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Dispatches from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival

Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet/© 2024 Sundance Institute / Photo by null

An often dreary time of year made far less dreary with the return of the Sundance Film Festival! I'll be posting my reactions to the films I see at the festival all week right here, check back every day for more!

Saturday, 1/28

And so, we reach the end of another festival, and the last of my 10,400 words on Sundance 2023. I feel fortunate that nothing I watched this year was outright bad, and only a handful bordered on the mediocre—most everything else was very good to outstanding, not always the case no matter which film festival you’re attending. One film stood above all the others to me—All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, the debut feature from Raven Jackson, which shows the rhythms and moments of life in a way that reminds us film truly can be art. It’s a movie that already got me thinking about my Best Movies of 2023 list.

My festival slate was chock full of fantastic performances, starting with Jonathan Majors in Magazine Dreams (even if I have serious reservations about one aspect of that performance) and Gael García Bernal in Cassandro, through Jennifer Connelly and Ben Whishaw in Bad Behaviour, Franz Rogowski and Ben Whishaw (again) in Passages, and David Strathairn in A Little Prayer. Rosa Marchant, the teenager who gave a searing performance in the bleak, painful When It Melts, won a Special Jury award for that performance, which couldn’t have made me happier. She was stunning.

Most of the festival’s top awards went to, interestingly, movies I’ve yet to see, which must speak to the quality of this year’s festival, given what I did see was so excellent. The Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Dramatic feature went to the drama A Thousand and One, which I found was greeted to a person with some version of, “It wasn’t my top pick, but it’s very good and I’m happy for them.” (I don’t point this out to be dismissive, but rather to again acknowledge the quality of the program this year.) Every one of those reactions did also praise star Teyana Taylor for her performance. This is a movie I need to be sure to see, and we’ll all be able to soon, as Focus Features will be releasing it in the spring. The World Cinema Documentary Prize also went to a movie that’s also at the top of my list for Sundance movies to catch up on for this year, The Eternal Memory, from Chile, which follows a couple as they deal with the man’s Alzheimer’s disease, and their struggles and love for each other. Not an easy topic, but all indications are this is an extraordinary film.

A whole lot of the movies at this year’s festival were either acquired during the week or came to the festival already having distribution, and so we’ll be seeing many of them rolling out throughout the year, a number of them already with plans to arrive as soon as March. Keep an eye out, because this was a good, good year for Sundance.

Friday, 1/27

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Curren Sheldon.
Curren Sheldon
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Curren Sheldon.

King Coal

We know about the stranglehold coal has on Appalachia, what we (meaning me, this Midwestern boy) don’t think about as often are the people who live under its control, who live in the towns that developed entirely around coal mining and that are fully subservient to its needs.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s documentary is an exquisite, mesmerizing feat of photography and editing as she travels through the coal country of Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia (every square inch of that state, she says, where she grew up) showing a region blanketed by coal, literally and figuratively. Early on, we see a New Year’s Eve party on the main street of a town, but instead of a bright, shiny ball, what we’re witnessing is a “coal drop,” as they lower an enormous chunk of coal to the ground as the revelers count down. It gets to the ground, and all the kids spin it around and around, this huge black block that owns everyone’s lives.

The movie isn’t interested in where we’re headed quite so much as where we are and where we’ve been, and what that means for the people—coal as a dying industry and its effect on the climate aren’t dwelled on, though we know they’re there, that can’t be avoided (some scenes are staged, and one shows a girl eating what I instantly recognized as a Choco Taco, another part of our culture that died a prominent death… is this intentional or a coincidence? I can’t know, but I noticed it). But we see what coal has meant for people in these towns, what it’s meant for generations, and how it’s passed along to the children, who learn about coal in school, who see museum exhibits dedicated to coal, who salute the fallen coal miners before each high school football game.

And it’s that last part that’s one of the strongest threads throughout King Coal—we see in these towns the constant acknowledgment of those who’ve died in the mines. They’re honored with monuments, they’re remembered before events, everyone knows someone (or too many someones) who’ve died, not unlike the casualties of a constant war. It’s hard to conceive of for a person like me, who grew up in Kansas, but what other choice have many people had? As we see, not much, and we need to remember this.

Evelyne Ily in Mami Wata. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Evelyne Ily in Mami Wata. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Mami Wata

Last year’s top prize-winner at Sundance was Nanny, which took ideas from West African folk traditions, and on its heels we have this film, which is more explicitly focused on a character that played a role in Nanny, the water spirit Mami Wata.

Here, we’re in a village called Iyi, a place by the sea that seems a bit cut off from the larger cities. The people there venerate Mami Wata, who speaks to them through an intermediary, a woman people gather around to ask questions, seek treatments, and give offerings to the spirit. The woman has two grown daughters, one she conceived when she was past childbearing age (the people there wonder if Mami Wata gave her the child), the other who came into her care after the child’s parents had died. But a small faction in the village has no interest in what they consider to be spiritual nonsense, and they seek to end the intermediary’s practice of taking offerings, and the village’s larger devotion to Mami Wata. One night, a man washes up on the beach, a man who has come from a place embroiled in civil war, and Iyi begins to destabilize.

The movie won an award at the festival for cinematography, and it’s not hard to see why (see the image above), with its high contrast black-and-white photography, enhanced by the use of white makeup dotting dark skin—it’s beautiful to look at, catnip for people giving out cinematography awards, and gives the proceedings an otherworldly quality befitting a “West Afrikan Folklore” (which is what the movie calls itself). The film is deliberately paced, with its characters speaking slowly, waiting a beat or two after the other person has finished talking to begin themselves, sometimes it might be a little too deliberate—I’m very much attracted to slow movies, but there were times I felt a little frustrated by its pace. Having said that, it does also bring you into a contemplative space, especially as we see how a world can break down from internal strife. We also get something here I don’t remember seeing before (although that could simply expose my own limitations), in that the entire film is spoken in Nigerian Pidgin, a kind of English-based creole, a language I’ve never seen in a movie before. (I should say, I assume it’s Nigerian Pidgin, the film is from Nigeria, though I learn there are other Pidgin variations, and also I apologize if I’m using any incorrect terminology here, I’m only just now learning.) It’s simply one more reason I adore watching films from African countries, which are constantly bringing me something more to learn about and approaches to storytelling we often don’t see in the U.S. African films have historically been difficult to get ahold of, but they continue to rise in prominence, and thank goodness.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The Amazing Maurice

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about the kinds of movies I’d want to show to children (which is less strange in reality than it might seem on this page with no context attached), and the tension between movies that are good for kids to watch—movies full of imagination, that will cause children to wonder and think and dream—and movies that are not actively bad, but are basically empty calories. I couldn’t avoid thinking about this while watching The Amazing Maurice, which is essentially benign. Is that enough? Maybe sometimes that’s enough. Maybe sometimes a parent doesn’t have a choice.

