The first half of the Sundance Film Festival saw a hefty amount of solid genre fare as well as stellar dramas driven by incredible performances from its lead actors. The second half of the Utah-based celebration of independent cinema boasted more of the same from both returning and debuting filmmakers from all corners of the world. The following six films ended 615 Film’s tenure at Sundance this year on a strong note, and this critic is already looking forward to not only the rest of this year in cinema, but also to hopefully attend next year’s festival in Park City. If you missed the first part of my 2023 Sundance Film Festival Log, you can read about it HERE.
1. All films are rated out of five stars.
2. All images courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Divinity (Eddie Alcazar)
Eddie Alcazar is a filmmaker who first debuted at Sundance in 2015 with FUCKKKYOUUU, a short film done in collaboration with abstract hip-hop artist Flying Lotus. Seven years later, his first narrative feature film Divinity premiered in the NEXT program to a bewildered reaction, and justifiably so considering the gonzo approach to its sci-fi/horror narrative: in the future, pharmaceutical mogul Jaxxon Pierce (Stephen Dorff) is finishing an experiment his father Sterling (Scott Bakula) began during his childhood: the manufacture and distribution of Divinity, a liquid drug which grants its users immortality.
But with the help of mysterious woman Nikita (Karrueche Tran), two equally reticent brothers (Moises Arias and Jason Genao) break into his house and punishes him for what he and Divinity have done to the world by subjecting him to a lethal dose of his creation, during which he is left to ponder his tumultuous relationship with his father while the all-female tribe of Purity Beings led by Ziva (Bella Thorne) look on from what can be assumed is the astral plane.
If that sounds like a load of unhinged nonsense, one wouldn’t be wrong because Divinity feels more focused on its filmmaking style and tone than it is on telling a coherent story: where exactly did the brothers come from and what does the nature of their abilities make them; robots? Aliens? More human than human? Audiences are dropped into a universe trying to make sense of what happened for themselves, so those looking for easy answers to what transpires in Alcazar’s feature-length fever dream will find the film a frustrating experience.
But others may be along for the ride, because Alcazar’s penchant for visuals ran on nightmare fuel takes center stage through a dark, horrifying view of a prospective Earth so desolate, the remaining lower-class humans with nowhere to live have nothing to do but fight to pass the time. The sadness of this world is further conveyed by the giant stone architecture bearing the houses populated by the rich, while the high contrast cinematography of their interiors and the ominous droning of the score provides the terror. There’s also some twisted ideas for a dystopian Earth ravaged by corporate conglomerates; everything, even cereal commercials, are hypersexualized, and instead of inducing sleep as advertised, a futuristic Viewmaster subjects its user (Steven Ogg in a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo) to demented yet sadomasochistic pain.
Alcazar also demonstrates clever novelty as a filmmaker such as cutting back and forth from live-action closeups influenced by anime to wide landscapes allowing for climactic action sequences to be animated in stop-motion, as well as a use of old-school visual effects that show when one of the brothers ensnares Jaxxon with a rope of lightning shot from his otherworldly pistol. What’s worth noting is that Stephen Dorff also pulls his own weight, conveying Jaxxon’s inner and growing brutishness with a gruff, raspy voice affectation as the solid practical effects creatively grow him into a colossus. Divinity may be all style and no new substance, but it’s still a uniquely horrifying trip to the future all the same. ★★★
Joyland (Saim Sadiq)
On the polar opposite of the cinematic spectrum is Joyland, Pakistan’s submission for this year’s Best International Feature Film Academy Award category, and while it sadly didn’t get nominated for the prestigious award, it still proved itself to be deserving of its place on the shortlist during its stateside premiere at Sundance. The film follows Haider (Ali Junejo), a Pakistani man who takes a job as a backup dancer for Biba (Alina Khan), a transgender dancer. The decision has massive ramifications for his family: his hairdresser wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) is ordered by Haider’s father Aran (Salmaan Peerzada) to quit her job and help her sister-in-law Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) around the house as she juggles parenting multiple children, and Haider develops romantic feelings for Biba, who fights tooth and nail in the face of transphobia to move her act out of intermissions and in front of bigger crowds in order to obtain the funds for all the surgeries she needs to feel comfort in her own skin.
