Arts & Entertainment

Sundance Film Festival movie reviews from a townie

PARK CITY, Utah — The first in-person Sundance Film Festival since 2020 flew by. Like many, I enjoyed some in-person screenings and many virtual screenings from the comfort of my own couch.

Below are non-professional movie reviews from an average movie watcher. That being said, the views and opinions expressed are mine and do not reflect the views or positions of TownLift; any errs in judgment and bad opinions are reflective of my own poor taste and lack of culture. Read on for honest reviews and films to look out for on the big and streaming screens in the near future (although this year’s Fest is being called a low-sale year).

Throughout “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” the audience laughed out loud with gregarious, flamboyant Richard Penniman. The film explores the musician’s identity as an openly gay black man in the 1950s and 60s, as well as the whitewashing of rock and roll. Little Richard battled his identity: his religious upbringing as a minister’s son with his sexuality and lifestyle that brought him fame. Although he taught others to be unapologetically themselves, Penniman negotiated his own identity during his tenure of fame. This film explores the man and the everlasting waves he sent through the music industry, by which he was slighted.  As a rock and roll fan, I would definitely recommend this film for the “architect of rock and roll,” the industry, and human struggle. Little Richard: I Am Everything was purchased by Magnolia Pictures/CNN Films; director Lisa Cortés claimed it was the first sale of the festival.

Sometimes I Think About Dying. Photo: Sundance Institute.

Sometimes I Think About Dying” made me think about not finishing the film. This was the film that reminded me that Sundance is at its core an indie film festival. Daisy Ridley’s character is a socially awkward loner who doesn’t have suicidal tendencies but has suicidal daydreams. In the first half of the film, she barely speaks, wears beige, brown, white, and gray (see above depressing photo), and proclaims her favorite food to be cottage cheese until she spends time with an extroverted coworker. After which she wears a maroon sweater! I felt like the concept was beaten over my head, but if I were you, I’d say this loner-makes-meaningful-ish-human-connection film isn’t one to rush into seeing. P.S. If you don’t want to feel bad about your ordinary office job and life, then skip it.

True crime fans are familiar with the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) epidemic. These cases are overlooked, and victims are marginalized in this country. In 2018, Urban Indian Health Institute ranked Utah as the 8th highest state for MMIW cases. “Fancy Dance” tells the story of Roki and her Auntie Jax, Roki’s mother and Jax’s sister is a missing Seneca-Cayuga woman. This film explores marginalized people, communities, and also their strengths. This is a story that, woke or not, indigenous or not, anyone can relate to on some level.

Radical” follows the based-on-a-true-story story of teacher Sergio Juarez, Jose Urbina Lopez Elementary, and its neglected and poorly performing student body. The school is in a rough neighborhood with poverty, gangs, and daily shootings. The story is inspiring, but not necessarily a new one: a radical and eccentric teacher uplifts and propels his students, one of whom is a genius. Fair warning this film is spoken in Spanish, but I’d say worth a watch. “Radical” won Sundance Festival Favorite Award.

Past Lives. Photo: Sundance Institute.

Past Lives” follows the story of a Korean immigrant and a first love that makes her contemplate both her new Canadian/American-ness and her Korean roots. This film was heartbreakingly honest and vulnerable, but made me grin and laugh. Although the story is unique, it is relatable on many levels. This is my Sundance Film Festival winner. “Past Lives” was acquired ahead of the festival by A24.

Theater Camp” is giving Best in Show, but for, well, theater camp. It takes laughable scenarios and characters and amplifies them in this goofy comedy. I felt it could become more well-rounded, as some characters and the plot itself seemed a bit thin. This was an easy watch, even for a non-thespian. Searchlight Films purchased the mockumentary for $8 million.

Randall Park’s directorial debut, “Shortcomings,” is based on Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel of the same name. Shortcomings follows wannabe filmmaker Ben and his relationship with fellow Japanese American girlfriend Miko. Comedian Sherry Cola fills the classic role of funny, lighthearted, best friend who is also a lesbian and perhaps Ben’s only tether to the real world. Ben struggles with anger, identity, and entitlement; more often than not he is frustratingly putting his foot in his mouth. Veep’s Timothy Simons makes a laugh out loud appearance in the film. I would definitely recommend seeing this adult coming-of-maturity story featuring a very strong cast.

