After taking part in the Sundance Film Festival last year, this critic is happy to be covering it once again in 2023 for 615 Film in their online-only setting. The festival has played host to a plethora of premieres for upcoming independent films and features from directors on the cusp of major distribution, whether it be from a major studio or one of the many streaming platforms out there today. This year in particular boasts a lot of solid genre fare in the Midnight program, as well as films driven by commanding, transformative lead performances, so much that like the year before it, this year’s recap cannot be contained in one article. So without further ado, here is the first part of 615 Film’s batch of reviews from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival!
1. All films are rated out of five stars.
2. All images courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Birth/Rebirth (Anna Moss)
The first film in our Sundance coverage this year is Birth/Rebirth, an understated but unsettling horror film about Rose Casper (Marin Ireland), a morgue technician who has more emotional capacity for the corpses she does autopsies on than she does for human connection, and Celie Morales (Judy Reyes), a maternity nurse whose life revolves around her vivacious young daughter Lila (A.J. Lister). But a day that ends in tragedy makes their paths not only intersect, but also take them on a journey toward a dark experiment that changes their lives but at a twisted cost. What’s fascinating about Birth/Rebirth is how far co-writer/director Laura Moss goes in depicting pregnancy and parenthood with a raw and unflinching attention to detail, such as when Rose self-inseminates herself in hopes of bearing a child and when an expecting mother goes through amniocentesis, for which a dye Celie uses turns her belly a different color.
Birth/Rebirth can be tough to watch in this regard, and the film admittedly doesn’t do much new visually to express grief but the performances do that visually, especially with the nuances of Celie’s pained facial expressions in moments of solitude, complemented by female voices in the score which vocalize her mourning and create an unease at the same time. The film is not all doom and gloom, however, as Rose’s emotional distance from people is equal parts unsettling and darkly funny, such as her innovative way of satisfying a male barfly trying to pick her up, and when she tells Celie a warped experiment she tried on a classroom hamster in elementary school. There are also moments of humanity that proliferate over the course of the film when Celie treats her patients, but the main, melancholy takeaway from Birth/Rebirth is the psychological toll pregnancy, motherhood and grief take on women, and the humanity required to bear and raise a child, let alone move forward from horrific trauma. ★★★1/2
Cassandro (Roger Ross Williams)
Cassandro stars Gael Garcia Bernal as Saul Armendáriz, the gay man behind the titular persona in a biopic about his rise up the ranks of lucha libre, which begin in Juarez, Mexico as Saul wrestles as the masked luchador El Topo. Fed up with being booked to lose in squash matches against his local promotion’s top stars, Saul decides to come up with a new character to fight under, which ends up being the self-proclaimed ‘Liberace of Lucha Libre’, Cassandro. The film does a stellar job of delving into the culture of Mexican wrestling, whether it’s through summarizing common character tropes (Cassandro in particular is an exótico – a wrestler who emphasizes his effeminate traits for comedic effect), the drugs that come with the business, as the promotion Saul signs to even has its own drug dealer (played by Mexican rapper-wrestler Bad Bunny), or acknowledging the scummy nature of Mexican wrestling when Cassandro’s opponents are offered double their pay if they lose.
In doing this, there are moments that make it difficult to buy that Cassandro himself didn’t have a similar experience to the wrestlers he defeats, and he does make it to the top a little too quickly given that the time period in which he rose to prominence wasn’t a time where homosexuality was as accepted as it is now. But Cassandro as a film aims to please crowds, and open-minded audiences will be immersed in Saul’s rise toward acceptance as the 4:3 aspect ratio isolates him in the hyper masculine world of lucha libre, and the wrestling sequences are well edited and well shot via effective handheld.
What’s most captivating, however, is the lead performance from Gael Garcia Bernal, whose facial expressions exude Saul’s discomfort in his own skin during quiet scenes with his lover Gerardo (Raul Castillo), while he displays vulnerability spending time with his accepting mother Candance (Julieta Ortiz). Bernal also brushes off any insecurity Saul feels in the ring by playing to the crowd with a flamboyant but carefree demeanor, like responding to homophobic slurs from a fan by shoving his own posterior in his face from the apron. Saul feels accepted by the world when he steps into the ring, and Cassandro is a cinematic celebration of the man who helped make pro wrestling more welcoming to the LGBT+ talents that would follow him. ★★★★
Polite Society (Nida Manzoor)
The first feature from Nida Manzoor follows Ria Khan (Priya Kansara), a Pakistani-Muslim girl in London with dreams of growing up to be a stuntwoman for movies, often imploring her sister Lena (Ritu Arya) to assist with her YouTube channel in hopes of being discovered. But having dropped out of art school, Lena herself is at a crossroads in her own life, and is soon arranged to meet and marry the handsome Salim Shah (Akshay Khanna) by their parents (Shobu Kapoor and Jeff Mirza) and Salim’s own mother (Nimra Bucha), to Ria’s youthful disappointment and overactive imagination. From there, she does what every teenager would do in this situation: call upon her friends Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) and Clara (Seraphina Beh) to do everything in their power to stop their marriage from happening.