This is based on a children’s fantasy novel by the late Terry Pratchett, and the setup is (maybe not surprisingly), pretty fun—Maurice is a clever talking cat who arrives in villages offering to rid them of their rat problem with the help of his human colleague, Keith, who magically plays a flute Pied Piper-style. The thing is, the villages’ rat problems are often quite recent, and this is because Maurice and Keith are working with the rats. It’s all a scam. The rats talk, too, for reasons we learn later (talking animals aren’t a normal thing in this world), and they’re quite intelligent. But then, trouble arises.

There’s no doubt there are some fun aspects to this, and I wonder how much of that fun is pulled from Pratchett’s book, because it doesn’t feel like the filmmakers have added a lot as far as imagination or inspiration goes—the animation would have been fantastic a number of decades ago, but these days it’s sort of standard-grade Pixar-knockoff (I’m sure a lot of people worked very hard on it, and I hope they got paid plenty of money) without a lot of added artistry. It’s fine as far as it goes. There’s a meta approach to the framing of the movie (which the narrator—who is also a character in the story—tells you is a “framing device”) that might have worked as a way to help kids understand how a story is created, but it ultimately just gets to be unnecessary, and occasionally even confusing. By and large there’s nothing objectionable, although a rat is randomly urinating on a plate early on (huh? why?), and I really did not like some animal-on-animal violence partway through. Just because these animals are smart and can talk, and these other animals are just regular animals, doesn’t make me want to see anyone get hurt. No thanks.

The voice acting is fun though, and the best part of the movie. Hugh Laurie is Maurice, but the real star is David Thewlis, as the villain (which turns out to be the kind of horrifying result of what is apparently a real freak occurrence). Thewlis has gotten to where he’s making a pretty good run playing skeezy bad guys, and he’s always delightful with it, and here he gets to ham it up even more and just be outright cartoonishly evil.

There’s less here than I might have hoped, but maybe I’m hoping for too much. One thing is clear—whoever designed Maurice clearly doesn’t know what a cat looks like when it’s about to pounce on something, because those eyes are allllll wrong. My scratched-up arm is the proof that, at least in this regard, I know what I’m talking about.

Thursday, 1/26

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Franz Rogowski in Passages
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Franz Rogowski in Passages


What must movie directors think of themselves? It seems to be a complicated relationship.

Ira Sachs’ film centers on a self-absorbed director (Franz Rogowski, who’s become an extraordinarily compelling actor, at once powerful and brittle) and the love triangle he creates when he impulsively sleeps with a woman he meets at a wrap party, after which he goes home to tell his husband how exciting it was for him to be attracted to a woman.

The director, Tomas, clearly loves to have control (he’s a director, after all), and also loves for that control to serve his purposes exclusively. His husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw, for the second time this festival), seems to realize this about him, saying, “This happens every time you finish a movie, you just forget,” as Tomas flails around looking for something to control after so much time intensely controlling a film set (his impulse to direct has to be, um, directed somewhere). But it does seem like something is different this time, and especially when Tomas continues to throw a lot of himself into the woman he’s met, and Martin struggles to accept what’s going on. The woman (Adèle Exarchopoulos), Agathe, for her part, is enchanted by Tomas’ passion, not knowing about his patterns as a person, and falls under his spell.

But Tomas is destructive, and when he loses even a little control (like, say, when real emotions begin to creep in), he quickly turns from one of his loves to the other, hurtling between Martin and Agathe, wrecking a little part of each of them each time. It’s not obvious if he realizes what he’s doing to them, but he certainly doesn’t care, as he just wants what he wants when he wants it, and as Martin and Agathe begin to understand more about where this is all going, and they move away from Tomas, the director flails more wildly. (I do wonder, just by the way—has Martin seen all this coming and is simply realizing that now is the time things are ending? It seems the two have been together for some time, and this is who Tomas is, one would expect sooner or later Martin would have realized this was their inevitable end.)

This is not necessarily a story that’s new to us, but Sachs fills the film with heat—the heat coming off Tomas, the pulsing of dance music at a night club, the raging fire below the surface that’s causing Martin and Agathe to crumble, and lots, and lots, and lots of sex. The film is an exceptional showcase for its actors, Rogowski in particular, as we see how complicated their feelings truly are—Tomas as he panics when he loses control, Martin as he moves toward and away from the man whom he loves but who hurts him so very much, Agathe as she comes to the conclusion that this isn’t what she thought it was. It’s powerful, and painful, and complex.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

A Little Prayer

Tenderness and gentle kindness seem so rare in movies, and increasingly so in real life, too, enough that it feels remarkable when we see it, and it moves us in a special way. A Little Prayer is a small story, but an important one, important in that we need to be reminded how powerful it can be simply to treat people with care and love.

David Strathairn (when does he get his honorary Oscar?) is Bill, who runs a sheet metal business with his son, David—both men are veterans, and David is having a difficult time readjusting to life outside his deployments. David and his wife, Tammy, live with Bill and his wife, Venida, and we see that everyone cares very much for each other. But Bill begins to suspect his son is having an affair, heartbreaking for Bill both because he’s a man who appears to value commitment and integrity, and because Tammy is such an important part of their family. But we also can’t know what’s going on in other people’s lives, even when they live in the same household, and David and Tammy have their own difficulties (although Tammy seems to be just about the sweetest person alive), and, well, everything is always more complicated than it looks.

