Temperatures remain frigid here in the shadow of Park City’s mountains, but the 2023 Sundance Film Festival is only heating up. The first weekend saw the launch of several feature films that figure to have audiences talking throughout the year, and many are vying for jury prizes in the festival’s various competition categories. In acquisition news, Fair Play, starring Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich, sold to Netflix for $20 million after a heated bidding war. Will the Chloe Domont thriller take home the U.S. Dramatic Competition prize? Netflix also acquired the Sarah Snook feature Run Rabbit Run, while Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s Theater Camp ended up at Searchlight Pictures.
Cynthia Erivo (Drift), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Flora And Son), first-time director Randall Park (Shortcomings), Sanaa Lathan (Young. Wild. Free.), and Teyana Taylor and producer Lena Waithe (A Thousand And One) were among the stars who showed up for weekend premieres. At the post-screening Q&A for You Hurt My Feelings, writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s fifth time showcasing at Sundance, Michael J. Fox rose from the audience to offer his praise for the film, which stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies.
Below are capsule reviews for five of the fest’s most talked about titles so far: Sometimes I Think About Dying; Cassandro; Bad Behaviour; Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie; and You Hurt My Feelings.
Sometimes I Think About Dying
Director: Rachel Lambert
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Dave Merheje, Parvesh Cheena, Marcia Debonis, Meg Stalter, Brittany O’Grady
Fran (Daisy Ridley) is an Oregon office worker who exists in a cocoon separate from her coworkers and is prone to highly dissociative daydreams. When new hire Robert (Dave Merheje) seemingly plugs into her wavelength, it forces Fran into uncharted and highly uncomfortable territory. As scripted, Sometimes I Think About Dying is very much a movie of interpretation that feels purposefully vague. Working in conjunction with her below-the-line team, however, director Rachel Lambert (In The Radiant City) brings a unifying vision and tonal consistency to this intensely shoe-gazing arthouse bauble, even if its lineage (the film is adapted from a 2019 short film in turn based on a stage play) sometimes makes it feel like an unsuccessful exercise in elongation.
Audiences have seen many movies about social self-isolation told from a male point-of-view, and so a large part of what gives Sometimes I Think About Dying a sense of intrigue is its gendered perspective. Is Fran on the autism spectrum, a victim of trauma or abuse, some combination of the aforementioned, or none of the above? Ridley’s restrained, engaging, back-foot performance invites viewers to ponder this, and more. [Brent Simon]
Director: Roger Ross Williams
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Roberta Colindrez, Perla De La Rosa, Joaquín Cosío, Raúl Castillo
Mexican Lucha libre, with its flashy costumes and performative visions of masculinity, has long been ripe for the kind of tender queer storytelling behind Roger Ross Williams’ fiction feature debut, Cassandro. The film follows the eponymous luchador (played with wounded vulnerability and lithe physicality by Gael García Bernal), who daydreams about telenovelas and is wholly devoted to his mother, as he builds a career for himself as one of the most (in)famous “exoticos” to ever grace the Lucha libre stage.
In showing how Cassandro—born Saul Armendariz—turned his own effeminacy and penchant for the dramatic into assets amid an industry that expected their fighters to be villains and losers, the film treads familiar “sports drama” tropes (though, at least here, montages are set to the likes of Celia Cruz and Juan Gabriel). But the incandescent performances (joining García Bernal are the ever-reliable Roberta Colindrez and Raúl Castillo, as well as a luminous Perla De La Rosa), fabulous costumes, and riveting Lucha libre sequences, make for a thrilling film about learning to turn one’s truth to one’s glittering advantage. [Manuel Betancourt]
Director: Alice Englert
Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Ben Whishaw, Alice Englert
No great film needs likable protagonists. But you should at least hope for personalities who are compellingly unlikable. Making her feature debut as a writer-director, Alice Englert pours a lot of quirky personality into Bad Behaviour, a loose-limbed mother-daughter tale of reconciliation. But the prickly personas she sketches here are so vague and shapeless that you will be hard-pressed to find some reason to care about any of them, resulting in a film that feels as formless and searching as the individuals who drive it.
One of them is thankfully a superb Jennifer Connelly, giving her all to Lucy, a former child actor in pursuit of a purpose as a well-off adult as she journeys to a retreat headed by a textbook-bad-guru Elon Bello (Ben Whishaw, trying his best not to turn Elon into a new-age caricature). Meanwhile, Englert plays a stunt actor in training, delivering a performance that increasingly feels grating. The film is peppered with rough humor and cartoonish characters—like an influencer played by Dasha Nekrasova—as the story follows them unleashing their anger. In the aftermath, the most charming memory you might walk away with is a brief cameo by Jane Campion, Englert’s mother. The rest doesn’t rise above the privilege of its characters. [Tomris Laffly]
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie
Director: Davis Guggenheim
What Gen-Xer didn’t have a youth partly defined by Michael J. Fox as a dreamy presence? In the joyous and appropriately emotional Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, deft documentarian Davis Guggenheim understands this nostalgia at a deep level and delivers the actor’s life story both inventively and with the utmost sensitivity. Guggenheim’s biggest success here is letting Fox be in charge of his own narrative by telling his story himself, a decision that smartly eliminates all potentially problematic avenues in engaging with the incurable Parkinson’s disease that the star lives with, after being diagnosed at age 29.
In that regard, Still is a work of empowerment and empathy, a celebration of Fox’s life as an actor and philanthropist who rose to fame through the sitcom Family Ties and the Back To The Future trilogy, after years of struggling in L.A., cooped up at a tiny apartment with no prospects. Alongside editor Michael Harte’s masterful work, Guggenheim pieces together the beloved actor’s tale, mostly using scenes from Fox’s own shows and movies. Also exquisite is the film’s romantic nature—indeed, Fox’s relationship with, and marriage to, his wife Tracy Pollan is a constant throughout Still. It’s beautiful stuff. [Tomris Laffly]
You Hurt My Feelings
Director: Nicole Holofcener
Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Michaela Watkins, Arian Moayed, Owen Teague
Writer-director Nicole Holofcener has a distinct sense of elegance on the page and behind the camera. Through her inquisitive characters of urban privilege, she makes one feel understood at a human level, articulating our secret thoughts with shrewd honesty in ways both enlightening and impossibly funny. Marking her reunion with Julia Louis-Dreyfus after her low-key rom-com masterpiece Enough Said, Holofcener’s You Hurt My Feelings is no exception.
Holofcener’s latest revolves around a semi-successful New York author (Dreyfus) struggling to garner interest for her next book. Supporting characters include a therapist husband (Tobias Menzies) with questionable finesse at his job, and the friends and relatives who surround the couple’s colorful world. Throughout, Holofcener offers sharp observations on marriage, professional success, and insecurities that sometimes become self-fulfilling prophecies, doing so with both an earnest (sometimes laugh out loud) sense of humor and a keenly observant eye. Anyone who’s ever told a white lie to lift up a loved one or maintained a seemingly innocent secret longer than necessary in the name of supportiveness will feel a little less alone in the world thanks to Holofcener’s deftness in articulating the quietest corners of the human spirit. [Tomris Laffly]