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Sundance 2023: Short Films

The hybrid Sundance Film Festival kicked off this week. I’ll be attending virtually with coverage on a variety of feature films and documentaries. In the meantime, let’s kick off my coverage with some of my favorite short films from this year’s Sundance line-up.

A still from Inglorious Liaisons by Chloe Alliez and Violette Delvoye, an official selection of the Shorts program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by the press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.
Still from Inglorious Liaisons (2023). Courtesy of Sundance.

Inglorious Liaisons (Les liaisons foireuses)

directed by Chloé Alliez and Violette Delvoye

Starting off with my favorite from this year’s festival, Inglorious Liaisons is a superb stop-animation short about attraction and expectation. Youths convene at a party and they go through the traditional rituals of drinking, dancing, flirting and playing a game of spin the bottle. An attraction sparks between two young women but societal pressure forces them to be matched boys they’re only mildly interested in. The characters are all light switches with wigs and painted on clothes. There are lots of small details to enjoy in the form of carefully designed miniatures. But what impressed me the most about this short was how it perfectly captures the subtle intricacies of physical attraction.

Kali Racquel, Deirdre Friel, Nicole Michelle Haskins, Dana Powell, Rachel Harris and Kate Flannery appear in Help Me Understand by Aemilia Scott, an official selection of the U.S. Shorts program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Mike Maliwanag
Still from Help Me Understand (2023). Courtesy of Sundance.

Help Me Understand

directed by Aemilia Scott

cast: Kali Raquel, Deirdre Friel, Nicole Michelle Haskins, Dana Powell, Rachel Harris, Kate Flannery, Ken Marino

When a group of corporate women are tasked to decide between two bottles of laundry detergent, it’s clear that the man leading the study wants them all to pick A. And most of them do pick A. That is until they all realize that there is one outlier. One of the women prefers B. Can they come to a consensus? Help Me Understand is like a modern day 12 Angry Men (1957) in a corporate setting. It demonstrates the dangers of caving to a single mindset and showcases the benefits of female solidarity. Thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable.

Kitoko Mai appears in Thriving: A Dissociated Reverie  by Nicole Bazuin, an official selection of the Shorts program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Still from Thriving: A Dissociated Reverie (2023). Courtesy of Sundance

Thriving: A Dissociated Reverie

Directed by Nicole Bazuin

Cast: Kitoko Mai, Dustin Hickey, Myfanwy Charlesworth, Morgan Bargent, Grace McDonald, Andrea Werhun

As a fan of Nicole Bazuin’s short films Modern Whore and Last Night at the Strip Club, I was excited to see another offering from this director. Thriving: A Dissociated Reverie has the same style and vibe as Bazuin’s previous work—and even includes a small role for Andrea Werhun who was the subject of two of her shorts. Thriving is about a Black, nonbinary , disabled artist and her experience with DID (dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder). Based on Kitoko Mai’s real-life experience, Mai plays the host and alter Cheyenne, while other actors play the remaining alters. Stylish, sex-positive and educational, Thriving treats a sensitive subject with great reverence.

Adina Verson and Michael Braun appear in Troy by Mike Donahue, an official selection of the Shorts program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ryan De Franco.
Still from Troy (2022). Courtesy of Sundance.

Troy

Directed by Mike Donahue

Cast: Adina Verson, Michael Braun, Florian Klein, Dylan Baker, Dana Delaney

New York City couple Thea (Adina Verson) and Charlie (Michael Braun) share a wall with their neighbor Troy (Florian Klein). The trouble is Troy is loud. VERY loud. He’s a full-time escort serving a male clientele and Thea and Charlie can hear every single sound. The couple soon becomes invested in what’s going on on the other side of the wall. Troy is a lighthearted film about the social complexities of urban life. It does a fabulous job demonstrating how we learn to adjust to our environment.

Still from The Family Circus (2023). Courtesy of Sundance.

