Sundance 2023 dispatch: Theater Camp and A Little Prayer impress as the festival winds down
(Clockwise from bottom left:) The Starling Girl, A Little Prayer, Theater Camp (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)
As the 2023 iteration of the Sundance Film Festival winds down, with the remaining industry contingents heading for the exits, encore presentations of the last buzzworthy films have confirmed that this year’s event was a special one: recently Oscar-nominated documentary Navalny, international category shortlister Klondike, last year’s Best Documentary winner Summer Of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), and Best Picture winner CODA all finally got the in-person experience the pandemic had denied them. As CODA star and Sundance juror Marlee Matlin said, “It all started here in Park City and we were so grateful to finally be able [to] enjoy it on the big screen.”
The other way you know a film festival is winding down is that awards are being handed out; A.V. Rockwell’s A Thousand And One, Charlotte Regan’s Scrapper, and Christopher Zalla’s Radical are among the recipients of this year’s competitive prize winners, you can check out the full list here. As we leave the snow behind, here are thoughts on four more talked-about feature films that warrant attention in the year ahead.
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The Starling Girl
Director: Laurel Parmet
Cast: Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Jimmi Simpson, Wrenn Schmidt, Austin Abrams
The Sundance Film Festival has, over the last half-dozen years, often reserved a dramatic competition slot for at least one noodling examination of Appalachia or other rural environs. Most of these films, like 2019’s Them That Follow or 2020’s The Evening Hour, tend to disappear commercially without much of a trace. Coming-of-age drama The Starling Girl could reverse this trend, not the least of which because it doesn’t wildly over-dial the exoticness of its setting or present its fundamentalist characters as either two-dimensional villains or gaudy zoo inhabitants at which to gawk.
The Kentucky-set feature film debut of writer-director Laurel Parmet stars Eliza Scanlen as 17-year-old Jem Starling, whose truly outrageous sin (eclipsing even her affinity for carefully prescribed, church-sanctioned dancing) is not wanting to enter into an arranged courtship with Ben (Austin Abrams). Instead, Jem finds herself drawn to Ben’s recently returned older brother Owen (Lewis Pullman), who happens to be married. The paths traveled here are somewhat well-worn, but sketched with such tenderness and sincerity that it hardly matters. The Starling Girl also benefits from superb performances by Scanlen and Pullman, who each breathe rich life into their characters’ churning inner conflicts. [Brent Simon]
Directors: Nick Lieberman and Molly Gordon
Cast: Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Noah Galvin, Jimmy Tatro, Patti Harrison, Ayo Edibiri, Amy Sedaris, Caroline Aaron, Nathan Lee Graham, Owen Thiele, Alan Kim
The feature debut of co-directors Nick Lieberman and Molly Gordon, the loose-limbed, quite funny Theater Camp, is one of the more winning efforts from Sundance this year. When the inspirational founder (Amy Sedaris) of AdirondACTS, a summer theater camp in upstate New York, is sidelined, her clueless son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) takes over, upending the lives of longtime instructors Rebecca-Diane and Amos (Gordon and Ben Platt, two of the film’s four writers). With potential foreclosure looming, the future of the camp seemingly hinges on the debut of their annual original musical.
Theater Camp isn’t as flat-out anarchic as Meatballs or as silly as Wet Hot American Summer, both obvious inspirations. Nor is it as rigidly framed as the work of Christopher Guest. (While there aren’t direct-address interviews, occasional interstitials frame the movie as a documentary.) No matter. Theater Camp has the type of loving skewering that can only come from smart, highly observant collaborators who know that one of life’s keys is to take work seriously without taking oneself seriously. It wrings smiles and laughs from immediately recognizable and relatable characters, riffing on everything from vocal warm-up exercises (“Wolf Blitzer has a blister on his upper lip”) to the notion of mentholated tear sticks being the equivalent of doping for actors. [Brent Simon]
A Little Prayer
Director: Angus MacLachlan
Cast: David Strathairn, Jane Levy, Celia Weston, Will Pullen, Anna Camp, Dascha Polanco
There is an unassuming gentleness to the way Angus MacLachlan’s A Little Prayer moves to introduce us to its characters. Slowly and with grace, MacLachlan introduces us to how Tammy (Jane Levy) and David (Will Pullen) are both at home and out of place as they share a household in Winston-Salem, North Carolina with David’s parents, Bill (David Strathairn) and Venida (Celia Weston). Their marriage seems to amble along with careless indifference, something neither seems all too eager to disturb. That is, until a visit from David’s wayward sister Patti and her daughter Hadley (Anna Camp and Billie Roy) threatens to derail whatever placid and pleasant life they’d all been leading.
As not-so-well-kept secrets spill out into the open and marital stressors make themselves known, MacLachlan’s quiet drama unravels toward a poignant (if aptly low-key) climax that reveals the filmmaker (of Junebug fame) as a keen observer of contemporary American life who can capture moments that feel small in stature yet immense in feeling. The payoff may take a while—this is a film for the patient—but its stellar central performances make its final moments well worth the wait. [Manuel Betancourt]
Director: Anthony Chen
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Alia Shawkat
Anthony Chen’s Drift starts strongly. In silent tableaus we follow Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo) as she walks around a picturesque Greek island. She seems lost and aimless. She’s trying to avoid everyone and scraping for food and money. Erivo carries those scenes with her stoic facial expressions and the defeated gait of her walk. But when more of the story is revealed, the promise of those early scenes fades.
Through flashbacks to her previous life in England and her home country of Liberia, we come to discover that Jacqueline’s a refugee escaping a traumatic experience. She develops a tentative friendship with an American tour guide (Alia Shawkat), slowly coming to trust her and revealing her whole story. Chen’s storytelling rhythm is as taciturn and withholding as Jacqueline, making it hard to invest in this story. A languid tour through Greece punctuated by violent interludes to Jacqueline’s life in Liberia don’t constitute quite a compelling enough narrative. Nor does this story say anything persuasive about the refugee experience, especially at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where immigrant voices are at the forefront. The film strands the audience just as Jacqueline herself is stranded. [Murtada Elfadl]
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