Flora and Son. Photo: Sundance Institute.

“Flora and Son” is the newest John Carney film (Once, Begin Again) that received standing ovations. Dubliner Flora is a rough-around-the-edges young single mother and her son flirts with delinquency that lands him in juvie. All the while, Flora is learning guitar and overtly hitting on her guitar instructor in L.A. Whether by design or not, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character as the faraway virtual love interest felt very, pun intended, 2-dimensional to me. That being said, I truly enjoyed this charming film and its characters. Apple bought the rights to the film for a whopping $20 million.

The age old question of, has technology gone too far? is explored in “The Pod Generation.” In this near-future reality, external wombs, or pods, are the latest fad. The film explores women’s workplace standings, even in the future acknowledgment of motherhood is a tricky subject; the external pods mean pregnancy won’t slow a woman down and keeping “the best and brightest” on the top of their game. It also touches on the literal detachment from nature as technology continues to advance. This film is worth a watch and brings up timeless topics of women’s place in society, nature, and technology. This film won this year’s first Sundance award, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Sundance Institute Science-in-Film.

Based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s PEN Hemingway Award winning novel, “Eileen,” is the story of an ordinary girl in a depressing 1960s world. Eileen represses any glimpse of sexuality and her lack of self-esteem is bolstered by her drunk father. At the boys’ prison where she works, of course, she gains a new coworker, Rebecca, who is everything the protagonist would hope to be: beautiful, smart, charming, confident. She will do anything to make Rebecca like her— literally. The film slightly departs from the novel its based on, but that’s not new to readers. The book portrays much more detail and offers more character development; however, the movie leaves Eileen’s motivations and inner thoughts a mystery. Overall, I’d say it’s an interesting, twisted story if you’re into that kind of thing.

Blueback. Photo: Sundance Institute.

Although technically in the Kids category, “Blueback” is an absorbing story of an activist mother, Dora, and her protege daughter, Abby, who’s lives revolve around the Australian bay they call home and its waters that hold fantastic and rare creatures. Abby becomes a marine biologist focused on Australia’s endangered coral reefs, she’s brought back to her childhood home by her mother’s stroke where she relives her past. Her childhood friend, a blue grouper named Blueback, comes into play as poachers and developers attempt to strip and destroy the bay. Blueback is a hopeful tale of defiance and relationships.

The highly anticipated Sundance film featuring Emilia Jones (CODA) and Nicholas Braun, “Cat Person,” was creepy, suspenseful, and probably relatable to most young women. Its opening graphic the famous Margaret Atwood quote, “men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Margot is a college student dating an older man, with whom she has visions of violent encounters and jokes with friends along the lines of, ‘what if he’s a serial killer lol.’ Cat Person explores when the power dynamics, and dangers, of hetero relationships and the uncomfortable ‘games’ we play in the first season of a relationship come to a head. Cat Person is a must watch and potential educational tool for the men in women’s lives.

Fairyland. Photo: Sundance Institute.

Another film based on a book is “Fairyland,” a memoir written by Alysia Abbott. Set in the 1970s and 80s in San Francisco, Alysia is relocated after her mother’s tragic death from the midwest into a whole new world. Her father explores his sexuality with men while Alysia is exposed to the LGBTQ lifestyle, arts, and independence. The tale is heart-wrenching for both Alysia and her father while they essentially grow up together, trying to balance family and personal life.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars in another Sundance film, “You Hurt My Feelings,” a lighthearted comedy about couple dynamics and honesty. Beth (Louis-Dreyfus) and her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) work through a betrayal and career disillusionment, all while supporting their son through a breakup, celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and buttressing a friend through career woes. “You Hurt My Feelings” is worth a watch if only for the silliness and laughs provided by Louis-Dreyfus and film-sister Michaela Watkins. It was acquired ahead of the festival by A24.

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