Sundance 2023: Fiction Films of Note

Sundance 2023: Fiction Films of Note
Photo Credit: Sundance Film Festival

What you need to know

In the third of a four-part survey, our film critic CJ Sheu reviews four more narrative films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Here are the capsule reviews of the other narrative features I saw at Sundance. You can also read part 1 and part 2 of my coverage. 

Starring former Afghan journalist Anaita Wali Zada as Donya, a former Afghan translator for the U.S. Army who was evacuated to the titular city, Babak Jalali’s Fremont has the relaxed pacing, academy ratio, and low contrast black and white images of a Paweł Pawlikowski film, but with copious dollops of deadpan humor satirizing the absurdities of Donya’s situation. Jalali, who is Iranian, also cowrote (with Carolina Cavalli) and edited the film; Laura Valladao served as cinematographer.

The prime butt of the jokes is Donya’s assigned psychiatrist, played with hilariously quiet aloofness by Gregg Turkington. But the film also pokes fun at non-White people, such as Ricky (Eddie Tang), the owner of the fortune cookie factory where Donya works, who offers an Eastern twist on the detached manager stereotype so maliciously caricatured in Office Space (1999). The Chinese American connection links the film’s visual style to the classic Chan Is Missing (1982), another black and white film set in California. The film is set in Fremont because that’s where the largest population of Afghans in the U.S. lives. 

Fremont resembles Chan Is Missing also in its portrayal of a community, albeit a smaller one. Here, we get a satirical critique of traditional Afghan patriarchy in Suleyman (Timur Nusratty), who never speaks unless ordering around his wife (Taban Ibraz). Unfortunately, the good-natured satire doesn’t extend to Ricky’s wife (Jennifer McKay), who’s reduced to a stereotypical (but very toned down) Dragon Lady.

The use of non-professionals in static shots can sometimes lead to boredom, something that’s brought into relief by the nuanced performance of a late-appearing Jeremy Allen White; but Zada holds her own, especially when Donya has to impose herself. Her frequently impassive performance for the static, neutrally observant camera is the mask that Donya wears when interacting with this alien world, where (as one character puts it) the stars at night never stay still.

Slow_-_Still_1
Photo Credit: Sundance Film Festival
Slow (2023)

Filmed on vibrant 16mm by Laurynas Bareiša, Marija Kavtaradze’s Slow is a traditionally structured and plotted exploration of a romantic relationship in which Elena (Greta Grinevičiūtė) used to be promiscuous and Dovydas (Kęstutis Cicėnas) is asexual. The title is unfortunate, as Dovydas is a sign language interpreter, and Deaf people often used to be considered intellectually inferior, one euphemism for which is “slow.” A better title would’ve been the ironic A Normal Relationship, or even the blunt Love and Sex, as the question at the heart of the film is whether a romantic relationship without sex can be considered normal. Dovydas thinks yes, but Elena is a bit slower to understand. Her characterization speaks to why so many traditionalists are so intransigent on matters of sexual politics, including marriage equality and transgender rights.

Slow at first struck me as one of those films that could be resolved with an honest conversation, but the more I thought about it, the more I came to see that Elena’s ingrained beliefs about sexuality are the real obstacle. It doesn’t help that she seeks the counsel of Viktorija (Laima Akstinaitė), a childhood friend who’s now a nun, another identity that doesn’t separate (romantic) love and sex. Elena would’ve done better to consult a sex worker, if she knows any.

The 16mm film stock’s grain and sense of distance from the image underscore the hazy rules of engagement of the central relationship, while the vibrant colors underneath suggest the possibility of love, if the protagonists work for it. Hazy boundaries are rendered more easily crossed by the existence of Elena’s long train of former lovers and the physical nature of her vocation as a contemporary dancer (choreography by Anna Vnuk). But that vocation also allows for moments of romantic movie magic, as when the movements of Elena and Dovydas flirting while hanging up the laundry exactly match the tempo of the extradiegetic music (composed by Irya Gmeyner and Martin Hederos, including some very good tunes sung by April Snow).