It’s hard for trans people to get anywhere in a world that doesn’t accept them for who they are, and Biba’s struggles are handled with brutal honesty, such as a moment on a bus where a patron not only misgenders her, but also demands that she sit with the men on the other side of the bus, though Haider is there to make her feel better by sitting next to her. Another instance of truth about the transgender experience comes through in Khan’s brilliantly nuanced performance, particularly during a scene that sees Biba recall a painful memory with stoicism but it’s easy to see the tears in her eyes as she recounts every detail, made equally beautiful and heartbreaking by the added touch of green LED projections flying around her room.
That’s not the only way Sadiq crafts intimacy throughout Joyland; compositions frequently stage characters in a way that shows their idealistic differences, and slow push-ins from the outside of Haider’s house reveal him and Mumtaz showing affection for one another in a way that feels raw yet intrusive on the lovers’ daily life. Sadiq’s camera also builds tension within the family; one example comes when the camera cuts from one portrait shot of a character’s preoccupied facial expression to another, as if to convey that everyone has something they’re hiding.
In this case, the characters of Joyland all want some form of freedom or control over their own lives. Haider wants to grow a spine and stand up for himself, Mumtaz wants to work her own job and make her own money to support herself and Haider, and Biba wants to be a success story in a world where transgender women aren’t accepted. The film goes to heavy places at the halfway mark and LGBTQ+ audiences may balk at Biba’s place as a supporting character in Haider’s story, but the film does have the best intentions, and that’s to portray the oppressive effects of societal norms on those who wish for something more. ★★★★1/2
My Animal (Jacqueline Castel)
A former collaborator of David Lynch, Jacqueline Castel’s first feature film is My Animal, a queer take on the werewolf horror subgenre that follows Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), an outcast teenager dealing with a turbulent family life caused by her alcoholic mother (Heidi von Palleske) and rambunctious brothers Cooper and Hardy (Charles F. and Harrison W. Halpenny, respectively), but she has the acceptance of her father Henry (Stephen McHattie). One day Heather becomes smitten with a local figure skater named Jonny (Amandla Stenberg), but she’s struggling to pursue a romance further without revealing the nature of her condition.
And it’s through this dynamic that the strongest aspects of My Animal shine in spades. Amandla Stenberg and Bobbi Salvör Menuez have phenomenal chemistry, and every scene between the two young lovers is beautifully written, such as a scene that sees Jonny recommend a hair product for Heather to use, to which the recluse retorts with a juvenile remark, but one Jonny finds humorous. A more affecting example comes when Heather tells Jonny a scary story in an attempt to cure her hiccups, while Menuez also displays her inner pain via quiet naturalism when she does something drastic to accept herself in a private moment of melancholy.
Caster’s direction also emphasizes both the beauty of their love as well as its forbidden nature to the world around them through moody shadows and psychedelic dream sequences that emphasize both her sexual infatuation for Jonny as well as the beginning of her transformation in some cases, while another sees the two lovers bathe in their ecstasy underneath stylized lighting in an isolating black void. The soundtrack also match the trippy tone of surreal scenes such as these, with one example being “Eyes Within” by Gloria de Oliveira while Heather watches Jonny dance in a casino.
