Film: 2023 Sundance Film Festival

by C.J. Arellano

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Written by C.J. Arellano for THE ARTISTS FORUM MAGAZINE
Edited by
Courtesy of Sundance Film Fest / Highlight section by Monteque Pope-La Beau

4 out of 5 stars


NEW YORK, NY (February 13, 2023) After two years mired in pandemic limbo, the Sundance Film Festival returned to the slopes of Park City, Utah January 19 – 29, 2023, as a full-fledged in-person event. Attendance was light compared to recent years, the not-quite-filled theaters at many screenings a sign that some attendees felt crowd-wary and preferred to stick to the fest’s virtual offerings. Yet the tenor of the films also felt light. Hope and humor prevailed throughout the lineup, an apparent acknowledgement of audiences’ current preferences for bright, life-affirming fiction in fraught times – though of course a sizable portion of the lineup nodded to viewers’ increasingly voracious appetite for anxiety-catharsis via horror narratives.  I had the opportunity to catch 11 films over the week of Sundance’s return to in-person glory, including queer doc trailblazer Kokomo City, A24 breakout dramedy Past Lives, and the polarizing affluenza fable Infinity Pool. Here’s my full rundown: 

From (l to r) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rosalie Craig, and Emilia Clarke in “The Pod Generation”

THE POD GENERATION (Belgium / France / United Kingdom)
Award: Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize
Director: Sophie Barthes
Writer: Sophie Barthes
Stars: Emilia Clarke, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Vinette Robinson, Rosalie Craig

4 out of 5 stars

As writer/director Sophie Barthes introduced The Pod Generation on the fest’s opening night, she shared that a series of dreams she had while pregnant inspired her to create this sci-fi satire about consumer tech colliding with childbirth in a not-too-distant future. Indeed, the film has the languid overtones and playful quirk of a dream, but it’s also fused with an ominous undercurrent of parental anxieties so potent that it qualifies as a dystopian nightmare – albeit one with cute and cuddly production design.

Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor play Rachel and Alvy, a couple who opt to make a baby in an artificial womb sold by an Apple-like tech giant (or Amazon-like, or Tesla-like – take your pick). Clarke plays forward-thinking Rachel with a Siri-like pep, while Ejiofor approaches tech-averse Alvy as an introspective forest-dweller. The tensions between their mismatched personalities account for a large chunk of the movie’s arch, if disquieting, humor.  

Though Barthes listed Adam McKay as an inspiration during the post-show Q&A, she infuses The Pod Generation with a satirical sensibility that raises more curious questions than leaden answers. This movie isn’t the Don’t Look Up of pregnancy; its strategies feel more elegant than dropping truths onto our heads with the brute force of a comet from space. Rather, Barthes builds out her cold yet cozy world and asks us if we’re okay with living in it. This gentle prodding works overall, but it does leave the characters in a place that will have viewers wondering what on earth comes next for them. The Pod Generation all but demands a follow-up movie to resolve its emotional cliffhangers – though by insisting upon a sequel, I’m aware I sound like a convenience-obsessed consumer whom Barthes would lampoon with glee. 

From l to r: Cody Fern, Scoot McNairy and Nessa Dougherty in "Fairyland" - Kalman Muller/Courtesy of Sundance Institute
From l to r: Cody Fern, Scoot McNairy and Nessa Dougherty in “Fairyland” – Kalman Muller/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Director: Andrew Durham
Writers: Andrew Durham
Stars: Emilia Jones, Scoot McNairy, Geena Davis, Adam Lambert, Nessa Dougherty

3 out of 5 stars

Based on a 2013 memoir by Alysia Abbott and produced by Sofia Coppola, the affecting if clunky Fairyland follows a young girl raised by her wayward gay father in San Francisco during the 1970s and ‘80s. Andrew Durham peppers his script with wordy dialogue that over-announces the emotional crux of each scene. The cast wrangles and elevates the unwieldy text: Emilia Jones plays Alysia with wounded melancholy and hardened resolve, a dichotomy that grows thornier the more her father Steve neglects her in favor of living his best gay life. Meanwhile, Scoot McNairy juggles the contradictions in Steve, a newly out gay man embracing the joy of his self-discovery while guilt-ridden over what it costs his daughter. McNairy excels in every moment of his textured performance. Combined with Maggie Whitaker’s observant costume design, he doesn’t look like a modern actor in vintage drag; he feels like he’s sauntered out of a grainy photo from a queer history textbook. 