An additional complication to their lives is that David and Venida’s daughter, Patti, shows up with her own daughter to stay with them after yet another falling out with her husband, who seems to be a real piece of work, and may be having problems with opioids. Patti is outspoken and brash, and certainly injects some extra volume to a house that tends to the quiet side.

There aren’t world-changing complications or revelations here, except that we see through Bill’s kindness toward Tammy that, in a real way, he has changed her life. Bill’s far from perfect himself, he has trouble understanding plenty about why people do contradictory things, and we get the idea he can be a bit controlling, or at least has been at times in his life. But he does care, and he has a calmness and warmth that helps Tammy be seen as a real person.

In some ways, this film reminds me of the lovely Driveways, another movie that (as I said at the time) shouldn’t be remarkable, but is, in its kindness. Strathairn brings a feeling to Bill that he brings to a lot of his characters, one that wins us to his side because of his genuineness, one that makes us feel like he’s someone who would instantly welcome us into his life. This is far from a polished movie, the action (“action”) is staged basically and sometimes clunkily by director Angus MacLachlan (who hasn’t directed much, but has written a bit more, including 2005’s Junebug, a quirkier family drama with its own true emotion, one that gave Amy Adams her real breakout and her first Oscar nomination), but this is one of those cases where you give it a pass simply because of how valuable the surrounding feelings are. Whatever else we do, we can be kind.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Walé Oyéjidé
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Bravo, Burkina!

A boy in Burkina Faso lives with his parents and helps his father tend the animals. He spends time running through the gorgeous countryside while flying his kite, he sees as an older member of the community returns home from a long time away, dressed in a bright red Italian suit. But his family’s cows all die, they lose their livelihood, and the boy has to make a decision—stay with his family, or leave them to pursue another life in another place, where he can make money to send back home. The boy decides to leave. He reaches a large pond at the edge of his village, but before he crosses, he’s stopped by a spirit: “If you go,” the spirit tells him, “you will gain everything. But you will also lose everything.” Does the boy have a choice? It's not clear he does.

This is where we begin with Bravo, Burkina!, an unconventional but truly affecting look at the migrant experience and what people must leave behind in order to survive in this world. What we see in understandable, but not straightforward—after the boy leaves and enters the pond, he emerges from a fountain in Italy, now a man. He works, each day passing by a group of other migrants who are being detained, and he seems to hold them in some contempt (he’s working, after all, why aren’t they?). He meets a woman he’s sure he’s seen before. He’s followed by another spirit that seems to be pulling him back to Africa, or at least reminding him of what he’s left. The scenes are often disjointed (on purpose), more impressionistic and less literal than what we’re used to seeing. But what emerges is first the portrait of a man awakening to himself and the struggles of people in his situation, and later the acute pain and damage that results from him having left his home in the first place (even if he felt he had no choice). What must it be like to have to leave everything you know, and then to return so many, many years later, where the time that has passed for you is so different from the time that has passed for those you love?

Most of us can’t know, but what we see here can make our hearts ache. The images in the film are often striking and beautiful, although the sometimes overly unsteady hand-held camera did occasionally make me feel queasy. At a tidy 63 minutes, Bravo, Burkina! packs a lot into a little bit of time, telling an enormous story intimately, and helping us see the struggles of so many in the faces of a few.

Wednesday, 1/25

Jennifer Connelly in Bad Behaviour. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Jennifer Connelly in Bad Behaviour. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Bad Behaviour

I’m still not sure what I think about this and I kind of love it for that. Is that last part true though? I’m still not sure about that either.

This is an incredibly wiggly movie that’s hard to grab ahold of—it seems to be one thing, and maybe it is, and then it seems to be another, and I’m pretty sure it is.

Let me explain.

Jennifer Connelly is Lucy, who we meet as she’s driving down the highway listening to a sort of mindfulness self-help podcast while also calling her adult daughter who’s on set as a stuntwoman in some fantasy movie. Lucy does not seem to be heeding the podcast’s advice about clearing her mind, but she might have more opportunity to engage with that idea soon, as she’s on her way to a retreat led by the man whose voice she’s hearing over her car speakers, Elon Bello.

What follows, for a good long while, at least, is Lucy’s experience at the retreat, where she continues to have serious trouble really letting herself let go and fully experience the techniques Elon recommends. Part of this is her own fault, but part of it is that, well, there’s probably no there, there. Elon is played by Ben Whishaw, nearly perfectly, as he is the sort of person who is clearly giving a very studied and fully constructed performance to the people at the retreat, but it’s one that’s designed to seem entirely genuine and in the moment. He pauses, as if he’s searching for the right word, when we know he’s essentially reciting a script he's written. He chuckles, as if he’s a little surprised by his own words (I would say his own thoughts, but he tells Lucy at one point, “I don’t think”), but we know every beat is also part of his own script. How do we know? It’s never said outright, but it’s through Whishaw—every tiny gesture, every word, sounds so exactly like what we’ve come to expect from this sort of person, a person who suggests ideas that sound profound but have no real meaning, a person who feigns guidance but is really offering no true options (or, more accurately, offering all options, which is more or less the same thing). (In fact, Whishaw sounds so much like the narrator on one popular meditation app that I wondered if somehow he had actually been that narrator and I just didn’t know it. I don’t think it’s him.) He’s remarkable.

Remarkable, too, and probably more so, is Connelly, who plays a character who’s very much a narcissist (I think?) and also deeply, deeply insecure (I’m sure), but who isn’t only those things. She scoffs at much of what is happening at the retreat, but there are times she lets herself be a little vulnerable, and we see some of what has gotten her to this point. Her mother committed suicide and she felt it was her fault, she knows she has a tendency to be cruel, but we also can tell some of that is masking her own pain. Then again, she eventually does something quite horrid, and seems to have little remorse (beyond the trouble it’s caused her), and so we do wonder what, exactly, is going on in there.

