Sundance: risk-free in 2023

This year’s Sundance Film Festival was a quieter affair, rebounding after a tough 2022 when the festival was canceled a week out due to a COVID spike, filmmakers were canceled due to ethics questions, and several staff departed, including festival director Tabitha Jackson, who left in June 2022 after two years of remote festivals. 2023 felt like a pared-down palate cleanser, the lineup steering clear of controversy with a slate chock-full of self-aware celebrity documentaries (Michael J. Fox, Stephen Curry, Indigo Girls, Judy Blume, Brooke Shields, Little Richard) and several “indies” with big corporate backing. However, there was no shortage of artistry to be found, with recurring themes of unconventional parent-child relationships, addiction, feminism, and self-actualization. A low number of films were reportedly picked up overall; however, local distributor Music Box Films acquired both Other People’s Children and L’immensita before the festival. Here are a sampling of some of the films that will be available to see in the coming year. 

It’s Only Life After All

Credit: Jeremy Cowart. Courtesy Sundance Institute

Alexandria Bombach has created a loving and thoughtful film about Atlanta-based singer-songwriters Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, also known as the Indigo Girls. The film traces their evolution not only as an immensely beloved folk duo, but also as activists for social and environmental justice, including their partnership with Indigenous activist Winona LaDuke. Extensive archival footage—much shot by Amy Ray, who seems to always be documenting their lives—adds to the humor and intimacy, while heartfelt introspective reflections provide a deeper level of appreciation as Amy explores her gender dysmorphia, Emily shares her journey to sobriety, and the duo share many facets of their lives that will delight longtime fans as well as those just discovering their legacy. —Josh Flanders


Courtesy Sundance Institute

Set in Rome in the 1970s, director Emanuele Crialese creates a unique heart-wrenching mother-and-child story. A preteen Adri (a delightful Luana Giuliani) expresses their gender identity in an abusive household under the protection of Clara (Penélope Cruz), a flawlessly dressed unconventional mother of three. Clara’s husband Felice (Vincenzo Amato), a malcontent monster of a man, sucks the air out of the home with his fits of rage and retrograde opinions. Cruz’s performance is layered and exuberant, as she launches into fits of frivolity, much to Adri’s chagrin. As mother and child meet at the crossroads of progressing and regressing emotionally, Crialese punctuates their unbreakable bond through musical numbers that would seem corny in the hands of a lesser director. This film is simultaneously gorgeous and brutal to watch, exquisitely illustrating how the human spirit continues to cultivate joy even in the face of insurmountable suffering. —Sheri Flanders

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Davis Guggenheim (2006’s An Inconvenient Truth) has made a touching film about the life of Michael J. Fox, from his early days as a struggling young actor on the brink of failure, to his larger-than-life persona on TV and film, to his diagnosis with Parkinson’s at an early age. Fox is candid and thoughtful, pointing out the irony that he was always bounding with energy his whole life and that it took his diagnosis with a condition that causes uncontrollable movements to at last find stillness. Guggenheim pulls from a wealth of archival audio and video from Fox’s audiobook, TV appearances, interviews, and films, which at times becomes irritating when he uses the footage out of context, making it seem like Fox’s character, in a clip from a show or film, is responding to an actual event in the actor’s life. The reenactments are similarly annoying. However, the film is eminently engaging and impactful in its exploration of Fox’s journey and his overall message of hopefulness. As he said at the Q&A after the film, “with gratitude, optimism is attainable.” —Josh Flanders

Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields

Credit: Getty. Courtesy Sundance Institute

An exorcism for Boomers and Gen-X, the biopic Pretty Baby (titled after the controversial 1978 film of the same name) is just as much about the sins of the patriarchy as it is about Shields’s career and could alternatively be titled: Men: WTF? This two-part series is directed by Lana Wilson, who also directed the Taylor Swift film Miss Americana (2020). Chronicling Shields’s beginnings as a child model and her meteoric launch to fame, the film highlights clip after cringe-inducing clip of male photographers and filmmakers sexualizing the underage star in the most ghastly ways. Some of the most compelling parts of the film are Shields’s reflections as an adult on her codependent relationship with her alcoholic mother/stage manager, coming to terms with her mother’s responsibility in her exploitation, and her continuing struggles to reckon with trauma, much of which occurred before she was old enough to contextualize what she was participating in. While the weight of the content packs a hefty punch, and Shields finally taking ownership of her own narrative is extremely triumphant, the film itself isn’t structurally sophisticated. It’s overly long, relies too heavily on archival footage, and the ending feels tacked on. Ultimately, the only thing more disturbing than Shields’s story is the realization of how little has changed for women since then. —Sheri Flanders

Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Winner of theSundance U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize,Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project breaks the traditional documentary format and presents a raw, sensitive, and lyrical portrait of its subject. Directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson construct a story that continuously flows, changes direction, and lands with impact much like Giovanni’s poetry, life, and recollections thereof. Giovanni’s work rather logically posited that the African American history of kidnapping and the Middle Passage was not unlike “alien abductees,” rendering our psyche most available for space travel, lending a mind-bending plank to the genre of Afrofuturism. Exquisite archival footage highlights Giovanni’s bitingly brilliant rhetoric as a  young woman, and compares and contrasts it with her outrageously hilarious book tour appearances and personal life as an elder, intercut with visually poetic elements to create a stunning documentary that is truly out of this world. —Sheri Flanders

The Tuba Thieves

Credit: Derek Howard. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

The Tuba Thieves, by Alison O’Daniel, is a groundbreaking work of art, a wonderfully different, beautiful film that showcases creative captioning and visual and audio poetry. The story is based on a series of actual thefts from local high schools in southern California, but the picture actually creates its own narrative, at once striking and new, a visual and aural experience that can only be lived firsthand. Many of the cast and crew (director and actors) identify as d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing, and the filmmakers at the screening at Sundance provided branded balloons for everyone to feel the film’s sound as d/Deaf/HoH audiences have done for decades at theaters and concerts. I’ve been waiting to see a major film festival embrace this kind of picture for more than 20 years since I ran the Festival for Cinema of the Deaf in Chicago from 2002-2005—namely a film with a distinct visual style that’s powerful, inclusive, and glorious, made by immensely talented d/Deaf artists. —Josh Flanders

Little Richard: I Am Everything

Courtesy Sundance Institute

“Tutti Frutti, Good Booty!” After watching Little Richard: I Am Everything, you will never listen to that song the same way ever again, and your understanding of this American legend will be inexorably changed. Director Lisa Cortes (producer of 2009’s Precious) recontextualizes our understanding of the real king of rock ’n’ roll—Richard Wayne Penniman—as a gay, Black, southern, religious man walking in his truth decades before being out and gay would become commonplace. Cortes handles the subject of Penniman’s struggle with internalized homophobia and his repeated disavowal of his own identity and music in favor of religion with a compassionate and nuanced touch. Archival footage of scads of famous rockers from the Beatles to Bowie shows them professing how Penniman’s sound was a direct influence on their own music, underlying how Penniman’s flamboyant assertions of his own greatness and genre-changing impact on the world during interviews were not jokes or narcissism—they were facts. Cortes’s documentary is exhilaratingly entertaining and successfully holds all of Penniman’s contradictions and shimmer together with the respect he demanded and deserved. I enjoyed it immensely. And if you didn’t enjoy it, I’m pretty sure Little Richard would tell you to “Shut up.” —Sheri Flanders

Theater Camp

Courtesy Sundance Institute

The audience who will love Theater Camp live where the Venn diagram of summer camp devotees and musical theater aficionados connect, that insular and affected space where obsession for Sondheim and Rodgers and Hammerstein meets the outcast child who has found their home at the family-run summer smorgasbord known as camp. The kids and counselors at AdirondACTS, a theater camp in upstate New York, struggle to keep the camp going when their founder, Joan, falls into a coma and the camp is taken over by Troy, her crypto-bro son. There’s plenty of inside-musical jokes that may not land if one has not spent countless hours in black-box theaters with self-obsessed gurus, as well as summers wondering if their camp will get shut down for various infractions. If so, then this is the cult classic you may watch again and again. Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman direct this hilarious indie film whose delightful and eclectic cast won theU.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble. It stars Gordon, Ben Platt, Noah Galvin, Jimmy Tatro, Patti Harrison, and Ayo Edebiri, with a guest appearance by Amy Sedaris. —Josh Flanders


Credit: Chris Harris. Courtesy Sundance Institute

Winner of the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, Scrapper, directed by Charlotte Regan, is a delightfully hilarious film from the UK. After her mom dies, Georgie, 12, lives alone in her flat, supporting herself by stealing bikes with her friend Ali. Everything seems to be going well until a young man shows up who claims to be her estranged father, Jason. Georgie is too grown up, Jason too immature, and she’s suspicious about why he has appeared after being a deadbeat dad all these years. Scrapper is just one of those sweet, funny films that takes pleasure in the wonder of youth, with really tight, honest writing that is unexpected and fun. —Josh Flanders