The film is from Elena’s point of view, and the camera loves Grinevičiūtė; at the same time, Cicėnas’s more restrained performance fits his character’s history of romantic rejection due to his particular form of queerness. Asexual though Dovydas may be, the film quietly deconstructs the meaning of “having sex” with its plethora of kissing, cuddling, and other non-penetrative acts of physical intimacy (Irma Pužauskaitė served as intimacy coordinator).

Shortcomings_-_Still_1
Photo Credit: Sundance Film Festival
Shortcomings (2023)

Shortcomings, Randall Park’s feature directorial debut, takes a conventional asshole-facing-himself narrative and leavens it with Asian American observations, concerns, and neuroses. Adapted by Adrian Tomine from his graphic novel, the film follows negativity-filled egotist Ben (Justin H. Min) through the worst month of his adult life (“My rock bottom was high school.”). Min is precisely cast: He has the face and smile of a movie star, which is necessary to play a character who uses up the audience’s patience in the first half hour. He sometimes hams it up a bit too much, but the film is a social comedy, so there’s room for it.

The month in question begins when an argument with his intelligent, beautiful, and rich girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), leads to their taking a break while she goes from West Coast to East for an internship. Ben tries dating, but nothing sticks. He loses his low-paying job. Things get progressively worse. Even Alice (Sherry Cola), his gay best friend, moves to New York for a change of pace. The film tries very hard to justify the best friend character being gay, but it does Alice dirty when it has her call herself and Ben “assholes like us.” There’s clearly only one asshole in this film, and I deeply appreciated it when, at the end, Ben is only semi-reformed. As in life, nobody in this film is blameless, not even Miko.

Where the film shines is in the daily conversations of its characters, almost all of whom are at least partly Asian, with two significant exceptions that I won’t spoil. As part of his negativity, Ben is hyper-focused on race and gender, and Alice’s using him as a beard to meet her family is a chance for the film to bring in tradition and East Asia’s fraught history. It’s a side door into real-life notions and conversations that are seldom seen on screen.

Ben, despite his obsession with race, rejects performative representation in the arts. Miko reminds him that “glossy” mainstream successes can open doors for more artistic projects. What she doesn’t say is that this is because such successes may convince studio heads that even a bad film will have high Asian turnout and so they need not care so much about whether they think the film they greenlight is “good” or not, thereby allowing some gems to escape their gatekeeping. When in Hollywood, do as the philistines do.

Mutt_-_Still_2
Photo Credit: Sundance Film Festival
Mutt (2023)

It’s evident that Mutt is Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s feature debut. Shot by Matthew Pothier in academy ratio, this tale of a bad day in the life of Chilean American transgender man Feña (Lío Mehiel) on the streets of New York drags a little in some places (edited by Adam Dicterow), has dialogue that’s curiously obtuse at key moments, and isn’t afraid enough of deploying clichés. One cliché that I’ve come to forgive is the parent-to-child reminiscing monologue, as I’ve heard quite a few of those in my own life; capped off with a profession of love as it is here, it also functions for some as melodramatic queer wish fulfillment.

“Mutt” evocatively describes what this day is making Feña feel like, as it begins with his waking up in an ex’s bed and needing Plan B (the ex, John, is played by a two-dimensional Cole Doman), being found and followed around by his estranged and truant 14-year-old sister (an evanescent yet cool MiMi Ryder), getting into scrapes and mishaps, and then picking up his benignly transphobic father (Alejandro Goic) from the airport after his 14-hour flight from Chile. One senses that Mehiel can do more than just respond to being batted around by the whims of fate, but the script seldom asks them to.

Along the way, the parts that made me cringe the most were when people objectify Feña to satisfy their own curiosity, though he always reluctantly consents. On the flip side, having the pharmacist who sells him Plan B (Charles Falkowitz) call him both “sir” and “young man” seems a tad overkill. Then again, with such a hot-button issue, maybe people do overcompensate, objectify, deploy clichés, and act obtusely. Maybe the one thing that needs more nuance is how Feña’s reactions are written.

And a quick shout out to John’s mustard yellow shirt jacket, which Feña borrows at one point. The costumes were designed by Elena Lark, but that jacket rightfully gets its own designer credit (Cyrus Blaze).

READ NEXT: Sundance 2023: Documentaries and Short Films of Note

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more story updates in your news feed, please be sure to follow our Facebook.