After hosting only virtual screenings for the past two years, the 2023 Sundance Film Festival — the largest independent showcase of narrative and documentary films in the United States — returned this month with a mix of in-person and online screenings that celebrate a diverse selection of filmmakers around the world.
Running from Jan. 19 to Jan. 29, the festival premiered 110 feature-length films from 28 countries, along with an extensive program of short films. Among the most anticipated films were adaptations of Ottessa Moshfegh’s thriller novel “Eileen” and the viral New Yorker story “Cat Person”; documentaries about beloved children’s author Judy Blume and the cutthroat International Chopin Piano Competition; and horror flicks “Infinity Pool” with Mia Goth and “Run Rabbit Run” starring Sarah Snook.
This year, The Daily Californian’s arts reporters Maya Thompson, Sarah Runyan and Asha Pruitt traveled to Park City, Utah to view the festival’s prestigious lineup on the big screen. Here’s what they watched.
“How can you compete in music?”
The question is offendedly mused by Italian-Slovanian pianist Alexander Gadjiev, one of the promising finalists in the XVIII International Chopin Piano Competition and one of the subjects of Jakub Piątek’s deeply moving documentary “Pianoforte.”
The International Chopin Piano Competition is one of the most prestigious events for young pianists and a linchpin of professional success; past winners include Mitsuko Uchida and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Inherently, the subject is compelling — classical music seduces audiences as a world where each layer abounds more layers, an infinite and seemingly impenetrable prism of discipline, obsession, elegance and high art. But Piątek removes his subject’s lush overcoat and turns his gaze onto the adolescents and young adults whose lives orbit a wooden box.
The International Chopin Piano Competition happens every five years and hosts pianists ranging from 16 to 31 years old. The film, sometimes frustratingly, skirts around explaining the competition’s exact rules, but the young players’ passion to win burns like a sunbeam. Every player is talented, an earned accomplishment carved from childhood hours spent practicing each day. Although viewers may not perceive the slight interpretive differences that can send a player packing, Piątek skillfully and sensitively mounts tension to the competition’s end in an immersive meditation on music and growing up.
— Maya Thompson
“Judy Blume Forever”
At 84 years old, author Judy Blume finally gets her roses in the peachy, reverent documentary “Judy Blume Forever.” Blume, a staple of middle school summer reading lists, rose to fame for her candid coming-of-age novels, including “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” and “Blubber.”
The film shimmers when spotlighting its effortlessly endearing subject, who wears grape-colored glasses and speaks about the past with warmhearted ease. Through Blume’s past and present interviews, as well as present-day confessionals from devoted (often high-profile) readers, Blume comes across as a writer undaunted by risks and undeterred by controversy; however, the documentary shares none of her verve when it comes to storytelling.
Co-directed by Leah Wolchok and Davina Pardo, “Judy Blume Forever” illustrates Blume’s biography — marriage, motherhood, her artistic instincts, interest in adolescence — like a banal paint-by-numbers page. The pacing snags like a knit sweater, lumpy in some places and threadbare in others. Its rosy portrait teeters on tedium. Just because someone writes children’s novels doesn’t mean their story should be told like one.
— Maya Thompson
“Run Rabbit Run”
In director Daina Reid’s “Run Rabbit Run,” a grieving mother (Sarah Snook) projects her ghosts onto her 7-year-old daughter Mia (Lily LaTorre). Deep in the South Australian riverlands, a jumble of predictable horror tropes — an empty childhood home, demented drawings and creepy little girls in white nightdresses — are made better by Snook’s chilling performance as Sarah, a paranoid mother terrified of hurting her own child.
The plot is eerily similar to “The Babadook,” another Australian horror flick that premiered at Sundance in 2014. But with sluggish pacing and repetitive editing, the film teases its audience to the breaking point, culminating in a prolonged final act that isn’t ultimately satisfying. Intriguing details, such as Sarah’s job as a fertility doctor and Mia’s titular pet rabbit, have great potential for metaphors about the loneliness of single motherhood, but are only explored on a surface level.
The film’s powerfully unsettling music and imagery attempt to tie together its many disjointed elements, though it isn’t quite successful. All in all, “Run Rabbit Run” is an unimaginative, if mostly compelling, tale of grief, guilt and generational trauma.
