The 2023 Sundance Film Festival completed its eighth day of in-person and virtual programming yesterday, January 26th. After sleeping in then taking my festival endeavors to Salt Lake City, I was ready to begin my final days with a bang!
Estranged parenthood, relinquishing faith, and sorcery are just some of the themes examined within the films. And they turned out to be decent watching experiences. Here’s a recap of some heartwarming and creatives films that I knocked off my 2023 Sundance Film Festival watchlist!
1. Scrapper | Director: Charlotte Regan
Sundance Synopsis: Following her mother’s death, a resourceful 12-year-old girl, Georgie (Lola Campbell), continues to live alone in their London-outskirts flat. She makes money stealing bikes with her friend, Ali (Alin Uzun), and keeps the social workers off her back by pretending to live with an uncle. It works like a charm until Jason (Harris Dickinson) shows up. Apparently, he’s her father — so long estranged that she doesn’t recognize him. Sizing him up as a rubbish dad (absent, messy, can’t cook), Georgie wonders why he’s suddenly taking an interest; especially when she’s doing just fine on her own, thank you very much.
Review: Charlotte Regan’s confident story is a sincere depiction of grief and estrangement. Her direction paired with newcomer Lola Campbell’s acting is a tender approach to examining a rekindled relationship between a daughter and father. This tight script could have used more opportunities for additional Campbell and Dickinson interactions as they build their relationship. However, the two do extremely well playing off each other. Finally, this is the type of film that will have you wanting to call your own father. Bravo to the cast and crew.
2. Sorcery | Director: Christopher Murray
Sundance Synopsis: Chiloé Island, 1880. After her father is murdered by a German colonist, Rosa (newcomer Valentina Véliz Caileo), a 13-year-old Huilliche girl, renounces her Christian upbringing and seeks shelter with Mateo (Daniel Antivilo), the leader of an Indigenous organization that practices witchcraft. Under Mateo’s gruff yet tender tutelage, she learns the art of sorcery and vows to settle the score. Rosa’s vengeance leads to a brutal crackdown by the island’s Chilean Christian authorities and puts her on the path to discovering her dormant powers.
Review: Murray’s directing in Sorcery is likely why I’d recommend this feature to anyone. It’s a classic story about revenge intertwined with the relinquishment of faith. Yet, none of these themes worth without the remarkably methodical approach he takes in unraveling the story. Valentina Véliz Caileo also helps to propel the story through her superb performance. It’s a creative story, but it’s definitely the hidden gem of this year’s festival.
3. A Thousand and One | Director: A.V. Rockwell
Sundance Synopsis: Struggling but unapologetically living on her own terms, Inez is moving from shelter to shelter in mid-1990s New York City. With her 6-year-old son Terry in foster care and unable to leave him again, she kidnaps him so they can build their life together. As the years go by, their family grows and Terry becomes a smart yet quiet teenager, but the secret that has defined their lives threatens to destroy the home they have so improbably built.
Review: I can’t quite put my finger on it, but A.V. Rockwell’s directorial debut feels both like a grand achievement and an underwhelming story that barely scratches the surface of its themes. Think “day in the life of,” but instead of one day, it’s an experience over a decade+. The highlight of the film is definitely Teyana Taylor’s remarkable performance. At times, she is what elevates this somewhat tedious script into an experience well worth watching. I can’t say that ending worked for me, but I am certain that it will keep audiences talking throughout the year.
4. Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls | Director: Andrew Bowser
Sundance Synopsis: Amateur occultist Marcus J. Trillbury, aka Onyx the Fortuitous, is struggling. He’s misunderstood at home and work, but his dreams for a new life seem to be answered when he lands a coveted invitation to the mansion of his idol Bartok the Great for a ritual to raise the spirit of an ancient demon. He excitedly joins Bartok and his fellow eclectic group of devotees as they prepare for the ceremony, but pretty quickly it becomes apparent everything is not as it seems. As Onyx and his new friends fight to keep their souls, he must decide what he’s willing to truly sacrifice in order to meet his destiny.
Review: I just knew within 5 minutes into Onyx the Fortuitous that this would not be the movie for me. But like the champion that I am, I kept watching. I now know that my instincts were correct. It simply was not good. While Bowser’s story and direction represent creativity at its finest, the film is overly cartoonish and too unfunny for my liking. From the acting and story to the music, everything was dramatic to the point of annoyance. I’m sure this film has a fanbase out there somewhere. However, it’s not me.
5. Shortcomings | Director: Randall Park
Sundance Synopsis: Ben, a struggling filmmaker, lives in Berkeley, California, with his girlfriend, Miko, who works for a local Asian American film festival. When he’s not managing an art house movie theater as his day job, Ben spends his time obsessing over unavailable blond women, watching Criterion Collection DVDs, and eating in diners with his best friend, Alice, a queer grad student with a serial dating habit. When Miko moves to New York for an internship, Ben is left to his own devices and begins to explore what he thinks he might want.
Review: If first-time feature director Randall Park’s goal was to annoy the crap out of me through his main character, Ben, he exceeded his goal. Shortcomings is on Cha Cha Real Smooth levels of annoyance for me. The dialogue is beyond cringe-worthy, and these people rarely listen to each other. To make matters worse, the turn-around time for the characters to experience change doesn’t really feel deserved and natural. But if there’s one thing I do have to say about the film, is that it contains some really funny moments, thanks to Sherry Cola’s great comedic timing. I have no doubt in my mind that Shortcomings will find its audience. However, I couldn’t wait for this to be over.