As celebratory and emotionally generous as Fairyland positions itself, the film presents a queer life from an unflinching heterosexual vantage point. We come to know Alysia’s moments of heartbreak and joy with microscopic precision, but we’re left to guess at the emotional complexities percolating in Steve’s corner. Given the movie’s source material, it feels inevitable that Alysia’s character arc overshadows Steve’s, but skewing the narrative toward the straight individual in this queer/straight duo feels limited. By movie’s end, tears flow both onscreen and in the audience, but in the worrisome tradition of The Help, Green Book, and Philadelphia, this feels like a movie about a marginalized culture designed to make the dominant culture weep. Whether or not it resonates with the marginalized communities depicted almost feels like a nice-to-have bonus. 

Greta Lee and Teo Yoo in “Past Lives”

Celine Song
Writers: Celine Song
Stars: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro

4.5 out of 5 stars

It almost does a disservice to Past Lives to describe its plot, in which childhood sweethearts reunite as adults and navigate murky feelings as they resolve past with present. Make no mistake: despite its familiar premise, Past Lives soars thanks to its naturalistic performances and poetic audiovisual choices. Writer/director Celine Song opens her movie with a deceptively simple question – Who are these characters to each other? – and proceeds to complicate the query the more we learn about the ambitious Nora (Greta Lee) and phlegmatic Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), who bonded as children in South Korea before Nora’s family immigrated to North America.

Years later, Hae Sung finds Nora thanks to social media. As the two grown adults reconnect in New York, they wonder why they’re drawn to each other. Is it a genuine romantic connection or simple nostalgia? Or perhaps they are “In Yun,” a Korean concept akin to soulmates, which Nora and Hae Sung interrogate as they fumble toward resolution. Meanwhile, a third party, Arthur (John Magaro), struggles to locate where he fits within Nora and Hae Sung’s tenuous relationship. Magaro plays his role with congenial humor, catalyzing some of the movie’s funniest moments in ways that feel achingly real as they are unexpected. 

Thoughtful aesthetic choices from Song’s team elevate her already rich screenplay. Shabier Kirchner’s inquisitive cinematography mirrors the characters’ quiet search for fulfillment. His camera continually scans rooms and faces, remaining still yet resisting stillness. Meanwhile, Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen’s ethereal music immerses us further in Nora and Hae Sung’s joint search for themselves in each other. The net result is a film as simple and intimate as its initial question, and will leave many viewers asking “Who are we to each other?” about their own loved ones… and about old flames they haven’t seen in years. 

Promotional poster for “Kokomo City”

Award: NEXT – Audience Award & NEXT – Innovator Award
Director: D. Smith
Stars: Daniella Carter, Koko Da Doll, Liyah Mitchell, Dominique Silver

4.5 out of 5 stars

Filmmaker D. Smith’s raucous and revelatory doc, Kokomo City, stars a luminous ensemble of trans sex workers, who share details of their lives on their own terms. The charismatic cast feel like stars in the making as they share war stories, backstories, and cogent musings on race, class, and gender. To spruce up the already captivating interview footage, Smith incorporates free-association imagery of flora, fauna, abstract close-ups, and all stripes of male archetypes to further deepen the viewer’s understanding of how these particular trans individuals navigate their experience in a precarious industry.

Smith also infuses her film with the oxygen-burst energy of a music video, presiding over a self-assured montage style that feels breezy but never suffocating. In fact, her editing sensibility itself feels political, as abrupt edits punctuate stunning anecdotes that cishet filmmakers might have instead treated with an over-baked poignancy by, say, forcing pregnant pauses to linger as the music swells. It’s a microscopic example of how the act of trans filmmakers telling trans stories inherently feels richer than cishet creators controlling trans-focused narratives.

Whereas creators from the dominant culture might play these stories for tears and shock, trans storytellers have the opportunity to say c’est la vie about their own experiences, thus inviting the viewer to avoid cheap heart-string tugs and behold the human subjects at hand in their full three-dimensional humanity. If there’s any justice in the world, the cast of Kokomo City would star in a docu-reality TV show for multiple galvanizing seasons. 