As someone who has benefitted greatly from therapy techniques that are, let’s say, a bit outside-the-box, I find myself in a strange place when I see a sendup of something like the retreat Lucy attends. It’s instantly apparent there’s plenty of nonsense, but also some of it seems to be helping people, and if people are helped, how they get there is maybe not the primary concern. But I suspect director/writer Alice Englert (who also plays Lucy’s daughter in the film) gets this herself, because the retreat she stages here walks a very, very fine line between incredibly brutal satire and exact reality. It’s so close to the things people actually say and do that it doesn’t completely feel like Englert is making fun of it so much as depicting it, but it's also so close, and often very funny, that we can see there are no clothes on the emperor.

And so, the wiggliness—it’s hard to grab onto exactly what Englert wants out of this, but this must be by design, given Lucy herself is so hard to pin down. Should I laugh or be angry? Often the former, but sometimes both. This won’t work for everyone, and some people will very much hate it. But I found it worked for me. I think. I’m still not sure.

David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah in Rye Lane. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah in Rye Lane. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Rye Lane

The films of the American independent movement of the 1980s and ‘90s often have an excitement that’s particular to that era—there’s a looseness in many of them that allows for space to discover and play, to try ideas just a little outside the conventional narrative structure, to experiment. We remember a lot of those films were made up largely of people talking—often young people, trying to figure out their lives, talking about what was interesting to them, or could make them seem smarter, or might romance another person. We don’t see much of this sort of thing these days, for plenty of reasons, but partly because the availability of digital cameras and production has made it so that you can do a whole lot more with the same amount of money. The restrictions of having to pay for film opened up a specific creativity that just isn’t as necessary anymore.

Rye Lane is neither American nor from that era, but it has the same energy of some of those films, a delightful enthusiasm for walking and talking, for getting a little crazy, and for the flutters of meeting someone new.

Dom broke up with his girlfriend a few months ago, and he’s still pulling up photos of her on his phone and crying about them. We open as he’s in a public toilet doing exactly this, and he’s overheard by Yas, who soon notices Dom out in the gallery of an art show, feels bad for him, and starts chatting him up. Yas is, let’s say, quite a bit to take, but given where Dom is in his life, someone so assertive is probably also the only kind of person who’s going to get through to him-- he can’t tell her to leave, because she won’t care. The two walk through South London talking, first about Dom’s relationship, later about more, and of course there are some hijinks along the way. There’s plenty of Before Sunrise here, sure, but more in the broad strokes than in tone—Yas is too high energy for this to resemble Linklater’s film too much, and the two get into rather more colorful situations. There’s a pulse running through this film, a real connection to a place and the brightness of youth that’s infectious and a little inspiring.

A movie with this kind of energy can also go a little too hard at times, and it does, but it’s worth the missteps. There’s a real joy in watching a movie just do its own thing, and when it connects, it’s a little bit thrilling. One scene, in particular, when the two end up in the backyard party of Yas’ ex-boyfriend’s West Indian family, is purely delightful. We don’t exactly end up anywhere surprising, but what we get along the way is an enchanting reminder of a kind of movie that’s all too rare these days.

Valentina Véliz Caileo in Sorcery. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Valentina Véliz Caileo in Sorcery. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.


It seems rare these days that we have a straightforward story told well, but it’s so nice to be reminded of the pleasure of such a thing, even when that story is rather dark.

We’re on an island off the coast of Chile in the 1880s, where German colonists have settled and pushed the Indigenous people of Chiloé out of their land. Rosa is a teenage girl who works for a German family, and who has converted to Christianity. One day, she comes upon the family’s flock of sheep lying dead in the pasture, and the German father blames Rosa’s own father, more out of convenience than anything, using him as a proxy for what he assumes is the larger Indigenous population trying to force his own German family out. The German sets his vicious dogs on Rosa’s father, and they maul and kill him. She leaves, and after finding no recourse with the local mayor, she visits the town priest, who sends her to stay with a man who turns out to be part of a small group that works to protect the island and its Indigenous people through sorcery.

There are no shocking twists or reveals ahead, although we don’t know where it’s all going, but that’s because this is simply a good story. And frankly, this was enormously refreshing. The director, Christopher Murray, knows this, and is patient with his pacing and appropriately somber with his tone. These are dark times for Rosa and her people, and we don’t need to pretend otherwise or juice up the proceedings with manufactured excitement. In fact, I don’t remember a single wasted scene, every part moves the story in one way or another, and we end up in what may be an unexpected place, but unexpected because we’ve seen so many movies before and make assumptions about where something like this is going.

Stories like this are fascinating, where Indigenous people fight back against the brutality of colonists—we can’t change what has actually happened, but it’s a small way of reclaiming some kind of power, even if it’s only an artistic power and an acknowledgment of the horrible reality of the past and its tentacles that still wrap entirely around us. And to see someone do it without sensationalizing, while still pulling us in with that storytelling, is something to be treasured.

Tuesday, 1/24

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jaclyn Martinez
Jaclyn Martinez/Jaclyn Martinez
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jaclyn Martinez

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt

It’s possible this movie was engineered specifically to appeal to me, personally, but there’s also a non-zero chance it ends up on my best of 2023 list when it’s all said and done.

I used the word “engineered,” but that couldn’t be less appropriate for this film. This is a movie only a person who’s guided by feelings and memories and hopes and disappointments and an understanding of the importance of the small, small moments in life could make. It’s the story of two sisters and their lives, but it’s not a story told in the traditional way. This is the first feature from director Raven Jackson, and she builds the film by showing us seemingly disparate scenes from the sisters’ lives, scenes that may not seem remarkable to anyone who hasn’t lived those moments, but that to them are deeply meaningful: hands rubbing the scales of a fish, watching their mother and father dance to music, hearing the rain hit the lake. Early scenes show the sisters as girls, and eventually we see them as women, in sometimes more grown-up situations: a pregnant belly in the bathtub, the long, long embrace of two people who once loved each other, and maybe still do, but who know their time has passed.

