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On Sundance Film Festival 2023

The Sundance Film Festival has become a yearly pilgrimage since my first visit in 2016. This year marked my sixth in-person festival (Sundance went on-line in 2021 and 2022 due to COVID). I’m a seasonal person that has spent most of my life in (nearly) season-free locales, Mississippi, and California. So, the opportunity to spend almost a week in January enduring Utah’s freezing temperatures and snow has been a welcome break from both the paradisiacal Southern California weather and the unpredictable, yet always humid, climate of Mississippi.

It is practically impossible to write about film festivals like Sundance in their entirety. Even the most seasoned, full-time, professional film critics could never hope to see every film in the lineup. It’s almost as difficult as getting a film accepted into Sundance: approximately 4,000 feature films and 9,000 short films are submitted each year with only 120 of the former and about 70 of the latter making the cut.[1]

In previous years I would push myself to screen as many films as possible during my time there, cramming in as many as three to four films per day. I’m a textbook seven on the Enneagram, so the FOMO (fear of missing out) struggle was particularly real for me. This year, I vowed to take it slower, and only screened three films once. Every other day, I limited myself to two films.  What follows is a spiritual reflection on eight of the fourteen films I screened and would revisit again with a group for discussion. As I mentioned earlier, this reflection is far from exhaustive and should not be taken as commentary on the festival as a whole. 

A Still Small Voice

The only documentary that I screened at the festival, A Still Small Voice follows Mati, a young woman in a chaplaincy training program at Mount Sinai Hospital during the height of the COVID pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Director Luke Lorentzen follows Mati as she visits patients and prays with them and their families and as she ministers to the hospital staff. Lorentzen also sits in on Mati’s sessions with classmates and supervisor Rev. David Fleenor as the students discuss the pressures of their training and the calling itself.

A Still Small Voice sheds light on heroes who might not have received the same public attention as doctors and nurses over the last couple of years. But I don’t get the sense that this is Lorentzen’s primary aim. His is a far more intimate approach that raises conversations about faith and doubt in the face of suffering and death, whether you are the person actively dying or the minister serving them at this transitional moment in life. And this liminal space between life and death seems to be of interest to Lorentzen, whose previous film, Midnight Family discusses a family-run ambulance business in Mexico City, won over 35 awards and was shortlisted for an Academy Award in 2020.

As I write this, there is no update on a distribution deal for A Still Small Voice or when non-festival audiences will be able to view it. Midnight Family is streaming for free online at PlutoTV.

All Dirt Roads Taste Of Salt

An intimate narrative feature that almost feels like a documentary (shot in my native Mississippi), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is one of the most visually stunning (if narratively vague) films of the festival. A poet by training, writer/director Raven Johnson’s depiction of generational trauma and love centers on Mack over (roughly) three different phases of her life as she flirts with the promise of new love, the painful experience of unrequited love, and the peace of being more fully comfortable in one’s own skin (more on skin in a moment). The film moves back and forth between these different moments in Mack’s life, as the program description of the film so beautifully states, borrowing “from the language of memory. Shifts in time are prompted by movement and emotion.”[2]

Rarely do audiences see black bodies so beautifully and lovingly presented on the big screen. There is no hyper-sexualizing or fetishistic brutality at work here. Instead, Jackson and cinematographer Jomo Fray employ meditative, long-held shots of hands caressing hands, arms wrapped around bodies in loving embrace, and fingertips feeling the texture of dirt and mud. These long shots and the non-linear chronology combine to create a demanding viewing experience, but that is what great art does. It demands (and commands) our full attention. Jackson’s sophisticated, deeply spiritual film reminds us that, as we learn from scripture, we are made of dirt (and water and air) and to those elements we will all one day return.

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is an A24 film, so you can likely expect a limited theatrical release, hopefully, later this year before the film becomes available online.