Promotional poster for “In My Mother’s Skin”

IN MY MOTHER’S SKIN (Philippines / Singapore / Taiwan, 2023)
Director: Kenneth Dagatan
Writer: Kenneth Dagatan
Stars: Angeli Bayani, Jasmine Curtis-Smith, James Mavie Estrella

3 out of 5 stars

In My Mother’s Skin takes inspiration from the Philippines’ rich and disturbing cavalcade of folkloric monsters to mine its visceral scares – emphasis on “viscera.” This fantasy horror piece from writer/director Kenneth Dagatan centers on a Filipino family in dire straits during World War II. After her dad runs off, a young girl named Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) journeys into the forest to find a cure for her dying mother and places her trust in a flesh-eating fairy, who leads her down dark paths. 

It doesn’t take long for the Pan’s Labyrinth comparisons to spring to mind: a young girl coping with wartime horrors by relying on magical woodland creatures feels all sorts of familiar. Indeed, during the post-show Q&A Dagatan readily cited Guillermo del Toro’s landmark 2006 film as a key inspiration. But if you can believe it, In My Mother’s Skin feels even grimmer and darker than any nightmare del Toro ever dreamed up. In fact, as Tala searches for hope in a hopeless place, it dawns on the viewer that movies like In My Mother’s Skin are why fiction-nerd communities created terms like “grimdark” in the first place. 

Dagatan draws overt visual parallels between his sinister fairy and the Virgin Mary, a figure with particular prominence in the Catholic-dominant Philippines. His iconoclastic sensibilities feel compelling, and In My Mother’s Skin includes many ingredients for a true horror masterpiece, but something’s amiss. For one, the story feels a bit slight: it takes place in and around a single location, so as the night wears on, Tala’s attempts to thwart the fairy and save her family take on the déjà vu effect of watching a videogame character try again and again to conquer an impossible level. 

But Russell Adam Morton’s lush and accomplished cinematography helps cast a hypnotic spell. And despite the gruesome nature of Dagatan’s story, Napuli as Tala radiates a hero’s warmth and resolve. Just as she refuses to lose hope, her committed performance prevents the viewer losing hope in the film altogether. 

Promotional poster for “Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kind of Left Out”

Director: Jake Van Wagoner
Austin Everett
Starring: Emma Tremblay, Jacob Buster, Will Forte, Elizabeth Mitchell

1 out of 5 stars

Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kind of Left Out boasts an adorable title, but the movie itself feels lost in space. The sci-fi YA clunker follows Itsy (Emma Tremblay), a sullen teenager who moves to Utah and befriends Calvin (Jacob Buster), an eccentric outsider whose lifelong identity crisis is thus summed up in the movie’s garrulous moniker.  

Aliens Abducted… has blockbuster aspirations (the filmmakers handily compared themselves to Spielberg in the post-show Q&A) but it’s saddled with a cliche-ridden script and corporate-video production values, punctuated with a bizarre finale that features one of the most extreme cases of tonal whiplash ever witnessed on this or any other planet. 

But there are bright points. Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost) pops up in a small but pivotal role, casually throwing down a heartbreaking one-scene performance. She plays opposite the movie’s other standout actor, Jacob Buster, who possesses that CW Network blend of J. Crew-catalog looks and earnest expressions. The movie overall is so goofy that one could adopt an ironic affection for the film, on the level of Cats or The Room. But in terms of this movie standing alongside true teen-centric sci-fi greats like E.T. or Back to the Future? It’s galaxies off-target. 

Promotional poster for the film “Mutt”

MUTT (USA, 2023)
U.S. Dramatic Competition – Special Jury Award: Acting (Lio Mehiel)
Directors: Vuk Lungulov-Klotz
Writers: Vuk Lungulov-Klotz
Stars: Lio Mehiel, Cole Doman, MiMi Ryder

4.5 out of 5 stars

The best film I saw at the fest: Mutt, a tender story about a trans man reconnecting with figures from his past over a 24-hour period. Given its “continuous time” conceit, this quiet yet anxious drama by writer/director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz feels like a queer contemporization of seminal day-in-the-life narratives like Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway (not to mention The Hours, itself a queering of Mrs. Dalloway). 

