2023 Sundance Film Festival: Virtual Review Round-Up

Aaron Neuwirth reviews a collection of films screened virtually for the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, including debut features, docs, prize winners, and more.

Once again, the Sundance Film Festival decided to have both an in-person and virtual setting, which appears to be the case going forward, even while some premiers remained in-person exclusives. Whatever the case, while I still haven’t actually “done Sundance” (aka, travel to Utah, play in the snow, and all of that – something my lovely girlfriend and I can ideally partake in one day), I did have the opportunity to screen several features at home. The Roku app was junk, but that’s a different story. What matters is trying to find films that left any kind of impression, and that’s the idea here – taking the time to highlight some smaller films, debuts, or even ones already coming from studios that delivered in some way.

Starting things off was the first film I saw at this year’s fest, Talk to Me. As one of the films entered under the “Midnight” label, I was ready for a horror flick, and this one delivered in creative ways. The general concept surrounds a group of kids who gather for non-traditional séances with a mysterious embalmed hand. The thing is – it works. Kids communicate with spirits, leading to several uncomfortable sequences that outpace a number of exorcism movies and the like I’ve seen in recent years. Twin directors Danny and Michael Philippou have a solid story on their hands here, allowing a ghost tale to take on new form thanks to the younger generation dealing with it. Plus, the ending packs a neat kind of punch.

Less impressive when it comes to seeing what future generations hold was The Pod Generation. Not necessarily a bad film, but a seemingly incomplete one. The idea of a future society where technology has created artificial wombs (pods) that can be cared for without the other aspects of maternity brings up certain interesting questions. Yet, this film doesn’t really have much to say when it comes to really interrogating that concept. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Emilia Clarke are good enough (and I assume they flipped a coin and decided Clarke was the only one who needed to do an American accent), but simply having the two occupy certain sides of the argument and then switch feels like a lackluster approach to a film that just sort of ends, eventually.

As far as unique looks at motherhood and parenting go, The Persian Version is a more successful take and a fitting winner for the Sundance Audience award. While the fest wasn’t filled with downer movies, this one did serve as a cheerier drama with energetic direction to deal with the balance an Iranian-American woman (Layla Mohammadi) wants to strike in embracing her culture and challenging labels. Things take a turn as the film also incorporates a story involving her mother (Niusha Noor) through flashbacks. I wish filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz had a better handle on how to cut this film together, as the pacing kept feeling impacted by starting and stopping with these individual storylines. With that in mind, a certain level of vibrancy and occasional humor makes the film consistently enjoyable.

One can undoubtedly say vibrancy in describing “The Bronze Liberace,” aka Little Richard. In the documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything, coming to HBO Max, the focus is clear and compelling. In addition to delivering a comprehensive look at the life of the famed rock ‘n’ roll singer, there’s an effort to really dive into how his music was absorbed and appropriated by white artists and producers. Additionally, a focus on Little Richard’s queerness, how he embraced it, and what it also did for the music world is explored, allowing for a feature documentary that lets a complicated life shine through in ways a feature film may not be as equipped to do. Plus, Little Richard is such a fun presence. Watching old clips of his shows and interviews is worth it in and of itself, but the added perspective allows for a shining light to be observed, flaws and all.

Keeping shining lights in mind, Eugenio Derbez truly shines in the familiar yet effective Radical. Inspired by a true story, this is one of those school-set dramas where a unique teacher attempts to do what he can to reach the kids. The thing is, this kind of thing works well when the right people are involved. Director Christopher Zalla isn’t reinventing anything, but he allows enough of a bond to form between Derbez’s Sergio and the various kids we are more involved with. Given the setting – the 2000s on a rough border town in Mexico – there’s plenty of room for difficult circumstances designed to push for emotion, but the film handles it as needed. At just over two hours, Radical is longer than it needs to be, but there’s a certain kind of joy to take in from inspiring stories such as this.

Also inspiring is Cassandro, another true story based around the lucha libre wrestling scene in Juárez, Mexico, and starring Gael García Bernal as Saúl, a gay luchador who wants to be a star. Director Roger Ross Williams does well by the audience in not belaboring all the details that go into lucha libre wrestling. Instead, there’s a strong character focus here, including Saúl’s various relationships with his mother, trainer, and other luchadors. Of course, examining what it’s like for a former exótico to be out and participating in a world not used to a man like him is also a big part of the story. However, rather than pin so much of this story on conquering hatred, it simply lets Saúl be who he is and see what he gets in return. Another film not exactly pushing too many boundaries, but as a story seeking more attention, it’s a good one.

On the other hand, Magazine Dreams is not so much focused on being nice as watching a volatile man push himself to extreme limits. Jonathan Majors has rightfully received plenty of acclaim for his portrayal of Killian Maddox (great movie character name), a man with difficulties associating with the world around him. His dream is to become a superstar bodybuilder, and the film follows his journey of modeling his physicality for judges. The film explores hypermasculinity and what it means to sacrifice everything or a passion, even if it’s misguided. Sadly, the attempts to emulate Whiplash, among other similar features, are on point, and yet, filmmaker Elijah Bynum misses the mark by extending the theme far past what was necessary. Majors makes it all worth the price of admission, but with so many false endings and little that’s new to take away in its later stretches, the dream feels realized and only becomes darker and draining without aiding the rest of the film.

