The Sundance 2023 Dispatch Part 1

by Jason Osiason

Shayda: Noora Niasari’s directorial debut is both a suspenseful and profoundly humane look at an Iranian woman’s continuous attempt to triumph over her husband’s abuse. We meet the titular, Shayda, played remarkably by Holy Spider’s Zar Amir Ebrahimi, living at a shelter with fellow abuse victims. She’s left complicated by her Iranian faith and the recent forceful parental visitation rights between her late husband, whom she cannot cut ties with. While much of the main content rings familiar, it’s played with remarkable authenticity as she attempts to rebuild her life and rediscover how to live and love again. The plotting is well-controlled yet conventional but has a real slice-of-life effect that reminds you of a Dardenne Brothers drama. One thing this movie does for sure is it seals lead Amir Ebrahimi as the real deal as a leading actress and one we’ll for sure be hearing a lot more from for the foreseeable future. [B/B+]

Birth/Rebirth: Another Sundance debut is a wildly compelling horror film on how a mother’s love for her baby is unmatched as it meets a modern feminist take on Frankenstein’s monster set inside the walls of a hospital. Rose, a pathologist, implied to be working on a secret side project during her off hours, plays on dual notes of creepy and anti-social. Actress Judy Reyes plays a fellow nurse at the hospital named Celie to a grounded and realistic effect. She works in the delivery rooms for new mothers. Still, she finds herself one day on the other side of life, unexpectedly losing her beloved daughter to a fast-acting meningitis infection. One day, Celie’s daughter is missing from the hospital’s morgue. It is revealed this secret project was many years in the making of her scientifically being able to bring back the dead powered by amniotic fluids. On the surface, this is an odd pairing of two people using science to awaken the dead, but we soon learn it’s ultimately how far a mother will go for her daughter before losing grasp on the potential corrupt consequences. There’s also red herring of sorts that is implemented from the powerfully sobering first frame that you quickly forget about and tricks you into thinking it’s just the norm of mothers not living through their pregnancy. Still, its eventual payoff shook me to my core and proved Director Laura Moss will be an exciting talent to watch. [B]

Fairyland: It is easy to see what drew Sofia Coppola as a producer to this tender of heart coming of age of a daughter raised by her widowed, gay poet father during the rise of the LGBT community in San Francisco and the AIDS crisis—anchored by a never better Scoot McNairy, as Steve Abbott, a single father, and poet (the type of guy never wants to become too successful) who takes his daughter Alysia to San Francisco during the rise of the LGBT community and the AIDS crisis. Adapted from Alysia Abbott’s real life, Fairy Land explores two different periods of her life. One is where Alysia is a happy-go-lucky child raised by her father who loosely substitutes independence with neglect to escape his years of repression and explore his gay sexuality to the deepest of depths. Then there is a time jump during Alysia’s coming of age where her years of reflection lead her to somehow turn out a mature human being while living a life ashamed of her father’s sex and drug-infused lifestyle and hiding his sexuality from those closest to her. Durham’s debut feature explores nearly two decades of this father-daughter relationship. The filmmaking is delicate and photographed gorgeously and grain-filled. Yet, it is affected by an over-written script that doesn’t leave one detail unkept and sometimes features unflattering pacing. The film is at its best when Emlia Clarke and Scoot McNairy share scenes as they have incredible chemistry as father-daughter pair. Overall, it’s a saddening and lovely film, and it is McNairy’s best performance to date. He’s a wreck of a human being, though, and expectedly, your pity for him grows less and less empathetic. Regardless, McNairy does what we wished was expanded upon in his equally impressive performance as a bipolar father in C’mon C’mon. [B]

Eileen: This is Todd Haynes’ Carol if directed by David Fincher, set in a 1960s New England Men’s Prison system. It’s a snapshot of women in the workforce from opposite backgrounds and the overcoming odds against them. At its center is a story of a young woman’s sexual awakening named Eileen and her existential crisis. Eilleen is dissatisfied with her life and hides her genuine emotions from those surrounding her. Her mother is dead, and she’s in her early 20s, living alone with her emotionally abusive and unstable alcoholic father, whose mental state is a breach of collapse. As revealed, he’s beyond help. If he quits drinking, he’ll die, and if he keeps drinking, he’ll die. A new doctor at work, Dr. Rebecca St. John, is hired, and Eileen is instantly smitten. She’s attracted to her power, upper-middle-class background, confidence, sexiness, educational background, and overall charm. She’s everything Eileen aspires to be, and she’ll do anything for her at whatever cost to feel something other than wanting to end her own life. Rebecca also develops a secret relationship with one of the inmates in prison that complicates Eileen’s romantic pursuit. What comes next is a sultry romance but also a dark, twisty, wickedly engaging, and gorgeously crafted film with solid direction from Lady Macbeth‘s William Oldroyd and also outstanding performances from Thomasin Mackenzie, Anne Hathaway, and Marin Ireland in a monologue that’s bludgeons all corners of your heart. [B+]