The Disappearance of Shere Hite

Credit: Iris Brosch. Courtesy Sundance Institute

Before Dan Savage, before Dr. Laura Berman, and before Dr. Ruth, there was Shere Hite. In the wake of Alfred Kinsey’s and Masters and Johnson’s groundbreaking works, Hite recognized the need for further research in the field of women’s sexual pleasure. The original manic pixie dream girl, Hite moonlighted as a model and gained a reputation for her stylish clothing and bright-red hair. She was also a consummate academic and conducted a series of surveys which she compiled into a book called The Hite Report (1976) which immediately became a best-seller and fundamentally changed the field and society by giving voice to women’s desires. For a time Hite was on the top of the world, writing more books and appearing as a coveted guest on television shows—then one day she completely disappeared. Why? I’ll give you one guess and it starts with “S” and ends with “exism,” and if you’re having a hankering for misogyny before the film drops, you can google the 1987 episode of the Oprah show to tide you over. Director Nicole Newnham (2020’s Crip Camp) gets to the bottom of the mystery while also exhuming Hite’s reputation from the dustbin of one of the earliest media cancellations, and restoring her to her rightful place among famous Sex Researchers. Though the documentary is overly long and drags in spots, it is overall an incredibly fascinating and touching portrait of a lost moment in time that was not so long ago. —Sheri Flanders


Courtesy Sundance Institute

False reports of sexual assault are incredibly rare, yet they do happen on occasion. After all, there are documented cases of it happening. But what if some of these cases aren’t what they seem to be on the surface? When investigative journalist Rachel de Leon started digging into some of these stories, she discovered a horrific pattern: when victims of assault initially reported the incident to police departments, they were routinely treated like suspects, with no reason to do so, and immediately plastered in the press as guilty before the investigation had even begun. Director Nancy Schwartzman turns her lens on a tough subject, providing the benefit of the doubt to these women, with eye-opening results. As de Leon investigates the cases of three women who were convicted of a false report, it becomes apparent that the destructive impact of the common methodology of police investigations on these women’s lives is horrific and warrants more investigation than a single journalist with limited resources can provide. 

This documentary doesn’t offer much in terms of craft, but one could perhaps make the argument that the subject matter necessitates no-frills storytelling that soberly focuses on facts and video evidence. What the film lacks in artistry, it more than makes up for in impact, underlying an important lesson for journalists: Never take the police report at face value. —Sheri Flanders

A Thousand And One

Credit: Focus Features. Courtesy Sundance Institute

Winner of the U.S. Dramatic Sundance Grand Jury prize, the sumptuously shot A Thousand And One highlights an unconventional mother-son tale, whose Scheherazade-like twist ending earns its title spectacularly. Teyana Taylor is a force of nature in this 1990s period piece as Inez, a previously incarcerated mother who kidnaps her son from foster care and seeks redemption by struggling to provide him with a better life. Her son Terry is played by three different actors, and Josiah Cross, who plays the 17-year-old version, is excellent as an achingly awkward teenager searching for his identity while carrying the weight of his mother’s expectations on his shoulders. Can children truly ever appreciate the depth of their parent’s sacrifice? Is there ever enough time to truly prepare a Black child for adulthood in a hostile world?

Director and screenwriter A.V. Rockwell’s lens captures the beauty and vibrancy of the city of New York, Black life, and motherhood in poverty, making space for expressions of parental love that show up in imperfect ways. Patiently paced and thoughtful, there are more than A Thousand And One reasons for you to see this exceptional film. —Sheri Flanders

The Persian Version

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Sometimes we are much more like our parents than we suspect. Writer/director Maryam Keshavarz has crafted a funny and poignant story which centers on Leila (Layla Mohammadi), an Iranian American trying to balance the expectations of her family with her own individuality. But when her large family reunites in New York for her father’s heart transplant, the onion is peeled and many family secrets are uncovered. It turns out that Leila and her mother Shireen (Niousha Noor), who have been at odds for most of their life, have more in common than they realize. Keshavarz masterfully weaves a good old-fashioned dose of empathy into the story when, about two-thirds of the way through, we go back to visit Shireen as a young woman. Normally an extended time jump late in the movie would feel out of place, yet Keshavarz has built up enough interest in this family that it somehow works. The Persian Version is a film that is a visually colorful and vibrant celebration of how immigrant families traverse two cultures only to find that the real divides are often within our own families. The film won the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award and Keshavarz won the U.S. Dramatic Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. —Josh Flanders

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