Also coming up a bit short is the directorial debut of actor Randall Park with Shortcomings. Based on a graphic novel by Adrian Tomine (who also wrote the script), overall, the movie is fine, but it feels like more could have come out of it. Justin H. Min (Yang from After Yang) stars as Ben, an art-house movie theater manager in Berkley, trying to figure out what he wants in life. The film is not afraid to make Ben incredibly flawed and often unlikeable. Yet, for all the efforts to do something with this sort of protagonist, it often feels like the film is standing in place, waiting for something to arise as a challenge. The pacing feels off, despite several significant developments in his life involving his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) and his best friend Alice (Sherry Cola, providing the film’s best performance). It’s witty at times but missing a proper beat to better pull it together. With that in mind, seeing Asian American characters simply dealing with life is an encouraging sign that lends a nice layer.

Quite encouraging is the other documentary I saw that’s worth noting, Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie. By this point, anyone familiar with Michael J. Fox knows his journey dealing with Parkinson’s disease. While this doc may not be shedding much new light on things, it’s really well put together. Featuring interviews with present-day Fox, and cutting back and forth to the various points in his career where things took their turns, I quite enjoyed the format and structuring presented by director Davis Guggenheim. There’s a level of honesty here that is welcome, as far as not shying away from what being a big Hollywood star could do to a person. At the same time, Fox is such a genuine person that his sense of humor and his struggles are balanced well together, allowing for a good look at who he was and is now. Not that they are all that different beyond the disease he must contend with, but there’s a lot to like about how this doc ties it all together.

Really tying things together is the winner of this year’s U.S. Grand Jury Prize, A Thousand and One, which also happens to be my pick for the best film I saw during the festival. Director A.V. Rockwell has developed an engrossing story about Inez (Teyana Taylor), a 90s woman with little means and a rough background, who kidnaps her 6-year-old son from foster care so they can build a life together. This film spans multiple years, showing what kinds of struggles Inez must deal with to provide while never losing sight of her love for her son. Other developments add wrinkles to all of this, however, and the film gets by on not being over-sensationalized when it comes to reckoning with some story turns. Instead, this is a focused and well-put-together character study. It also features a pretty terrific score by Gary Gunn. There’s just a lot here I really liked as an exploration of what it means to attempt to build a family and the ramifications of one’s actions as a result.

Looking across a large span of time is also the idea behind All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, a striking debut from director Raven Jackson. Providing a mood that fits in with Daughters of the Dust and the films of Terrence Malick, it’s hard to believe this movie didn’t pull in any awards from the festival, as it feels bound to be remembered. The story is more of a tone poem than a traditional narrative. With very little dialogue and subtle actions taken by the characters, we watch the life of Mack, a black woman in Mississippi, unfold over various years, observing her as a child and as an adult. Utilizing sound and visuals in interesting and affecting ways, this is such an interestingly made piece of cinema that really seems to want to honor what one can get out of this medium, even after stripping away so many other elements. Truly a unique work.

Also unique – the alien designs in Landscape with Invisible Hand, a pretty clever sci-fi comedy from director Cory Finley (who gave us the excellent 2017 film Thoroughbreds). Set in a not-too-distant future, aliens have arrived and taken over, making the work of humans largely obsolete. All that’s left are various ways to scrape by using tourism and live-streaming to the aliens. Adam (Asante Blackk) stars as an artistic high schooler trying to navigate his way through later adolescence, which leads to courtship as well as the possibility of ruining the lives of his family. Tifanny Haddish co-stars as Adam’s mother, delivering a solid dramatic (and occasionally comedic) backbone to this cast, but it’s the way these characters deal with the world set up around them that intrigues. There’s a sense of humor to go along with the sort of fantastical crisis on display, complete with wild turns of events to help keep things interesting. The film sort of loses steam toward the end, but there’s far too much to like to turn away from what this film has to offer.

The final film I watched was Rye Lane, an exceptional romantic comedy that will be debuting on Hulu in March. Set in modern-day South London, Dom (David Jonsson) and Yas (Vivian Oparah) are two 20-somethings who randomly meet during a time when both of them have just broken up. The two attempt to console each other by going over what’s happened to them and impulsively sharing a day of uninhibited mayhem. No, that doesn’t mean doing terrible things, but simply trying to find closure, embrace some of their fears, and possibly find ways to open up their hearts again. At under 90 minutes, what this film lacks in deeper characterization, it makes up for in visually inventive direction from debut filmmaker Raine Allen-Miller. There’s a lot of fun and humor to be found throughout this feature that never slows down and does plenty with its likable leads.

***

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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