Mutt feels undeniably specific to the trans experience, particularly in the ways it explores how pre-transition relationships can threaten to undo post-transition breakthroughs. Feña (played by the spectacular Lio Mehiel) spends his no-good very-long day reckoning with visits from his ex-boyfriend, his distant sister, and his even more distant father, all of whom harbor hangups not only about his transition but about what’s become of their relationship. Every moment of Mutt feels organic, understated, and emotionally authentic… yet the three-ghost-visit structure can’t help but conjure up visions of A Christmas Carol, too. This time, however, it’s the visitors who need to fix their hearts or leave.  

Star Lio Mehiel owns every moment he’s onscreen, playing Feña with a compelling mix of honesty and precision. Cole Doman as Feña’s old flame John is something of a Gen-Z Marlon Brando, who appears as if a great war rages on inside him but it’s all hidden beneath a nonchalant, smoldering visage.  Meanwhile, the gorgeous lo-fi cinematography framed in so-vintage-it’s-modern 4:3 aspect ratio turns every fleeting New York-minute into a gallery-ready portrait. And likewise, Feña’s story feels like a portrait of New York itself: scrappy, on-the-go, of-the-moment, romantic as hell, and forever in search of connection. 

Catalina Saavedra and Jordan Firstman in “Rotting in the Sun”

Director: Sebastián Silva
Writer: Pedro Peirano, Sebastián Silva
Stars: Jordan Firstman, Sebastián Silva, Catalina Saavedra

4 out of 5 stars

Before screening Sebastian Silva and Jordan Firstman’s homo-delicious social satire Rotting in the Sun, the crew introduced the film. Editor Santiago Cendejas told us, “There’s about 1,500 cuts in this film,” but for a split second it sounded like, “There’s about 1,500 c***s in this film.” Both turned out to be true.

Rotting in the Sun is manic, meta, fever dreamy, and a strong contender for “Horniest Movie to Ever Play at Sundance.” Co-writer and director Sebastián Silva plays a bummed-out fictional version of himself. (At least we hope it’s fictional.) As he wanders a nude beach contemplating reasons to keep living his life, fate tosses him toward social media comedian Jordan Firstman, who plays a terminally cheery version of himself. Together they kick around ideas for a TV project, but a hapless housekeeper played by Catalina Saavedra threatens to put the kibosh on this hot collab. 

Rotting in the Sun features humble grainy-video aesthetics and a gay bacchanalian vibe that rivals the steamiest of Greek bathhouses, but it’s also a farce designed with expert precision, sending up gay-man malaise and influencer culture without feeling smug or remote.  Jordan Firstman has real Channing Tatum-like instincts, making smart choices as he plays dumb. He mines genuine pathos from deep beneath his wink-y vainglorious brand of internet comedy. Silva keeps turning the film’s most humiliating gags on himself, and Saavedra wins the day as an unwitting interloper caught up in ribald, queer-flavored Insta-culture idiocy that somehow festers into intrigue. Silva and Pierano’s script fixates itself on matters of decay, so much so that when desperate characters earn the opportunity for fun in the sun, they almost instantly go over the edge into rot.

Justin H. Min and Sherry Cola in “Shortcomings”

Director: Randall Park
Writer: Adrian Tomine
Stars: Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki

4 out of 5 stars

Shortcomings, Randall Park’s directorial debut based on Adrian Tomine’s 2007 graphic novel, is a thoughtful comedy centered around a group of AAPI artists searching for fulfillment in the big city. It leans hard into the meta vibes, as characters debate the impact of mainstream films about Asians who are, oh you know, crazy rich. The protagonist Ben, see, is a quietly spiteful filmmaker who’d rather see real stories onscreen. 

And thus, we follow him on his real “warts and all” character journey, and boy are there warts! Tomine’s script goes miles deep into Ben’s toxic personality, fueled by his embittered perspectives on race and gender. Let’s put it this way: it’s an interesting viewing experience when the audience applauds the side characters who finally tell the main hero off. 

So viewers may squirm in their seats as they watch angry Ben dig his heels into his own self-inflicted misery, but Park and Tomine are wise about how they frame his arc against a larger conversation on the limits of “representation.” And the darling cast as a whole makes the journey worth it. These Asians aren’t crazy, but as movie characters they certainly feel rich. 