— Asha Pruitt
“La Pecera (The Fishbowl)”
In Vieques, a shimmering small island off the eastern coast of San Juan, toxic traces of the U.S. military presence still poison the water and the bodies of the people who live near it. “La Pecera (The Fishbowl),” Glorimar Marrero Sánchez’s feature debut, is an achingly beautiful tale of cancer and colonialism in Puerto Rico.
The film stars Isel Rodríguez as Noelia, a stubborn and staunchly independent woman whose colorectal cancer has returned and metastasized after years of remission. Tired of treatment and suffocated by her boyfriend Jorge (Maximiliano Rivas), she returns to her childhood home of Vieques to put all her remaining energy toward protecting the community that raised her — despite the looming threat of a hurricane and her own deteriorating condition.
However, Sánchez prioritizes stunning visual metaphors at the expense of character development, and Noelia’s actions often appear selfish and reckless rather than strong and purposeful. “La Pecera (The Fishbowl)” proves that cancer movies don’t have to be sickly sweet or inspirational to tell a powerful story, as Noelia makes peace with mourning.
— Asha Pruitt
“The Amazing Maurice”
“The Amazing Maurice” is anything but. Starring an astonishing lineup of actors from better movies, the animated film follows a smarmy orange cat named Maurice (Hugh Laurie) who travels from village to village with a band of rats and a shy young piper named Keith (Himesh Patel), nabbing villagers’ money by staging outbreaks of a rat plague. In their newest grift, however, something sinister is afoot as the suspicious Boss Man (David Thewlis) stakes a prize on killing rodents.
Of all its faux paws — irrelevant wizard lore, a derivative animation style, slapdash separate plots — the overwritten script makes the film impossibly frustrating. The most frequent offender is Emilia Clarke’s Malicia, an outgoing, voracious reader. Her lines are one of the film’s winks at cleverness, but the ongoing meta commentary grows insufferable and exhausting. In the imaginative medium that is animation, directors Toby Genkel and Florian Westermann have made a contribution worthy of the litter box. Cats have nine lives, but viewers only have one — don’t waste it on “The Amazing Maurice.”
— Maya Thompson
“The Starling Girl”
“I want a heart full of love. I want it to fill me to the brim,” remarks 17-year-old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen). In rural Kentucky, the inquisitive teenager spends her days within her Christian fundamentalist community — performing with her church’s dance group, attending services and helping to raise her younger siblings. Through dance, Jem unearths some semblance of autonomy and control, prioritizing self-expression in an environment where she has consistently been taught to put others first.
Writer-director Laurel Parmet’s feature directorial debut glides with the delicacy of a skilled dancer, juxtaposing the order of Jem’s community with the tumult of her internal desires. When she enters a relationship with her married youth pastor Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman), she questions the structure imposed upon her life, something that prevents her from exploring her identity. Scanlen’s performance pulses with the potency of youthful pining. She eloquently juggles the confusion and exhilaration of first love while playing off of Pullman’s charming, albeit chilling, performance, which candidly highlights the inappropriate power dynamics that construct their relationship.
“The Starling Girl” glistens with the promise of self-discovery. Even when order decays, the eldest Starling daughter fends for herself, remembering to dance all the while.
— Sarah Runyan
“You have a strange face. It’s plain, but fascinating,” Rebecca smiles wryly at the captive young Eileen, taking a drag from her cigarette. In William Oldroyd’s “Eileen,” Anne Hathaway is irresistible as a vibrant enigma in the mold of Cate Blanchett in “Carol.” The intoxicating Hitchcockian thriller, set in 1960s Massachusetts, is based on literary powerhouse Ottessa Moshfegh’s first novel of the same name.
Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) is a shy yet secretly perverted secretary at a men’s prison. She meets the alluring new staff psychologist Rebecca (Hathaway), who slowly seduces her until the two women become entangled in a shocking crime. After a painfully long buildup, the film takes a sharp left turn into pulp territory in the final act, with a gut-wrenching monologue from Marin Ireland.
The cinematography and stylization nod to classic Hollywood filmmaking, and the jazzy, staccato soundtrack punctuates a series of perversions that slowly morph from Eileen’s daydreams into reality. But in the absence of her dirtiest inner thoughts, as revealed in Moshfegh’s novel, the narrative fails to cut as deep into the mind of a killer.