Jackson returns to certain fragments of memory again and again, with many close-up shots of hands and arms, the drumbeat of the rain, and the drone of cicadas, and this creates an impressionistic throughline as we jump through various parts of the sisters’ lives. Over time, we get a fuller picture of the meaning of many of these scenes, but this film isn’t a puzzle to be solved: it’s life, as it’s lived, by people who care about each other and see the importance of their family in their lives.

Jackson has an astonishing confidence to stick with some scenes for as long as she needs to, sometimes lingering for such a long time that most other directors would get nervous. But she does exactly what she should be doing here, as these are the important parts of our lives. When everything else gets washed away, this is what remains. The movie’s sound design is exceptional, often echoing Jackson’s visual approach—again, the sound of the rain plays such an important role, but she also understands the cacophony of cicadas at dusk, the music of birds beside a country road, and the disruption of a truck that needs a muffler as it drives past (and as that sound lingers, too).

It's life, you know? What could be more important?

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Murder in Big Horn

It’s just all so sad.

According to the CDC and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the murder rate for women living on reservations is 10 times higher than the national average, and is the third leading cause of death for Native women. 80% of Indigenous women in the U.S. have experience violence, 56% have experienced sexual violence. In 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing Native women and girls. And the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System logged… 116 of those cases.

The appalling crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women has received more attention in recent years, mercifully, but Murder In Big Horn, which will be a limited series on Showtime, shows us just how painfully hard people have had to work simply to get some kind of recognition of the problem. The series follows a handful of cases of women and girls from the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Nations who’ve disappeared in Montana’s Big Horn County, some of whom simply turn up dead a few days or weeks later, some of whom never appear again. We see how their families struggle to get any kind of acknowledgment from law enforcement, and how little the police and sheriffs care about anything that’s happening (or, ominously, how some might be involved). “I don’t think the issue is real,” says one officer of the MMIW crisis.

Because it’s easier to blame “drunk Indians” and just decide they wander off on their own and die of hypothermia than to do anything about so many girls and women who are gone forever. The series goes into how the roots of the problem go back, unsurprisingly, to our early days as a nation, and how displacement, oppression, and violence by the U.S. government has led to deep, systemic problems within Native communities and on reservations, problems that have compounded over time.

The issues the series explores are enormously important, but we also live in a “true crime” television era, and the way this is put together shows the tension between treating something so serious and the stylistic demands of a Showtime (or whoever) limited series. We have almost constant dramatic, pulsing music, the editing structures the show to make us suspect one person or another, or to expect a dramatic revelation when none comes—in fact, this is one of the huge problems with the whole crisis, that there almost never is a dramatic revelation. But it’s a lot harder to make a show for a major platform that really, truly gets across the astonishing frustration people feel when no one, anywhere, takes their tragedies seriously.

Murder In Big Horn is an imperfect vehicle, but it’s still a vehicle for continuing to raise awareness of the MMIW crisis. As we plainly see, “raising awareness” is hardly even the beginning, but it’s also a far cry from where we’ve been.

Monday, 1/23

Gael García Bernal in Cassandro. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video
Gael García Bernal in Cassandro. Courtesy of Sundance Institute


Well this turned out to be quite lovely.

I wasn’t familiar with the luchador Cassandro before this movie (I didn’t actually learn he was a real person until partway through, and I felt relieved when I did, because I had a terrible feeling something bad was going to happen to him and knowing he’s real at least helped me know things would basically turn out ok), a gay man who wrestles as an “exótico,” a kind of lucha libre character who adopts feminine characteristics, sort of like wrestling in drag (I also had to look that up, and I clearly need to spend some time learning more about lucha libre, and I mean that sincerely).

This biopic stars a magnificent Gael García Bernal as Cassandro, who begins the movie wrestling as the much more traditional “El Topo,” but who soon realizes he needs another approach. He moves to the character Cassandro, taking his name from the title of a telenovela, and creating a look that’s something like what you might see if Liberace had tried wrestling. He seems to revel in the cartoonishness of the character, which must have been difficult for this gay man given exóticos appear to be there to be ridiculed, as the crowd hurls homophobic slurs at him. But the thing about Cassandro is that he’s a boisterously accomplished showman, and he wins over the crowd simply through his irresistible theatrics. Exóticos are there to lose to the more “manly” masked luchadores, but Cassandro decides it’s time for a change—it’s time for an exótico to win.

The story is wonderful and inspiring, as Cassandro really does become an icon, and one who eventually helps gay kids be more accepting of themselves in a very difficult world. García Bernal shows what a showman he, himself, is, too, jumping full-on into Cassandro both as a performer and as a person. We believe Cassandro (or García Bernal) could do what he does because of the gusto of the actor’s portrayal, and we also see Cassandro’s pain as he deals with a father who abandoned him because of his sexuality, and a romantic partner who insists on keeping their relationship a secret. One scene at a bar between Cassandro and his boyfriend is remarkable as we see García Bernal’s face just right on the edge of barely keeping things together while still keeping things together.

The movie is imperfect as a movie, the pacing is often strange, and especially late we end up a bit with what just seems like a series of scenes rather than the natural next step in a narrative. But this is the kind of movie where you just say, “who cares,” because those things ultimately don’t matter. This is a beautiful performance depicting a fascinating man who, it appears, really did change some things.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Infinity Pool

An idea and a sense of style will get you pretty far. Not all the way, but pretty far.

This is director Brandon Cronenberg’s third feature, coming on the heels of 2020’s Possessor, a movie I liked fine and most everyone else loved. And yes, he’s the son of the Canadian director David Cronenberg, although I suppose at some point we should stop referring to that when we write about his movies (but also, this is something that happens when your father is a movie legend). Movies and TV shows about rich people at resorts seem to be in vogue right now, and that’s where we begin, with writer James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård) and his wife Em on a fictional island called La Tolqa, having brunch and cocktails along the beach. James isn’t exactly a failed writer, having published a book six years ago, but he hasn’t had anything since, and we learn Em is the one with the money, anyway. James is approached by a woman (Mia Goth) who says she’s a huge fan, and who invites the couple to dinner with her and her Swiss husband.