It’s just a shame that the werewolf elements of My Animal feel second-nature. As excellent as the romance between Jonny and Heather is depicted, viewers can find themselves forgetting they’re watching a werewolf movie because the standard tropes within the subgenre rarely appear in the first hour of the film, to the point where there is little suspense. It’s also worth noting that a later plot development seems to contradict her father’s acceptance of Heather early on in the film, which begs the question if the werewolf isn’t a metaphor for queer pride or strength, what does it signify? It’s possible that LGBTQ+ audiences could find something more in this than this critic did, however, because the storytelling here gets messier and more uneven as it goes along, to the point where it ends on a whimper rather than a bang. ★★1/2
A Little Prayer (Angus McLachlan)
From the writer of Junebug comes A Little Prayer, a narrative film that follows Bill Brass (David Strathairn), an elderly metal sheet factory owner in rural North Carolina who discovers his son David (Will Pullen) is having an affair with his secretary Narcedalia (Dascha Polanco). From there he wrestles internally over whether to break it to his daughter-in-law Tammy (Jane Levy), often having conversations with his wife Venida (Celia Weston) about the matter and confronting David man-to-man as he inches closer toward the boundary of patriarchal interference.
It may not be the most grand of premises and the tone isn’t overtly suspenseful over the course of the film’s 90 minute runtime, but A Little Prayer is never not compelling thanks to writer-director Angus McLachlan’s realistic portrayal of life in the American South, which comes through in the script which sees characters speak a plethora of Southern colloquialisms, as well as the costume design that conveys the refined aspect of Bill’s generation compared to Tammy’s youthful innocence.
McLachlan’s direction also does its part to create honest accuracy of rural life through shot compositions and staging which perfectly depict the unassuming way small town denizens eavesdrop on private conversations. Tammy briefly looks into the camera back at the audience when she’s lying awake in silent contemplation, and again as she’s making breakfast for Bill and Venida as if she has an awareness she’s being watched, but pays no mind because she knows we mean well as innocent viewers. Another example of this comes when David asks his secretary to go dancing in a wide shot, only to cut to Bill judging him with silent disappointment.
The greatest strengths of A Little Prayer, however, are the performances from its entire ensemble. Celia Weston nails the judgmental side of Venida when she can already tell a relative has left her husband just by the metal detector in her minivan, but conveys her genuine love and concern when she implores them to take care of themselves. What’s also worth noting is the career-best performance from Jane Levy, who displays incredible nuances when she realizes the magnitude of a life-changing decision, and delivers disappointment to a close confidant with sad kindness. But after decades of underseen work as a character actor, David Strathairn is a knockout as Bill Brass, showcasing quiet power as a man feeling regret in the twilight of his life, and doesn’t want his world to change even when it sadly must. ★★★★
Landscape With Invisible Hand (Cory Finley)
After debuting at Sundance with the bizarre but interesting debut feature Thoroughbreds in 2017, Cory Finley returned to the iconic festival this year with Landscape With Invisible Hand, a science fiction comedy based on the M.T. Anderson novel of the same name. The story takes place in a near-future where Earth has been taken over by The Vuvv, a race of ottoman-sized, crab-like aliens who co-exist with humans by eviscerating entire human workforces in every field so they can work one of the many menial jobs at their giant floating complexes in which only the world’s richest denizens can afford to live.
Adam Costello (Asante Blackk) is an aspiring artist whose lower class neighborhood finds one of The Vuvv’s complexes hovering over his neighborhood, as well as his classmate Chloe Marsh (Kylie Rogers) and her father (Josh Hamilton) and brother Hunter (Michael Gandolfini) living with Adam, his mother (Tiffany Haddish) and sister Nettie (Brooklynn MacKinzie) after they’ve become homeless. From there, Adam and Chloe try to make the best of a bad situation by using a bluetooth technology that projects their burgeoning romance up to the Vuvv’s floating compounds. However, what follows only lands their families in hot water and forces them to go to incredible lengths not only to scrape by, but also to keep their alien overlords happy.
There are instances where Finley’s dryer sense of humor may be difficult for audiences to grasp, and its ideas about love and romance are familiar to other, better movies. But Landscape With Invisible Hand is still an entertaining watch for how well Finley covers the book’s parallels to almost every aspect of contemporary life on Earth. In a world where automation, gentrification and mass immigration are happening all at once and threatening human existence, Adam and Chloe are essentially putting on a show not unlike online dating that’s forcing them to repress their authentic selves and turning them into robots.