Magazine Dreams

I first saw actor Jonathan Majors in the film The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival (which you should watch as soon as possible), and I have been a fan of his ever since. When I read that he was starring as an aspiring bodybuilder in Magazine Dreams, that became one of my most anticipated films of the festival. In the Q & A that followed the premiere of his feature film, Director Elijah Bynum talked about his creative process and said that he first arrived at the idea of the film’s main character and then set about crafting a story for that character. This helps explain, in part, why the story seems to fall apart in the third act: it doesn’t seem that Bynum has ultimately decided how to end the film. This was a shared shortcoming across the few films that I didn’t ultimately care for at this year’s festival. It seems that the higher a film soars in its first two acts, the harder it becomes to land the third, so to speak. And thanks to another captivating performance from Majors, who we can now discuss alongside the likes of Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and Jake Lamotta (Raging Bull), Magazine Dreams absolutely soars during its first two acts.

Majors plays Killian Maddox, a (likely) autistic young man who lives with and cares for his veteran grandfather, works at a grocery store, and attends court-mandated therapy sessions, all while dreaming of, and working tirelessly towards, being on the cover of bodybuilding magazines. The more aggressively Killian pursues his goal, the more unhinged he becomes, and it is through this downward spiral that the film invites us to consider themes like PTSD, independence and interdependence, solitude, longing, and love. Even as Magazine Dreams careened through what seemed like three alternative endings, I could never look away from Killian, even as he crumbled before my eyes. As such, Majors’ performance is the latest example of the lengths to which some actors will go to embody their character in the pursuit of perfecting their craft.

There is no word yet on a distribution deal for Magazine Dreams.

The Accidental Getaway Driver

Perhaps my favorite film of the festival (or at least in my top three), The Accidental Getaway Driver is the perfect confluence of character and story and is based on a remarkable true story. Rather than simply recreating the “factual” events of that story, director Sing J. Lee uses the story to flesh out four distinct, yet equally broken, characters that serve as vessels into which we, as viewers, can pour our hopes, dreams, and disappointments. The different origins of films like Magazine Dreams and The Accidental Getaway Driver reveal the symbiotic relationship between character and story in narrative cinema. The film follows Long, a Vietnamese driver in Southern California, who unwittingly picks up three escaped convicts from an Orange County jail. The men take him hostage and force him to be their getaway driver. As the men wait in seedy motels for their plans to unfold, Long develops an unlikely relationship with one of the men, Tây, which helps the film build to a breathtakingly beautiful and redemptive conclusion.

Actor Hiệp Trần Nghĩa performance as Long anchors the film. His quiet, but powerful, performance invokes Peter Sellers’ Chauncey Gardiner in Being There. But where Gardiner’s self-assured silence provokes transformation in others, it is Long’s self-doubt, regret, and trauma that lures Tây to him. As the producers and cast pointed out in the Q & A following the premiere, the film shines a light on a forgotten community, the survivors (both as individuals and families) of the American invasion of Vietnam. The war and re-education camps separated Long from his family, and when he finally emigrates to America to be reunited with them, he realizes that they had moved on. Long lost his home in Vietnam and is unable to make a new one until his accidental encounter with a criminal.

There is no word as of yet on a domestic distribution deal for The Accidental Getaway Driver.

Sometimes I Think About Dying

Cross a classic Hollywood love story with the aesthetic of a workplace TV comedy like The Office and you get Sometimes I Think About Dying. The film follows Fran (Daisy Ridley in one of the best performances of the festival), an introverted office worker, who cannot stomach small talk and occasionally daydreams about her own death. The arrival of a new coworker, the awkward, yet gregarious, Robert (Dave Merheje), disrupts her morbid reverie and threatens to bring her out of her shell. You’ll have to watch the film for yourself to see if the two ultimately connect. But unlike most romantic comedies, romance isn’t at the heart of director Rachel Lambert’s adaptation of Kevin Armento’s play of the same name. Lambert gives us one of the most insightful and moving depictions of an introverted life in recent cinema. This is an example of a director and actor working in sync to invite audiences into the interior life of a character. This kind of work is an empathy engine, and we need it more now than ever.  

There is no word yet on a distribution deal for Sometimes I Think About Dying.