Now, ok. I’m not really saying too much, given where things go (you know they’re going somewhere, his last name is Cronenberg, for goodness’ sake, but also we’ve already had plenty of ominous, dissonant music and twisty-turny camera movements. This is not a criticism, just an acknowledgment of the mood-setting), but if you want to go in cold, stop reading. Before long, the four leave the resort, which is very much forbidden, given the island outside the resort is supposedly extremely dangerous, especially for tourists, and the government is authoritarian and puritanical. But I’m sure everything will be fine, James assures Em. After a day of drinking on the beach (they could have done this at the resort?), the four head home, and along the way, James hits and kills a pedestrian, resulting in his arrest. He learns La Tolqa’s law allows for the dead man’s son to exact revenge by killing James himself, but also that the island has an alternative: they can create an exact double of James, complete with his memories, and that clone can die instead. For a hefty price.

This plunges James and us into an increasingly chaotic spiral, as we see the effects of essentially watching yourself be murdered and we learn there’s more to Mia Goth and her Swiss husband than we might have initially thought. Skarsgård is fantastic as James comes apart more and more, sometimes because of his own actions, sometimes because of outside pressures, and Goth is even better as she becomes more and more monstrous.

And man, there’s style. Cronenberg plays things a little more loosely than we might have expected, there are extended scenes of drug-induced haze, and it sometimes seems he’s more interested in the movie’s feeling and aura than in moving the story at that particular moment (there’s nothing wrong with that, by the way—movies are about feeling, too). But it’s also true that things get a little bit silly as we move later and later into the film, and it ultimately feels like the director just wasn’t entirely sure where it was all going to lead. But, look, you’re not always going to stick the landing, and sometimes the routine itself is worth the trouble.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

In My Mother’s Skin

Look, kids (or adults, or whoever needs to hear this, really): if you come upon a small house in the middle of the forest, first of all, what are you doing, why are you going in there??? But if you do go in (don’t) and you happen to see a single piece of candy sitting all alone on a plate in the center of a table like it was put there just for you, don’t (DO NOT) eat that piece of candy. I’m telling you, we know this from hundreds of years of folk tales and fairy tales, things aren’t going to go well.

The year is 1945, at the tail end of World War II, as the Japanese still occupy the Philippines. Two Filipino children, their parents, and their housekeeper live in a large house on the edge of the forest. They’re visited by another Filipino man who’s working with Japanese soldiers to find some stolen gold, and they’re convinced the father is the one who took it. He insists he didn’t, but shortly after, he leaves the estate for murky reasons (he says he’s going to help the Americans expel the Japanese, but we wonder if what he’s saying is true).

One day, the children—a boy and a girl—go wandering in the forest and come upon a small house. The girl, Tala, ignores my earlier advice and goes in, eats the candy, and is visited by a kind of cicada fairy (demon?), who offers her something: the children’s mother has been getting increasingly ill since their father left, coughing up blood and apparently moving quickly toward death. The fairy gives Tala a jar with a cicada in it, telling her to let her mother consume the creature. But, says the fairy, “This will save your mother, but it might make her its new home.” Tala decides to risk it, because I guess when your mother is about to die from coughing up blood, you take Door #2 even if “it might make her its new home” is stenciled on that door.

You might see where this is going, and it does, and it’s frightening and horrifying. We end up with a creature that feeds on human flesh (scary!) and has a tongue that extends out a couple of feet (very scary!), and we have blood. So much blood. Much of what happens we’ve seen before (except the cicada fairy, that was new to me), but director Kenneth Dagatan stages the proceedings at a measured pace, without resorting to quick cuts and jump scares to artificially juice up the action. It’s by turns beautiful and appalling to look at (these aren’t mutually exclusive), and things get verrrrrrrrrrrrry dark. This kind of story has been used plenty of times before as a metaphor for the horrors of war, but it’s effective, and we realize for the people involved there’s not much difference between a cicada that eats people and an occupying army that leaves bodies littered across the countryside.

Sunday, 1/22

Jonathan Majors in Magazine Dreams. Photo by Glen Wilson
Glen Wilson, Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Jonathan Majors in Magazine Dreams. Photo by Glen Wilson

Magazine Dreams

You’ll be hearing about Jonathan Majors.

You know him already, of course, but not like this. Majors is Killian Maddox, an amateur bodybuilder whose sole focus is to become a professional in the mold of his idol, a bodybuilder named Brad, to whom he writes letters that get increasingly personal (interestingly, the second movie of the day that uses this idea, though here with much more disastrous results). Maddox also has the thinnest of hair-trigger tempers, and when he explodes he explodes: when a painting company fails to paint his grandfather’s house properly, he goes down to their storefront and smashes every window, with no regard for his own safety and the glass that’s lacerating his hands and head. (Interestingly, this stands in contrast to his concern for the rest of his sculpted body, which he treats with meticulous care—at one point we learn that his intense steroid regimen has resulted in some tumors on his liver, but he adamantly refuses surgery because “a bodybuilder can’t have scars.” I guess his face and hands aren’t what’s getting judged, so the gashes there don’t matter so much.)

Maddox periodically visits a doctor (psychiatrist?) who asks him about his mental state, usually after some massively damaging episode he’s had. She seems understanding, but also exasperated, as it appears so unlikely Maddox is going to change in any way. Maddox is of course deeply insecure, but also deeply damaged—we learn his father killed his mother and them himself (maybe in front of Killian, though we don’t know), and he’s lived ever since with his grandfather, who’s a kind man but also old and breaking down. Killian spends essentially all his time watching videos of Mr. Olympia contests, making his own videos of posing techniques (videos that are roundly ridiculed online, which doesn’t help things), and obsessing about his deltoids, which a judge once told him were “too small.”