Meanwhile, the culture war between the middle class and people of color is covered just long enough to make a point about its ceaselessness, while still making light of how ridiculously far some will go to keep their place at the table. What’s also worth noting is that with AI-art generating programs like Midjourney coming into the real-life marketplace, Landscape With Invisible Hand even has the eerie prescience to acknowledge how the future looks in the art world, and it’s as bleak as it is for every profession.
The film also succeeds when the humor takes turns for the absurd; a particular moment comes when Haddish and The Vuvv take part in an Earthly ritual made hysterical by a poorly-tuned instrument, and little asides in the background that make Anderson’s dystopia funny, from an alcoholic beverage with the word, ‘beer’ written on a can with quotation marks around it to groundskeepers on The Vuvv’s utopias painting brown grass green. The ensemble does their part as well, with Tiffany Haddish turning in something surprisingly naturalistic and understated when she defends her son against the Vuvv, with her comedic chops coming out when she refuses one of their alien ruler’s demands. Asante Blackk also establishes himself as a talent to watch with a breakthrough performance, as Adam’s disgusted facial expressions when the Vuvv makes a ridiculous threat conjure laughter, while his growing anger during beats that see him jaded with his life provoke not only sympathy from the audience, but also timely catharsis. ★★★1/2
Infinity Pool (Brandon Cronenberg)
The final film on 615 Film’s Sundance slate this year was Infinity Pool, the new horror film from Brandon Cronenberg, which sees struggling author James Foster (Alexander Skarsgard) and his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) venture to the seaside country of Latoka for a local festival as well as a luxurious vacation. Once there, the two meet wealthy couple Gabi and Alban Bauer (Mia Goth and Jalil Lespert) who become fast friends of the Fosters, while James finds himself beguiled by Gabi after she gushes about how much she loved his only book, to disapproval from his wife. However, their trip takes a nightmarish turn after an accident, the results of which send Thomas down a black hole of sex, trippy decadence, and the harrowing extent of his privilege.
Some of the psychedelic sequences do go on for too long despite being very pretty to look at, and the same audiences that turned off Possessor early for its blood and gore will not be pleased to learn it has the same amount of violence on display here. But Cronenberg continues to separate himself from the shadow of his prolific father through visual direction when James and an official are enclosed in extreme closeups that ramp up tension as well as emphasize the author’s fear and confusion.
Yet there is also intimacy to be found in Cronenberg’s closeups, particularly in scenes between Gabi and Thomas, as the camera tilts down her face to focus on her lips as she entices him with conversation underneath stylized lighting. An insert shot that focuses on the waves of the water in a way that makes it difficult to discern which way the waves are flowing, as if to propose a sort of mystical, evil power within the country of Latoka that makes it as pretty as it is unnerving.
To delve into the full extent of the horror Cronenberg takes Thomas down would risk going into spoiler territory, but all that must be said is the science fiction and horror elements in the script are rife with relevant commentary about the depraved entitlements of the wealthy and their shocking advantages against death and imprisonment, as well as the psychological effects of hedonism. Those in particular are sold brilliantly by Alexander Skarsgard, who takes Thomas down a visceral journey that sees him progress from a writer coasting on his lone novel to a monster of a man longing to feel important. Meanwhile, Mia Goth continues to captivate and scare audiences all at once with her maniacal laugh and infectious charisma that helps her disappear into Gabi’s tantalizing but demented character. Make no mistake, Infinity Pool is not a film for everyone, but those jumping into it from the deep end won’t come back the same. ★★★★1/2
Final Rankings of The 615 Film Sundance Haul (from worst to best):
12. My Animal
10. Cat Person
9. Landscape With Invisible Hand
6. A Little Prayer
4. Infinity Pool
3. Talk To Me
2. Magazine Dreams
1. Polite Society