Award: World Cinema Dramatic – Grand Jury Prize
Director: Charlotte Regan
Writer: Charlotte Regan
Stars: Harris Dickinson, Laura Aikman, Ambreen Razia

4 out of 5 stars

Scrapper wins my vote for funniest Q&A crew. Writer/director Charlotte Regan had us laughing nonstop with her color commentary and disarming brand of self-effacement. (Her introduction: “This is our film. Yeah, we made it. Hope you like it. If you don’t, ah well. Can’t win ‘em all.”) Also hilarious: when a learned film nerd opened his question by comparing the film to a deep-cut title from an obscure corner of British film history, Regan was lost on the reference and just said, “Yeah, our references on set were more like, “Let’s do it like The Bourne Ultimatum! Remember that shot from The Bourne Ultimatum?!” 

As for the movie itself, Scrapper is a total charmer. The story follows Georgie, a 12-year-old girl who schemes, survives, and dodges social services as she lives by herself. For whatever reason, this is the third movie I’ve seen in recent weeks about a young girl who reconnects with her screw-up of a single dad (do we, as a culture, need to see a therapist for our daddy issues?). Scrapper stands out thanks to Regan’s eclectic direction, star Lola Campbell’s limitless appeal, and a confident aesthetic that places us in Georgie’s headspace, forever suspended between the whimsy of a kid’s imagination and the harsh realities of living on the brink. Think Mike Leigh fused with Moonrise Kingdom-era Wes Anderson… and indeed topped off with a garnish of Bourne Ultimatum

Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Writer: Brandon Cronenberg
Stars: Alexander Skarsgård, Mia Goth, Cleopatra Coleman

4 out of 5 stars

Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool is demented, depraved, beautiful, and bonkers. But days later, I’m still left wondering if this is actually a “good” movie or just a “fun” one. Cronenberg takes the approach that Alex Garland did with last year’s Men and makes the viewer feel – rather than think about – his key ideas. Beleaguered main character James, played by Alexander Skarsgard, gets more degraded – in more ways than one – as the beguiling Gabi (Mia Goth, who solidifies in carbonite her status as horror’s current “It Girl”) pulls him further into the void.  And, as the decadence and nihilism hit a boiling point, the viewer can feel their own soul shrinking into a little neon clump of despair. 

Infinity Pool will resonate with horror fans who have a strong affinity for gory-beautiful movies (see also: Mandy, Knife + Heart, In Fabric), but may leave others alienated, especially those growing weary of increasingly familiar “eat the rich” narratives (see also: The Menu, Ready or Not, You’re Next, a long list of etc.). Consider pairing this midnight movie with David Cronenberg’s Videodrome for a romp in the sadomasochistic corner of the Twilight Zone. Or otherwise, pair it with the also-polarizing Hereditary and you’re guaranteed to argue with your horror snob friends all night long. Just don’t blame me if it ends with everyone naked, masked, and running around trying to stab each other. 

Filmmaker C.J. Arellano at the Sundance Film Festival 2023

Sadly, I didn’t catch some of the festival’s buzzier titles, including Magazine Dreams, Eileen, The Persian Version, and Cat Person. Considering the eclectic cross-section of films I did see, I’d rate this year’s fest 4 out of 5 stars. The lineup as a whole felt like vintage Sundance, with many selections eschewing narrative risk for more overt crowd-pleasing sensibilities. (Take “crowd-pleasing” with a grain of salt: I heard a few fest-goers use that phrase to describe the sexually explicit homo-neurotic farce Rotting in the Sun, and I couldn’t help but think, “Ah, only at Sundance.”)

If the lighter attendance numbers reflected audiences’ desires to stream from their couches, we’ll see how this continued tidal shift toward at-home viewing affects where distributors decide to bet their chips. With Sundance 2023’s gleaming crop of out-of-the-box hits like Mutt and Past Lives, this year will see no shortage of compelling slice-of-life films that aim to break boundaries and shatter long-stubborn ceilings. Whether audiences show up to watch is another looming question altogether.

For more information about the 2023 Sundance Film Festival Winners, visit:

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