None of this is easy to watch. Director/writer Elijah Bynum is very much trying to make us uncomfortable with the extreme intensity of spending every second with Maddox, his laser-focus, and the knowledge that anything could cause an instant inferno. From the opening shots, the film is stunning to look at, with Maddox and his rippling muscles bathed in the golden stage lights as he poses in a contest, and Bynum’s floating camera moving us through scenes. There’s a magical grotesquerie to a late scene where Killian confronts a judge who once gave him a bad grade, and we recoil at the pure violence of Killian’s various outbursts. It’s beautifully assured work.

Still, this is Majors’ film, and everyone knows it. This is a balls-out performance that doesn’t solely rely on bombast—we can see the constant rage pulsing beneath Maddox’s skin and the ferocity with which he attacks his craft, but we also see how quickly he moves deep, deep inside himself when he encounters a challenge (at least until he detonates). There’s so much going on behind Majors’ eyes, which are hiding and bursting at the same time.

But here’s the thing: Maddox is clearly neurodiverse. This is never said, but we know enough at this point that I don’t know how we can doubt this is where Bynum and Majors have placed the character. He has difficulty reading social cues and looking people in the eye, he googles things like, “how to make people like you.” His extreme hyperfocus is obvious, but he also expresses this in other ways—when a woman he’s going to go on a date with suggests they see each other on a coming Thursday, Maddox responds that Thursday is great, Thursday is his favorite day. Which might seem like a joke, until he continues on to say it’s because that’s when Raw used to come on TV, but that was back when it was the WWF, when they had the Undertaker and The Rock and Sting and three or four other wrestlers he says by name. These are things that can be explained away when I write them on the page here (his hyperfocus is a defense mechanism, etc.), but when you see it on the screen in Majors’ performance, it’s plainly the case that he’s neurodiverse. And I just wonder: why? Of course, there’s no doubt plenty of people like this exist, and this might even make Maddox more vulnerable to some of what influences him (and some of what befalls him later in the film), but it also puts him in a box that I don’t think he needed to be in. It adds a separation between him and the (neurotypical) audience that allow us to see less of ourselves in him. Now, this has obviously given me one more layer to wrestle with in a film that forced me to wrestle with a lot, and if that’s the goal, it worked. But I wonder, if we remove that aspect of Maddox, does it make us confront some more uncomfortable truths about ourselves? I just wonder, was it necessary?

Priya Kansara in Polite Society.
Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Priya Kansara in Polite Society.

Polite Society

There’s a fine line between too silly and just silly enough, and Polite Society gleefully leaps back and forth across it throughout its runtime, though it mostly stays on the good side of things.

Ria is a teenager in London who studies martial arts and wants to be a stuntwoman (she takes these things very seriously). She makes videos of herself doing various routines with the help of her older sister, Lena, an art school dropout who moved back home to live with Ria and their parents. More than anything, Ria wants to meet famed British stuntwoman Eunice Huthart, and she sends the woman emails expressing her admiration, asking for advice, and so on. A lot of emails. She hasn’t heard back yet.

The family is invited to an enormous party celebrating Eid at the gigantic house of some rich acquaintances, and there Lena meets the rich family’s son, whose domineering mother has engineered this party so that he can find a wife. He and Lena hit it off, much to Ria’s revulsion—it’s not just that she thinks the guy is kind of a lothario, she suspects something far more nefarious is going on.

Something is going on, of course, though it takes us a while to get there, and whatever you think it is, it’s not. But part of the fun is in watching Ria and her friends hatch plans to torpedo Lena’s impending marriage, escalating the situation until things get far, far out of hand.

I said things sometimes get too silly, and that’s very much true—the success rate of what we see is wildly uneven. I laughed out loud plenty of times, and other times I just felt a little confused at what I was watching. In particular, there are scenes of battles between Ria and various foes (a la Scott Pilgrim) that are bizarrely violent and have little lasting impact, and this conceit ended up feeling like a half-formed idea, treated as both reality and fantasy. And some of the dialogue is overly forced—Ria’s friends are trying way too hard, especially early on.

But dangit, this movie’s got spunk. Director Nida Manzoor (creator of the TV series We Are Lady Parts, about a Muslim punk band) makes her feature debut by injecting this movie with a ton of life and joy, and it’s not hard to look past the bits that don’t work. Everyone is very clearly having a whole lot of fun.

Greta Grineviciute and Kestutis Cicenas in Slow
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Greta Grineviciute and Kestutis Cicenas in Slow


Merriam-Webster had “LGBTQIA” as one of their words of the year for 2022, which is largely one of the quirks of the way they decide on their words of the year (and no, it’s not technically a “word,” but come on)—they go by which words are looked up the most. Presumably, the big increase in people seeking out this word/acronym is the addition of “IA” to the end of the string of letters, which is not brand-new this year, but it has been far more common for us to see a “+” instead. The “I” stands for “intersex” (people born with physical characteristics that don’t conform to the typical binary idea of male and female), the “A” for “asexual,” “aromantic,” or “agender.”

With nothing to back me up (always the best place to start), I wonder if this last one, and particularly people who identify as asexual, might be the hardest for people outside that community to understand. It’s not the easiest thing to conceive of having no sexual attraction to anyone, and even more than that, so much of our world is based around that attraction—corporations have used it as a marketing ploy for many decades. But it’s important to understand, and to take people seriously as the people they are, which is what the Lithuanian movie Slow insists on. Elena is a dancer who meets a sign language interpreter named Dovydas when she’s doing a workshop with a group of deaf students. Dovydas can hear (it’s his brother who’s deaf, we later learn), and Elena finds him charming, and the two begin to see each other, casually at first. Elena has clearly always struggled with sticking to an organized relationship, but she wants to give this a shot. Then Dovydas tells her (abruptly) that he’s asexual. He likes her, a lot, and he doesn’t think the idea of sex is gross or anything, it just doesn’t have any draw for him.

