The 2023 Sundance Film Festival completed its 10th day of in-person and virtual programming yesterday on January 28th. And it was the final day for me in Park City! Feeling the excitement to return home, I couldn’t wait to finish the last group of films on my new watchlist–thanks to award winners.
For Day 10, I was able to watch 5 feature films–all with interesting stories to keep me entertained. From a story about the importance and impact of teachers to a gut-wrenching tragedy about trauma, my last day of the festival was truly something special. Here’s a recap of festival highlights from my watchlist.
1. Radical | Director: Christopher Zalla
Sundance Synopsis: Who will the sixth-grade students at Jose Urbina Lopez Elementary in Matamoros become? They are among the worst performing students in Mexico, the world they know is one of violence and hardship, and their classrooms are dominated by an atmosphere of overbearing discipline, not possibility. It might seem like a dead end… but it is also the perfect place for new teacher Sergio Juarez to try something different. There’s just one problem: Sergio (played by an amazing Eugenio Derbez) has no idea what he’s doing.
Review: It’s not surprising to me that Radical took home the prize for the festival favorite award. This is the kind of movie that will easily tug on the heartstrings of its viewers. With exceptional acting from the entire cast and a tender, intentional direction from Zalla, it is the feel-good movie of Sundance 2023. Sure, it’s a little long. Additionally, it could have done with more background focus on Sergio. However, this love letter to teachers is simply irresistible. Add this to your watchlist immediately. You will not regret it!
2. When it Melts | Director: Veerle Baetens
Sundance Synopsis: Eva struggles with human connection. Now that her younger sister Tess is moving out, and long estranged from her neglectful parents, the fragile Eva is finally truly alone. Already reeling, she’s instinctively revulsed by a social media post announcing the memorial celebration for a long-passed childhood friend. She emotionally recalls her sensitive 13-year-old self in the wake of his death, embracing her role as the third musketeer to a pair of slightly older boys, and how the adolescent riddle game the trio played against the local girls took a deeply unsound turn. Eva decides to return to her home village and confront the scorching summer that altered her life.
Review: A heartbreaking story about trauma and the resulting impact on one’s life, When it Melts is one of the best films of the festival. Baetens tells this tragic story with the utmost gentleness. Additionally, the storytelling is exceptionally delicate in how it intertwines past and present. Thanks to remarkable performances from Rosa Marchant and Charlotte De Bruyne as Eva (at different stages), audiences won’t have any choice but to watch with empathy. Though triggering, this is as great as it gets with illustrating a story about cruelty in adolescence. And that gut wrenching finale is both earth-shattering and intelligently harrowing. Bravo to the cast and crew.
3. Slow | Director: Marija Kavtaradze
Sundance Synopsis: Contemporary dancer Elena meets Dovydas when he is assigned to interpret via sign language in a class she is teaching to deaf youth. Their connection is immediate, kinetic, and frictionless. As they gravitate toward each other, resisting the forces and interventions of their separate daily lives, their bond deepens from platonic to romantic. When Dovydas discloses his asexuality, the couple commit themselves to honoring their individual needs in tandem. As they continue to weave more tightly together, they struggle to negotiate sacrifice and compromise and are forced to discover the edges of their generosity toward the other.
Review: A tender dissection of human connection through an asexual lens, Kavtaradze’s picture, Slow, is a remarkable film worth watching. Greta Grinevičiūtė and Kęstutis Cicėnas have undeniable chemistry. And director Kavtaradze pushes physicality and emotional expectations to the forefront of her exhibition. It doesn’t really get better this when the direction, acting, and script are all so equally compassionate. So, I highly recommend it.
4. The Persian Version | Director: Maryam Keshavarz
Sundance Synopsis: Coming from two countries at odds with each other, Iranian American Leila (Layla Mohammadi) strives to find balance and embrace her opposing cultures, while boldly challenging the labels society is so quick to project upon her. When her family reunites in New York City for her father’s heart transplant, Leila navigates her relationships from arm’s length in an effort to keep her “real” life separate from her family life. However, when her secret is unceremoniously revealed, so are the distinct parallels between her life and that of her mother, Shireen (Niousha Noor).
Review: A great balance of heart and humor, The Persian Version reminds us of the importance of family. Through a mother/daughter relationship, Keshavarz crafts a beautiful story about trying to understand parents and the sacrifices they might have made for the benefit of their children. And in doing so, this hilarious and heartwarming feature has the ability to hit home for many of its viewers. If you’re looking for both laughs and feels, The Persian Version may be for you!
5. Theater Camp | Director: Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman
Sundance Synopsis: As summer rolls around again, kids are gathering from all over to attend AdirondACTS, a scrappy theater camp in upstate New York that’s a haven for budding performers. After its indomitable founder Joan (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma, her clueless “crypto-bro” son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) is tasked with keeping the thespian paradise running. With financial ruin looming, Troy must join forces with Amos (Ben Platt), Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon), and their band of eccentric teachers to come up with a solution before the curtain rises on opening night.
Review: Theater Camp won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, and for good reason. It’s majestic, silly, annoying, and vulnerable–just like a true theater experience. And it’s nothing short of extraordinary. Gordon and Lieberman have a true hit on their hands, and I cannot wait for everyone to see it. Through sensational performances and heartwarming, catchy tunes, Theater Camp will pull you in emotionally and comfort you with laughs as a cherry on top! Look out for this one and add it to your watchlist.