— Asha Pruitt
Saim Sadiq’s “Joyland” surges on-screen like a vigorous wave. Strong and striking, the film serves as a reminder of the breadth of one’s reality and the ties that bind people together. Portraying the dynamics of a family in Pakistan, Sadiq infuses each scene with empathy, consistently identifying the pressures placed on each character.
Haider (Ali Junejo) braces for the arrival of his sister-in-law’s child, but when he and his family discover that the infant is a girl, they are devastated. Wishing for a male heir, the family’s patriarch maintains high hopes that Haider and his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) will deliver a son. Yet, in an attempt to support his family, Haider joins a dance troupe and subsequently falls for the group’s star, Biba (Alina Khan).
Junejo’s performance may ground the film, but Farooq and Khan charge “Joyland” with remarkable pathos. Their expert performances ache with sorrow, representing the calamity caused by societal expectations. Guilt rages through the film, silently weighing upon each character’s shoulders. Yet, even as the tight-knit world of this family crumbles and fingers point at who is to blame for sudden tragedy, Sadiq quickly widens viewers’ scope, making the grief of one family feel strangely minute in relation to the expanse of the ocean.
— Sarah Runyan
“The Disappearance of Shere Hite”
Despite its “Twin Peaks”-sounding title, the newest documentary from “Crip Camp” filmmaker Nicole Newnham doesn’t need an unsolved mystery to get under your skin. “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” biographizes sexologist, educator and bestselling author Shere Hite and her massively successful book “The Hite Report,” a groundbreaking study that anonymously surveyed thousands of American women on matters concerning sex, pleasure and the female orgasm.
“The Disappearance of Shere Hite” ferries viewers back to 1970s New York, to the alloy of activist movements simultaneously ablaze. Hite situates herself in this landscape as a financially struggling student and sponge of different discourses. She spends her life listening to others, whether it’s sheets of survey responses or, later, antagonistic criticism. In interviews and between friends, Hite is soft-spoken but unfettered by taboo, saying words like clitoris, orgasm and masturbation on cable television.
Dakota Johnson, who also produced the film, gently reads snippets of Hite’s eloquent, evocative writing; the inclusion of her voice feels especially salient in this project of cultural remembrance. The titular disappearance is that of knowledge, an estrangement from intellectual and cultural lineage. The documentary — emphatic, frustrating and cathartic — reveals Hite as an indispensable figure of history, decades ahead of her time and uncannily relevant to modern day conversations about pleasure and sex.
— Maya Thompson
“The Persian Version”
When it comes to the generational divide between Iranians and Iranian-Americans, writer-director Maryam Keshavarz reveals how mothers and daughters follow different versions of the same path. “The Persian Version,” a semi-autobiographical tale of parallel family narratives with an eclectic ensemble cast, marks Keshavarz’s return to Sundance after her debut feature “Circumstance” in 2011. The film’s vibrant color palette, punchy humor and infectious dance numbers seem to insist that wanting to have fun can be revolutionary.
20-something-year-old aspiring filmmaker and recent divorcée Leila (Layla Mohammadi) chronicles the first half of the film with caustic commentary until her mother Shireen (Kamand Shafieisabert, then Niousha Noor), a timid child bride turned real estate powerhouse, takes control of the narrative. An unexpected reunion unearths a long-buried scandal that led Shireen to immigrate to Canada and reveals Leila’s own carefully shrouded secret.
But with rapid time jumps in decade increments from the ’60s to the present, and equally disorienting shifts in location and genre, the film nearly bursts at its seams. Copious storylines braiding comedy and tragedy are bound to get messy when packed into a mere 107 minutes. At the heart of “The Persian Version,” though, is not a journey to heal a broken mother-daughter bond, but rather the nearly insurmountable task of creating one when it never existed in the first place.
— Asha Pruitt
Melancholic blues, both literal and figurative, saturate writer-director Celine Song’s aching debut “Past Lives.” Greta Lee and Teo Yoo star as Nora and Hae Sung, primary school sweethearts whose connection blossoms in Seoul until Nora suddenly emigrates with her family to Canada. After twelve years apart, the pair reconnect online only to fall out of touch for another 12 years. Although Nora and Hae Sung have now sculpted their own lives, they wind up together again in New York City for a fateful, softly revelatory few days.