This is, reasonably, difficult for Elena to understand, and we spend much of the rest of the movie with the two of them trying to navigate this landscape. The film treats this gently, but with sincerity and complexity—to my relief, it lets Dovydas have his own difficulty with understanding, he’s not some exotic, magical creature who’s there to open Elena’s eyes. He makes mistakes, his blind spots show, he struggles with jealousy. This is a complicated situation for a couple of complicated people, and there’s no reason to pretend it’s not.

I don’t think Slow ever quite reaches the real deep emotional truths it feels like it wants to give us, and there are times it felt like we were walking the same ground over and over. But it is tender and often sweet, and moving the needle of our understanding to any degree is drastically important.

Saturday, 1/21

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Gabriel Gabriel Garble
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Well Wishes My Love, Your Love

I don’t typically talk about the shorts programs in these dispatched simply because I’m concentrating too much time on the features, but I had a moment to watch the animated shorts last night, and while most (not all!) of them are worth watching for one reason or another, I wanted to point to Gabriel Gabriel Garble’s Well Wishes My Love, Your Love because it’s the one film in the program that made me feel like I was watching something I’d genuinely never seen before. It’s made up of small shapes with lines surrounding them, and lines surrounding those lines, and lines surrounding those lines (see the still above for some idea of what I mean), and as characters or objects move in the frame, they displace the lines around them, almost as if they’re moving through water. Sometimes one object’s displacement interacts with another’s and that causes a new reaction, and most of the time what we’re looking at is gorgeous and, as I said, seemingly entirely new. I love watching animation because of its ability to show me something I’d never imagined myself, but when you see something you’ve really never seen before in your life, that’s special.

OK, on with the features.

Luana Giuliani and Penélope Cruz in 'L'immensità'
Courtesy Sundance Institute
Luana Giuliani and Penélope Cruz in 'L'immensità'


I don’t begrudge anyone making a deeply personal movie, and director Emanuele Crialese says he’s been trying to make this one for his entire career—it follows a family in Rome in the 1970s, mainly through the eyes of Adri, a young teenager who insists they’re a boy but who’s biologically a girl, and therefore (especially given the time) no one takes them seriously. I don’t know if that aspect of the movie has any relation to Crialese’s own life or if it’s simply something he wanted to explore, but it’s clear much of the film does take from his memories of growing up in Italy in the 1970s. The colors, the clothes, the songs and television, it’s all wonderfully evocative of a specific time and place (or, more likely, Crialese’s memory of that time and place).

I said I don’t begrudge anyone doing this, and I even admire it, which also makes me feel a little bad when I need to criticize it, but I do: as a film, for one who does not have these memories himself, this doesn’t reach the heights I’d hoped for. Many of the scenes of the children being children feel like scenes we’ve seen before, the adults are adults we’ve seen before, too— Penélope Cruz, while excellent (as she always is), plays the kind of mother who often appears in movies like this (maybe there are just a lot of these mothers?). She’s “fun,” dancing to music with the children as they set the table, running down a busy street with her child while they both yell at the top of their lungs, but she also sometimes goes a little bit too far, and we can tell something is wrong that will eventually come to a head.

It’s not that Crialese gets anything wrong, exactly, but more that it feels like maybe he’s playing it a little too safe. It’s all too literal, and little of it feels like he’s tapping in to true emotion. I imagine for him, he is, but I wonder if he was concerned with taking the movie too far into that and potentially alienating part of the audience, and instead stripped too much of the rawness out. And for a movie that’s ostensibly about memory, he doesn’t really play with that at all—again, it’s simply too literal.

The one exception is when he stages a sort-of daydream sequence of Adri, their mother, and the other children at church mass performing Adriano Celentano’s “Prisencolinensinainciusol” in the style Adri sees earlier in the movie on the variety show Milleluci. This sequence takes us into Adri’s imagination and memory in a way we hadn’t seen before in the movie, and that we don’t see again (the device is repeated a couple more times with other songs, but to much less effect). It has a verve that hints at what the rest of the movie might have had, but it just feels like Crialese is too hesitant to really go for what might have made this a truly powerful film.

Rosa Marchant in 'When It Melts'
Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Rosa Marchant in 'When It Melts'

When It Melts

Depicting horrifying trauma and its aftermath is obviously a tricky thing, but I think we can probably agree that we’ve gotten to a more nuanced place with how we do that than where we were a few decades ago. We recognize trauma affects people in different ways, we understand sometimes small movements can be enormous victories.

One thing we still rarely do is to acknowledge that for a lot of people, there are no victories, big or small. For a lot of people, that trauma digs deep and never lets go, and many, many people never recover. Or if we do show that on screen, it’s usually shown in a character adjacent to our protagonist, it’s not our main characters themselves.

When It Melts looks this straight in the eye. It’s bleak, emotionally brutal, and, in that way, at least, truthful about what can happen to people. It’s clear from the beginning that Eva, a woman in her 20s in Belgium, is in a constant state of barely contained rage and pain, though we don’t know why for quite some time. There’s no doubt something dreadful has happened, and this is made even more apparent when she gets a friend request from a man who we suspect she knew when she was younger, based on her reaction to seeing his name pop up online. We begin to jump into flashbacks of Eva as a 13-year-old, as she navigated having an alcoholic mother and being friends with two boys (the group calls themselves the “Three Musketeers”) who are also in that nebulous space of puberty where some of them are still more children than teenagers, some of them are not, and sexuality is creeping (or leaping) in. And we see how girls develop an identity based around their value as sex objects.

Something dreadful does eventually happen, and hoo boy, it is rough. And we see that there is no coming back from this for Eva, and we can understand why. Life and this kind of violence aren’t a movie, and when a fragile support system also fails, how can there be hope? Both actors playing Eva are devastating, but Rosa Marchant, who plays the teenaged version, is stunning, absolutely believable as a girl at this place in her development, and she tears us wide open as she suffers what eventually comes.

The movie’s seams sometimes show, as there are scenes that feel more like scenes in a movie than actual parts of a life (you know it when you see it), and I think the film could have accomplished the same thing it ultimately does without the contrived central metaphor/conceit. But it’s exceedingly effective at showing us that people can get blown apart and never put back together, no matter what movies usually say.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.