A Winter Wonderland For Cinema: A Sundance Film Festival Recap Part 1
The Festival Fires the Starter’s Pistol on the Annual Film Awards Race
The Sundance Film Festival has been hosting the best in independent film since its inception in 1981. Named for his character in the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the event was founded by Robert Redford in 1981. Nestled in the snowy hills of Park City, Utah, the festival has gone from being a scrappy little upstart to one of the most revered cinematic launching pads in the world. If the Oscars are the checkered flag for the awards races, then Sundance is the official starter’s pistol that kicks off the grueling 14-month competition.
Most of the films featured at the festival will resurface throughout the year as they find theatrical distribution or a streaming home with Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, MUBI and the like. Brandon Cronenberg’s newest film, Infinity Pool, used Sundance as a premiere of sorts. It can already be found in theaters across the country. Committed cinephiles and movie nerds use Sundance to find the films that will dominate their cultural conversations for months to come. The festival puts the newest darlings of indie cinema on their personal radars.
If you weren’t fortunate enough to attend the 2023 festival in-person or virtually, then break out a pen and paper or the Notes app on your phone because these are some films you should be tracking down over the months to come. (This is the first of several pieces that will be posted about the offering at the 2023 edition of Sundance.)
When It Melts: Eight-year-old Justin Henry, the cute little boy at the heart of the divorce in the 1979 film Kramer v. Kramer, is the youngest Oscar nominee ever. Tatum O’Neal is the youngest Oscar winner, being only ten years old when she took home the Best Supporting Actress trophy for Paper Moon in 1973. If 17-year-old Rosa Marchant wins an Oscar in 2024 for her work in this film, she won’t be the first talented youngster to do so, but it would be a staggering (and well-deserved) accomplishment nonetheless. I can’t imagine seeing a better performance this year. The Sundance Jury clearly agrees because Marchant took home the Special Jury Prize for Best Performance in the World Cinema category.
Marchant plays Eva, a baby-faced school girl coming of age in Belgium with her friends, Laurens and Tim. Eva is still interested in riding bikes, sharing ice cream and swimming in her friend’s above ground pool. Laurens and Tim on the other hand are beginning to realize that their female classmates might have more to offer than just platonic friendship. Their interest in spending their spare time with Eva is fading. Children growing up and drifting apart is a common film trope, but audiences may not be prepared for the dark places this theme will take them during the film’s 110-minute runtime.
As the film opens, we meet the adult Eva (an excellent Charlotte De Bruyne). She’s quiet, awkward and prone to anxiety. She seems broken, haunted even. Eva spots a post on social media for an event that would reunite her with her childhood crew. She decides to leave her home in Brussels and return to the town of her childhood summers. She doesn’t seem particularly excited by the prospect of her homecoming. She seems resigned to it as if she’s fated to walk those streets and see those faces once again. The film expertly toggles between past and present to detail the events in the life of young Eva that shaped the woman we see in the present.
Writer-director Veerle Baetens’ filmmaking is fearless, assured and unflinching. It’s incomprehensible that this is her feature film debut as a director. The Dutch filmmaker put her confidence in young Rosa Marchant to carry the burden of this difficult story, and that confidence was well-placed. The resulting film is stunning. When It Melts is nothing short of a cinematic punch to the gut. It’s final scene will live with me for a long time.
Polite Society: Ria (Priya Kansara) is a high schooler who plans to be a stuntwoman. She sends emails to her hero (real life stuntwoman Eunice Huthart) and films herself performing DIY action scenes in her backyard. Lena (Ritu Arya) is Ria’s older sister who’s returned home after dropping out of art school. If she isn’t acting as Ria’s unofficial camerawoman, Lena finds herself wearing sweat pants and aimlessly lying around the house all day. She can’t seem to find her sense of purpose.
When Lena meets a rich, handsome stranger who seems intent on making Lena his bride, Ria becomes suspicious. Why would a wealthy doctor appear out of nowhere to woo her sister? And why can’t Ria shake the feeling that her sister’s future mother-in-law is about as trustworthy as a Bond villain? Something sinister is afoot (or Ria has an overactive imagination).
Polite Society has a lot to say about growing up and growing older. Is Ria truly concerned about her sister’s well-being? Or is she just disappointed that Lena is giving up on her dream of being an artist? And what does that say about Ria’s own dreams of being a stuntwoman? Ria finds herself confronting the possibility that she and her sister may just live their lives as normal people, and there might be nothing wrong with that.
The comparisons to Everything Everywhere All at Once are equal parts inevitable and reductive. The creative team behind this film might be ecstatic to field comparisons to the surprise hit of 2022 that garnered ten Oscar nominations a few weeks ago. However, writer-director Nida Manzoor has her own narrative sensibilities and visual flair. Both films have huge hearts for their characters and the ties that bind these Asian families together, but the comparisons really end there. Polite Society is a good old-fashioned crowd pleaser made with style to burn. It deserves to find a big audience to experience its many charms.
The Accidental Getaway Driver: Long Ma is an elderly taxi driver who mostly works in the Vietnamese neighborhoods of Los Angeles. When he makes a late-night run to the local grocery store, he agrees to meet a fare who promises to pay double his customary rate to compensate Long for the inconvenience. When he realizes he’s been duped into picking up three convicts who’ve escaped from an Orange County correctional facility, Long wonders if he will walk away from the cab ride with his life.
Formerly known as a maker of music videos, this film won director Sing J. Lee the Sundance Directing Award for U.S. Dramatic Features. The cinematography has a “you are there” immediacy resulting in a narrative drama so realistic that it feels like a documentary. Although the film is based on a real event, The Accidental Getaway Driver isn’t interested in the crimes themselves. This isn’t a procedural. It’s a character drama.
The film focuses on the relationship that develops between the elderly taxi driver and Tay, the eldest escapee. A man with no son finds himself bonding with a man with no father. In brief flashbacks, the audience sees the formative events in Long’s life that destroyed his marriage and alienated him from his children. Dustin Nguyen (who 80’s TV fans will remember as Harry Ioki on 21 Jump Street) gives a soulful, lived-in performance as Tay. His quiet, subtle work tells us all we need to know about his character’s past.
The Accidental Getaway Driver embraces the idea that not every criminal is evil. Sometimes decent people make very bad decisions, and those choices taint the rest of their lives. Tay longs to find redemption, but he fears he may not be able to save Long from his violent accomplices. The film is less about the fate of the escaping prisoners than it is an examination of a lost man trying to find his soul.