“Past Lives” crushes you gently. The film traces wistful possibility as it oxidizes to ache. Song’s screenplay is deceptively simple, a heart-cleaving curation of what is spoken, unspoken and restrained. Lee and Yoo’s earnest and tender performances shatter quietly, yearning but cautious. Nora’s husband, played by a bright John Magaro, treads in refreshing pools of humor. But sadness paddles closer — slow, without splashing and unable to be stopped. “Past Lives” reigns unmatched by its Sundance peers; though 2023 has only begun, Song’s thoughtful and exquisitely lyrical film is sure to endure as one of the year’s best.
— Maya Thompson
“Sometimes I Think About Dying”
There are three things that Fran (Daisy Ridley) enjoys: cottage cheese, spreadsheets and imagining her untimely demise. Surrounded by office small talk, awkward icebreakers and retirement parties, Fran silently sits in her cubicle before returning to her desolate home. It’s a banal existence, one marked by morbid daydreams and dull Slack messages — until the earnest Robert (Dave Merheje) begins working at the desk across from her.
At the Jan. 27 screening of “Sometimes I Think About Dying,” director Rachel Lambert compared the film, both stylistically and structurally, to a fable. As morbid as its title may seem, the film glimmers with whimsy, much like the seminal narratives that shape the lives of young children. That isn’t to say that “Sometimes I Think About Dying” forfeits honesty for eccentricity; it candidly illuminates the pain of isolation as Fran considers both the cost of death and what it means to live a virtuous life.
Lambert leaves room for viewers to insert themselves into Fran’s bleak world along the Oregon coast. Without delving into her early life, the film captures a distinct moment in time, inviting audiences to join Fran as she kindles a connection and breaks out of her repetitive routine. Both Ridley and Merheje deliver thoughtful, subdued performances that propel the film to excellence. Soft and sublime, “Sometimes I Think About Dying” is a shining portrait of monotony and the attempt to find joy in the little things — everything from donuts to warm embraces.
— Sarah Runyan
In Charlotte Regan’s “Scrapper,” Georgie (Lola Campbell) understands grief as if it were a to-do list. In order to process her mother’s death, the independent 12-year-old girl tells herself she must go through the five stages of grief sequentially before she can move on. Alone in her London flat, the young girl steals bikes with her best friend Ali (Alin Uzun) in order to pay the rent and attempts to keep social workers off of her back by pretending to live with her uncle. That is, until her father, Jason (Harris Dickinson), comes to her door.
“Scrapper” emanates the wonder of a child. Through Georgie’s eyes, viewers see the world as she does — all talking spiders, impromptu dance routines and imaginary games. Her grief manifests in a large tower made of loose scraps that she builds in a spare room in her flat, something she uses to try to connect with her mother. Regan empathetically balances youthful naivete with wit, pointing to the profound simplicity of problem-solving as a child. Though Georgie’s circumstances are dismal, Regan focuses on her imaginative personality, which allows the young girl to persevere.
Campbell and Dickinson bounce off of one another with ease and practically glow on-screen. As predictable as “Scrapper” is at times, their father-daughter dynamic consistently redeems the film, infusing each scene with splendor. “Now that I know you, I can’t really not know you,” Georgie tenderly remarks to Jason. The same can be said for the viewing experience; once one watches “Scrapper,” the warmth emitted from its comforting narrative cannot be expelled.
— Sarah Runyan
“Flora and Son”
Much like his previous work, John Carney’s “Flora and Son” is wonderfully optimistic, depicting the ways in which music unites individuals across the world, especially in the digital era. In Dublin, Flora (Eve Hewson) struggles to connect with her son, Max (Orén Kinlan), while aiming to pinpoint her purpose outside of motherhood. The two find respite through music, something that inadvertently brings them closer together. What follows is about 90 minutes of the reconciliation of a mother-son relationship, catchy Irish rap and Joseph Gordon-Levitt meekly strumming a guitar and singing about Los Angeles.