You Hurt My Feelings

Writer/director Nicole Holofcener is no stranger to Sundance as three of her previous films premiered at the festival. Her latest, You Hurt My Feelings, stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus in what may be one of her best performances ever. The film follows Beth (Louis-Dreyfus), a writer with a somewhat successful memoir under her belt, who is struggling to publish her first novel. Her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) is a therapist, who may or may not be very good at his job. When Beth overhears Don expressing his true feelings about the latest draft of her next book (he doesn’t like it), the seemingly perfect couple begins to spiral out of control.

You Hurt My Feelings is laugh-out-loud funny and is sure to be one of the most humorous films of the year. It also boasts realistic, richly drawn characters; sharp, yet believable, dialogue; and pitch-perfect performances from the entire cast. This might be one of Louis-Dreyfus’ best work. At the same time, the film also raises real questions about identity. Who are we? Are we our work, or are we more than that? What does it mean when those we love the most don’t necessarily love what we do? The film also asks us to consider the complex nature of honesty as it pertains to relationships. Are we ever fully truthful with those closest to us? To what extent are white lies necessary for healthy relationships?

A24 is distributing You Hurt My Feelings, and that will hopefully include a wide theatrical release later this year.

Flora And Son

I love John Carney. There, I said it. I don’t just love his movies; I love the man. Every time I hear him talk about his movies I realize that they’re inseparable from his life growing up in Ireland. If you haven’t watched Once or Sing Street, stop what you’re doing (okay maybe finish this article) and watch them. To love these movies is to love the man that made them.

Carney’s latest film, Flora and Son shares similar themes with his previous work: aspiring musician characters, unlikely, budding romances, infectious music, and plenty of heart. The film follows Flora (Eve Hewson in a star-making turn), a young, single mother struggling to raise an angsty teenage son, Max (Orén Kinlan). She rescues a thrown-away guitar, pays to have it refurbished, and belatedly gifts it to Max (yes, she forgets her own son’s birthday). When he expresses a greater interest in producing electronic music, Flora picks up the instrument herself, takes online lessons from a teacher (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in Los Angeles, and slowly connects with Max when the two realize that they can make beautiful music together.

While there aren’t many “big ideas” at work in Carney’s film, it is profoundly spiritual in that it is a “thank you” love letter to his mother, who gave him his first bass guitar. It is also a work, like so much of Carney’s oeuvre, of complete and utter joy that demands to be seen with as big of an audience as possible. This hilarious and heart-felt film is a tonic for the soul in these tough times. But be warned, Flor and Son might not be for the easily-offended as Carney has a talent for capturing the lyrical, yet expletive-laden Irish brogue.

Apple Films acquired Flora and Son after its premiere in one of the biggest sales of the festival.

Cat Person

The last film I screened at the festival was writer Michelle Ashford and director Susanna Fogel’s adaptation of the viral 2017 New Yorker short story, “Cat Person,” by Kristen Roupenian. The film follows Margot (Emilia Jones, who also starred in the 2021 Sundance hit, CODA), a young college student who develops an attraction to an older man named Robert (Nicholas Braun). After a largely text-based relationship, the two finally go out on their first date, which culminates in an uncomfortable (to say the least) sexual encounter with which Margot may or may not be fully on board. Margot’s doubts her relationship with Robert, and Robert’s obsession with Margot progresses simultaneously and explodes in a late-night encounter that threatens to claim both their lives.

Cat Person begins with a quote from Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Few films capture this reality as effectively as this one. As such, it becomes something of a must-watch for teenagers and/or families with teenagers. Cat Person overflows with pertinent topics: dating in the 21st century, the difference between truth and facts, misogyny, vulnerability, power, and violence. 

There is no word on a distribution deal for Cat Person.

Ryan Parker received his PhD in Film and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union. He holds an MDiv from the Divinity School at Wake Forest University. He currently works in film marketing and publicity, promoting movies to faith, justice, civic, and educational communities.

Image by dmjdenise on UnSplash.

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