Some of Manzoor’s stylistic flourishes are familiar to the films of Edgar Wright (especially Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), such as title cards that set the stage for all the action sequences and cutaway gags to emphasize character quirks, but the film still feels fresh and exciting through a unique blend of genres, its energetic tone and the endearing relationship Lena and Ria have as sisters, conveyed visually by their overactive imaginations. Their fights are not mere squabbles among siblings, they’re very well choreographed kung-fu battles that result in mass destruction of their bedroom and the adjacent hallway that are equal parts grounded absurdism and exciting action that will have audiences grinning from ear to ear.
Polite Society is blisteringly funny from the dialogue to the incredible lengths Ria goes to sabotaging Lena’s relationship with Salim, but with that comes a heartfelt, relatable narrative about coping with change and accepting the reality of her situation….at least for the first half. Then, the film takes a turn for the gonzo to the point where an antagonist takes center stage, ramping up the stakes and distracting from the honesty of Ria’s struggle to grow up. But what’s there challenges the traditions of arranged marriages in her culture, and the results only make Ria’s journey more entertaining all the way to the film’s conclusion.
Another element worth noting is Priya Kansara’s breakthrough performance as Ria, who captivates the screen with cartoonish but child-like vivacity in moments with her family, as well as intimate instances such as when her future mother-in-law takes her to get her legs waxed during their spa day, where she expresses discomfort with hilarious facial expressions. Overall, if RRR was Tollywood filling the void left by star-driven Hollywood, Polite Society is the inverse; successfully implementing the genre-blending grandeur of Indian cinema into a sweet story about the powerful bond of sisterhood. For that reason, it’s more than just a film worth putting on your radar, it’s the best sci-fi-action-kung fu-coming of age-musical of the year so far! ★★★★1/2
Magazine Dreams (Elijah Bynum)
The new film from Hot Summer Nights helmer Elijah Bynum stars Jonathan Majors as Killian Maddox, a socially awkward young man balancing his responsibilities of caring for his ailing grandfather with his aspirations to become a major bodybuilder. However, in addition to the day-to-day struggles of lower class African Americans, he carries a heavy burden in the form of a harrowing past trauma, which begats a bevy of emotional issues like an inability to read social cues as well as an explosive temper exacerbated by the frequent amount of steroids he injects into his body. Nevertheless, his drive for success never deters him from his dreams, not even when doctors warn him of the medical danger in which he’s putting himself.
Bynum’s camera bathes Killian’s muscular body in golden light during the film’s opening dream sequence, in addition to the bodybuilding competitions he frequents, conveying his inner hopes for greatness. However, the cinematography also displays the darkness inside his mind after he reads the disparaging YouTube comment section of a bodybuilding training video he produced in his garage gym, stewing in silence as the outlines of his shoulders remain the only thing visible in his bedroom’s golden light. The film’s soundtrack also adds a grandeur to this sad story, with scenes often scored by classical music, delicate piano and eerie violins that often turn electronic, like when Killian devours a massive meal after a date turns into a disaster.
The script is also riveting in its authentic portrayal of Killian’s social awkwardness, which often mirrors an undisclosed form of neurodivergence, such as when he Googles for answers to complicated questions, displays an amazing passion for bodybuilding and knowledge of every single muscle group in letters to his idol Brad Vanderhorn (Mike O’Hearn), and an early scene where he gets ahead of Jessie by reading the price of his groceries aloud on the screen before she can. Soon after, he even stumbles through asking her out to the point of taking it back out of embarrassment. Killian is also written as a man holding back his genuine feelings, such as when he lies about his life to his therapist (Harriet Sansom Harris), who he also vents to about the systematic racism he deals with as a Black person, conveyed when he expresses frustration about living in a food desert.
Bynum’s latest can be a tough film to watch for its police brutality and violence against Killian as well as the dark places his journey goes when he begins to psychologically unravel, but he is also as intimidating as he is sympathetic, and that can be chalked up to the acting talents of Jonathan Majors, who pulls off the best performance of his career. His robotic delivery resembles a person with autism, while his facial expressions during conversations over the phone with house painters convey his inner struggle to keep his emotions together. After his failure to do so, however, he channels an intensity the likes of which he never has before, and the results make Magazine Dreams into a heart wrenching but gripping character study of a man with dreams of being remembered for his superstardom driven by definitions of strength and power misguided by an unbridled rage. ★★★★1/2
Cat Person (Susanna Fogel)
Based on the New Yorker short story of the same name by Kristen Roupenian, Cat Person stars Sundance veteran Emilia Jones as Margot, a college student whose shift one night at the movie theater she works at sees her interact with regular theatergoer Robert (Nicholas Braun), which soon evolves to text conversations and casual meetups before they finally go on their first date. Despite Robert’s well-meaning demeanor, Margot’s discomfort justifiably flares up over awkward moments on his part, to the point where her uncertainty about her gentleman caller turns to fear for her safety when his intentions appear to turn for the threatening.