Carney is a master of magical musical moments, and “Flora and Son” certainly excels in this regard. Over Zoom, Flora and her charming guitar teacher Jeff (Gordon-Levitt) form a bond that transcends the limits of a screen. Whether on her living room sofa or on the rooftop of her apartment, Flora becomes virtually entangled in Jeff’s world, helping to reinspire his music career. As captivating and saccharine as their connection may be, “Flora and Son” is an ode to motherhood, and is a film that is at its best when addressing the tension between Flora and her son. Music repairs Max and Flora’s relationship; in one of the best scenes of the film, Flora helps Max write a song, fittingly named “Dublin 07,” and film a music video to impress a girl. It’s sweet, hilarious and undoubtedly heartwarming. Carney somehow manages to make viewers feel both comforted and emotional, even in the film’s most lighthearted moments. “Flora and Son” is a musical triumph, unifying an exceptional ensemble that finds collective purpose through the simple act of picking up a guitar.
— Sarah Runyan
Kristen Roupenian’s viral New Yorker short story “Cat Person” is a taut chronicle of modern dating, shimmering as a masterclass in subtlety and psychological interiority. It traces the relationship between disaffected college student Margot (Emilia Jones) and Robert (Nicholas Braun), the scruffy older man she meets at the artsy movie theater. Adapted by “Booksmart” co-writer Susanna Fogel, the film “Cat Person” was one of the most anticipated premieres of Sundance.
Fogel’s “Cat Person” begins flawed and gently bloated, assailing viewers with blisteringly direct metaphors and expanding the economy of Margot’s college life to fill a feature-length run time. In Roupenian’s story, Margot’s brain is the most interesting place to be, a site of negotiation and canny judgment; however, Fogel oversimplifies her inner thoughts, cornily staging dialogue between the real Margot and her imaginary double who observes from the sidelines.
Fogel’s “Cat Person” coasts toward mild disappointment, but the third act capsizes entirely as Fogel deviates from Roupenian’s source material and imagines what happens after the story ends. Witless and over the top, the finale derails the plot and tumbles through high-stakes chaos. Clumsy and obtuse, “Cat Person” resembles its story in the way a worm looks like a whale.
— Maya Thompson
“Rye Lane” begins as all great romances do — with someone crying in a bathroom stall. Dom (David Jonsson) sobs as he scrolls through Instagram Boomerangs of his ex-girlfriend and her new beau, as the outgoing Yas (Vivian Oparah) enters the restroom, checking in on the inconsolable crier before returning to a quirky museum exhibit. When the two finally reconnect, they immediately find solace in one another. Both reeling from brutal breakups, Dom and Yas decide to spend a day adventuring across South London together, doing everything from singing karaoke to seesawing on a playground.
Director Raine Allen-Miller’s feature is a stylistic marvel. “Rye Lane” is vibrant and inventive, using fisheye lenses and bright color grading to seamlessly engage viewers with the playfulness of the spaces that Dom and Yas occupy. The film’s style perfectly augments the felicity of Dom and Yas’ relationship, illuminating their effortlessly harmonic energy. Jonsson and Oparah foster palpable chemistry with humorous banter that uplifts their dreadful breakup stories.
“Rye Lane” offers a refreshing return to the romantic comedy genre, breaking standard conventions while reminding viewers of the delight that comes with the consumption of endearingly sweet narratives. Though 2023 has just begun, “Rye Lane” is sure to be one of the best feel-good films of the year.
— Sarah Runyan
AdirondACTS, a scrappy summer camp in upstate New York, is a haven for preteen freaks and geeks — sorry, thespians — who worship Liza Minnelli and Bob Fosse. “Theater Camp” is the brainchild of a dynamic quartet: Notorious nepotism babies Molly Gordon and Ben Platt, along with their respective boyfriends Nick Lieberman and Noah Galvin. It’s “Wet Hot American Summer” for people whose “Deflategate” was the casting of Lea Michele in the 2022 Broadway revival of “Funny Girl.”
Shot in a loose mockumentary style that omits talking head confessional interviews, “Theater Camp” stars a crew of wildly unqualified and borderline unhinged teachers who not-so-subtly project onto the campers their own insecurities about failing to make it in showbiz. The film’s well-deserved U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble is evidence that Ben Platt can actually excel when he plays a character his own age, and that Jimmy Tatro as a crypto bro with BDE — “Business Development Expertise,” obviously — is a perfect typecast that never gets old.
The dialogue is full of clever improvised riffs and instantly quotable lines, but the biggest surprise from “Theater Camp” is the genuine talent that radiates from the child actors. Their final production at camp, an original musical tribute to the founder of AdirondACTS, is overflowing with heart and guaranteed to stir the souls of even the most staunch Broadway haters.
— Asha Pruitt