Fair Play: Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich are acting forces in this intense corporate erotic thriller finding a clever way to look at power sharing and gender roles, ruthlessly pitting lovers against each other when only one gets a work promotion. The film begins with Dynevor’s Emily and Ehrenrich’s Luke, and they can’t quite keep their hands off each other to a hilarious and adorable effect. One thing leads to another, and the couple is engaged, but secretly so as it’s against company policy. What transpires soon at work puts their relationship hectically on the line. Luke’s expected promotion goes to Emily, and a pity war ensues. Writer-Director Chloe Domont has a razor-sharp script and is keen on deeply engaging dialogue exchange that focuses on greed, power, desperation, and romance. Still, the film works best when focusing on its work-relationship dynamics, but the actual satire at the office carries a problematic tonal-genre cocktail that’s sometimes tough to swallow. Phoebe Dynevor comes out as the standout actor as the selfless work girlfriend who’s a more competent and a better worker than she realized, previously putting her boyfriend always before her own gains. The writing is also brilliant because it viscerally puts you in her mindset, forgiving the gooey-eyed Luke repeatedly. After all, their chemistry is palpable, and you want him to succeed until there’s no forgiveness left once the film becomes a cat-and-mouse game of power dynamics without a happy ending in sight. [B+]

Magazine Dreams: Jonathan Majors delivers a career-defining performance as Killian Maddox that feels in the vein of Nina Sayers from Black Swan and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Majors’ performance is incredibly grueling. The character is clearly on the social spectrum and actively seeks therapy throughout the movie as he dips further into angry steroid abuse and cannot control his spiraling mental state, leaving the overall film extremely discomforting. The problem is the movie is never delivering on the levels of its lead performance. The movie unapologetically steals and repackages scene after scene from all the director’s clear favorite films, such as Taxi Driver, Black Swan, Joker Whiplash, and even Eminem’s Stan music video. Just like his previous movie, Hot Summer Nights, where he was equally guilty of imitating excellent movies like Stand By Me and Boogie Nights, it feels like he’s once again taken more than just the central ideas from them. Don’t get me wrong Director-Writer Elijah Bynum has apparent talent as a visual artist; with his exploration of the uncomfortable that you’re frequently able to overlook many script flaws, and thanks to Majors’ performance, it still can burrow deep into your skin to point where it is maybe too nihilist for its good. Funny enough, some of the best scenes in Magazine Dreams felt straight from Whiplash. One, in particular, is a pivotal date sequence. It begins on a tender-hearted note and slips to Killian not picking up on social cues until he reveals his most authentic self to crippling effect. You understand he comes from a place of torment and is obsessed with one thing and one thing only, his body and being one of the great bodybuilders he sees in magazines and worships. The rest of the film becomes a relentless string of miserable sequences with no redeemable or meaningful end. However, the most striking moment is another take from a critical sequence in Whiplash in which the lead is running late to a big-stakes performance show after a surprise physical attack. [B-]

Past Lives: Our movie opens up at a bar from the perspective of a couple, not even from this film. They’re speculating through point-of-view voiceover regarding the relationship dynamic of three people sitting across from them (Greta Lee’s Nora, Teo Yoo’s Hae Sung, and John Magaro’s Arthur) based on their body language and facial expressions. Next, we explore the walls between them with an extended first-act flashback of Nora Hae Sung’s budding friendship in South Korea nearly thirty years prior. Eventually, the childhood pair are split apart as Nora’s family moves to Canada. She later finds herself living as a writer in New York while Hae Sung remains in South Korea. In an incredible and layered performance, Nora, played by Greta Lee, begins thinking about her long-old friend and sees he was also in pursuit of locating her when on Facebook. That quickly extends to a Skype relationship, and we’re now watching two people fall in love who are then forced once again to split apart when a future between them while seeking their career aspirations is unrealistic.

Once broken up, they each immediately fall in love with new people, and we focus now on John Magaro’s Arthur and his relationship with Nora, who meets her on a writing retreat. Once Hae Sung finally visits New Year over a decade later, he becomes the self-aware obstacle in their relationship as the two previous lovebirds can see, touch and process repressed feelings for the first time. Magaro’s performance is awe-inspiring as well. It’s a scene-stealing force as the self-aware husband stuck as their romantic obstacle that imbues the movie with incredible authenticity and comic relief, and he knows how a facial expression can be as powerful as words. The love story of two childhood sweethearts reconnecting, but the timing is never right for either of them may sound generic, but it’s anything but. Watching Nora and Hae Sung reconnect and yearn for one another leads to some of the most emotionally open, warm, and moving sequences you watch all year. It’s a beautiful film that plays with emotions, imagery, and the complexities of romance and identity, with an emotionally crushing ending with bold directing choices that play against expectations that will make you indeed leave you in the theater weeping. Writer-Director Celine Song comes from a theater background. Still, you would never know as she displays a complete mastery of writing, command, instinct, and how to deliver the most authentic performances from her actors. It’s a profoundly understated yet intimately rich and wonderful romance of the ambiguity of what could’ve been, and I consider it an absolute masterpiece of complicated romance. [A+]


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