Margot often turns to her best friend, hyper-feminist subReddit manager Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan) for advice on how to handle each development between herself and Robert, and it’s through this dynamic that writer-director Susanna Fogel’s script smartly begins to deconstruct contemporary feminism; Margot is an intelligent young woman written with vigilance that every girl should have these days, but also with the compassion to want to let Robert into her life when he reconciles for his mistakes, such as after he leaves her outside of a bar she isn’t of legal age to enter.
This inner conflict within Margot also takes shape when she’s debating with a visual manifestation of her trusting self as her first date with Robert takes turns for the intimate, as well as hilarious cutaway gags that envision Robert in various occupations when she wonders where he works during a text conversation, and even fantasy sessions with a therapist where he expresses his best intentions and romantic desires for Margot. Her character is also immaculately performed by Emilia Jones, whether it’s through facial grimaces in a visual response to Robert’s flippant comment during a movie or arguing with Taylor over how to end things with him gracefully, only for the results to build tension between her and Robert to a fever pitch all the way to the film’s conclusion.
And unfortunately, that’s also where Cat Person falls apart. The movie tries to cover a lot of ground thematically, from deconstructing both the defensive and more empathetic sides of feminism and the internal struggle of men to counter aggression with sensitivity to the complexities of today’s dating scene and the importance of honest communication in romantic pursuits to the point where some of its themes are on-the-nose, and Margot makes nonsensical decisions unbecoming of her character. Credit must be given to Fogel for trying to include so many layers to this timely adaptation, but while a lot about the online dating world needs to be addressed, it’s sadly and messily executed.
The film is also marred by an all-too violent climax that tries to have its cake and eat it too as far as appealing to both sides of the feminist aisle, when the first two-thirds of the film handle the budding relationship with a clever sense of humor and thoughtful nuances in the storytelling. Despite its flaws, however, there’s a lot within Cat Person that appeals to audiences from all genders struggling within the dating scene in today’s hyper vigilant world, and enough commentary to provoke inward thinking about one’s inner anxieties. ★★★
Talk To Me (Danny and Michael Philippou)
After years of crafting entertaining if ridiculously violent content portraying Ronald McDonald as a serial killer and putting themselves in harm’s way by doing dangerous stunts on their RackaRacka YouTube channel, twin Australian brothers Danny and Michael Philippou made their filmmaking debut at Sundance with Talk To Me, which sees teenage Mia (Sophie Wilde) struggling emotionally on the two-year anniversary of her mother’s death.
To try and take her mind off it, she joins her friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and her little brother Riley (Joe Bird) at a party where their classmates hold séances as part of a game where they summon spirits of the dead with an embalmed hand to possess their bodies so the partygoers can exorcise them within a minute and a half, or the spirit stays within them permanently. Mia volunteers herself for the first round, the results of which inevitably cause her to see undead spirits throughout her waking life that possess her to make twisted decisions, hear her mother’s voice everywhere she goes and even threatens the lives of those around her.
Talk To Me has all the elements of a campy gorefest that the Philippou brothers have spent a full decade making for online viewership, but what makes their debut feature one of the genre standouts at Sundance this year is the amount of humanity they employ in directing their script driven by a character openly suffering from depression. There are moments where Mia claims she got it after her mother’s death but shrugged it off as just, “feeling alone”, and again when she describes a recurring dream of looking in the mirror but with no reflection, as if she doesn’t exist. The effects her depression has on those around her also takes shape visually when she converses with her father, but he is a million miles away in her mind as demonstrated by his placement in the background entirely out of focus.
Sophie Wilde also holds her own in a stellar breakthrough performance where she displays incredible range, such as a quiet moment when Mia describes what holding the embalmed hand felt like with a reflective longing as if it’s the rush she’s looking for, and in periods of intensity like when the spirits are inside of her body threatening to take permanent control. The Philippou brothers also approach Talk To Me with an unbridled passion for horror filmmaking, shown through a combination of elements from every subgenre, such as psychological horror, splattercore and supernatural horror, to name a few.
The RackaRacka duo’s passion for horror also shines through in both the practical effects used to bring the spirits to life as well as the CGI that makes the pupils in the eyes of those who lend themselves to these séances grow to a frightening size, in addition to the camerawork. Long, slow push-ins build tension when a partygoer details the origin of the embalmed hand, while quick tilts follow teenagers every which way when a spirit latches onto their soul and refuses to let go until they’re dead. Despite some pacing issues, the Philippou brothers have checked the juvenile vulgarity of their YouTube content at the door to tell an awesome and affecting character-driven story about letting loved ones in during times of internal suffering, and the results when someone doesn’t. The makeup effects & brutal violence RackaRacka is famous for is present in spurts, but the human drama of Talk To Me is handled with unparalleled, nuanced power, and that’s why it’s the best horror film at the Sundance Film Festival so far. ★★★★1/2