Expect Rye Lane to join the ranks of Hulu on March 31st.
Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis)
(Written by Allison Brown) Album art is one of the most recognizable pieces of mainstream graphic design. To this day, iconic covers from classic music influence the direction of new concepts with an allusion in mind, even within the design team at my own publishing job. As a creative trained in the late 2000s, my only experience in the field is with the Adobe Suite. With this in mind, I was intrigued to see how the notable surrealist agency highlighted in Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) was able to produce such fantastic work in the 1960s and 1970s pre-digital design. I am accustomed to the ability to photoshop concepts into reality, so it was intriguing to see the use of stuntmen and crazy schemes just to get “the shot.” Lighting a man on fire in real life to visualize a commentary on the music industry or inflating a giant pig balloon and letting it accidentally disrupt flight patterns for a major airport are not scenarios I expected to be a part of crafting iconic work. It was interesting to hear how intertwined graphic designers and rockstars were at the time, both in physical location and vision; they were pure artists uninfluenced by capitalism. This is vastly different from the commercial society most creatives must adapt to now. The strongest aspect of Squaring the Circle is the imaginative animated illustrations used to transition between projects. Director Anton Corbijn drenches the viewer in psychedelic vibes to set the mood for a 60s-70s headspace. He spends a bit too much time on personal anecdotes to highlight the wild Hipgnosis lifestyle of drugs paired with rock and roll and anarchy. I would have rather seen a greater focus on the design and technique of large projects itself. A walkthrough of how things were done visually, rather than an offhand description would have been more exciting. I would be curious about how handmade cut and paste design and manual coloring were executed, but perhaps I am just a design geek. I think the target of this documentary is really an older classic rock crowd, and I am not sure how much that direction would appeal to this wider audience.
The Starling Girl
(Written by Allison Brown) A24 might have an attractive potential purchase in Laurel Parmet’s stunning debut feature, The Starling Girl. A study on the horrors and hypocrisy of the religious southern community is always welcome. The town is so brainwashed that they believe technology is “the easiest way for Satan to reach you.” Parmet executes this narrative to perfection. Eliza Scanlen is wonderful as naïve seventeen-year-old Jem Starling, fully indoctrinated by her peers and family yet exploring the taboos of sexuality. The Starling Girl is a horny film; mundane activities such as tying shoes are comedically portrayed in a way that almost insinuates fellatio. Churchgoers are offended to see an underage girl’s visible bra lines. Jem is a remarkable juxtaposition of maturity. In one way, she is forced beyond her years in the affair she explores, taking care of her little sister, and navigating her father’s (Jimmi Simpson) alcoholism while her mother (Wrenn Schmidt) attempts to sweep it under the rug. Conversely, she is kept pristine and childlike in the parental and pastor (Kyle Secor) oversight of her life, as well as in the messy manner she eats. The chemistry between worldly pastor son Owen (Lewis Pullman) and inquisitive Jem is exceptionally palpable. He’s a bad boy who smokes and visited an exotic locale, Puerto Rico, far away from all Jem knows. Her behavior as a lovestruck teen will be nostalgic yet cringeworthy for most female viewers. The overarching message in the end displays the Madonna–whore complex in all its glory. When the pieces fall, of course an underage woman must accept the blame for the misdoings of both parties. She is an evil harlot influenced by the devil who misled an upstanding married man! Owen is the one with previous commitments, while Jem is just a child finding herself. In Jem’s small Kentucky town, seventeen is considered even late to start looking for a partner to marry! I probably laughed more than intended, but the manipulative nature of most extreme religion is repugnant.
WHEN IT MELTS
Full review at the link.
Audiences everywhere will soon be able to enjoy several of these films at their own leisure—several big movies were picked up either ahead of the fest or during it. My favorite that played this year’s Sundance was Infinity Pool, closely followed by Talk to Me, while Allison loved Cat Person, Magazine Dreams, The Persian Version, and Starling Girl the most. See you all next year!