The Family Circus

Directed by Andrew Fitzgerald

Cast: Elyse Dinh, Michael Ironside, Scott Subiono, Michael Nguyen Manceau, Blake Dang, Christian Seavey

A mixed Vietnamese-American family faces a crisis when their wayward son gets into a drunk driving accident. No one is hurt but if the police catch on to what happened their son will go back to prison. The father concocts a plan to have their other son pretend to have caused the accident. When they call the police, their plan seems to work. That is, until the police officer becomes a little too comfortable. The Family Circus has a terrific build-up that leads to an incredibly satisfying ending. Pay close attention to Elyse Dinh’s performance as the family matriarch.

Still from We Were Meant To (2023). Courtesy of Sundance.

We Were Meant To

Directed by Tari Wariebi

Cast: Tim Johnson Jr., Amin Joseph, Karimah Westbrook, Jordan-Amanda Hall, Skye Barrett, Luke Tennie

Directed by Tari Wariebi and co-written with Christina K. Licud, We Were Meant To imagines a world where young black men sprout feathers and wings and take flight in a cultural rite of passage. Akil (Tim Johnson Jr.) is a teen in high school who just came into his new wings. He and his friends travel through their community looking for the perfect spot for their first flight. However, No Fly Zone signs are posted all over town and a drone follows their every move. Akil prepares for his big day but unfortunately the odds are stacked against him. We Were Meant To is symbolic of the plight of young black men in American society. Even something joyful as a first flight is seen as a threat by a drone meant to represent an unnamed law enforcement. It’s an inherently political film with a strong social message skillfully disguised as a coming-of-age story with a touch magical realism. This short could easily be expanded to a feature length film.

Sefu Weber-kal appears in Mulika by Maisha Maene, an official selection of the Shorts program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Still from Mulika (2023). Courtesy of Sundance.

Mulika

Directed by Maisha Maene

Cast: Sefu Weber-Kal, Faustin Biyoga, Ibrahim Twaha, Sarah Bahati

When an “afronaut” (Sefu Weber-Kal) emerges from his spaceship, he finds himself in the volcanic crater of Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This mysterious figure travels to Goma where he encounters locals and goes on a spiritual journey of enlightenment. Mulika is written and directed by Africanfuturist filmmaker Maisha Maene.  Sefu Weber-Kal plays the lead role of the afronaut wears a silvery suit adorned with switchboard like plates and an illuminated helmet. The suit suggests that the afronaut symbolizes technology and DRC’s mineral rich land. An encounter with an older man dressed in more natural garb suggests a coming together of both the old and the new. Cryptic and thought-provoking.

A still from Pro Pool by Alec Pronovost, an official selection of the Shorts program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Still from Pro Pool (2023). Courtesy of Sundance.

Pro Pool (Piscine Pro)

Directed by Alec Pronovost

Cast: Louis Carrière, Alexis Martin, Sylvie de Morais, Sébastien Rajotte, Oussama Fares, Louis Girard-Bock

Charles-Olivier (Louis Carrière) recently graduated with a degree in history and a minor in Viking studies. With no real job prospects in his chosen field, he reluctantly applies for a job a pool store. The film follows Charles-Olivier as he becomes purposefully terrible at his job and releases his frustrations by singing to hardcore metal in his car. Written and directed by Quebecois filmmaker Alec Pronovost, who himself used to work at a Club Piscine, this irreverent comedy gives a big middle finger to those meaningless jobs many of us have to endure at one point in our lives. Pro Pool is reminiscent of both Billy Budd and Office Space and offers modern sensibility that Gen Z-ers will easily identify with.

American Murderer

Jason Derek Brown has been a fugitive from the FBI since November 2004 when he shot and killed Robert Keith Palomares, an armored car guard, outside of an AMC theater. A few years after the murder, he was added to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, alongside notable criminals like Osama Bin Laden. But Jason Derek Brown wasn’t like the other people on the list. He was a young blonde-haired surfer guy and former Mormon missionary who had an uncanny resemblance to Sean Penn. Not who you’d expect to be a top fugitive. Brown has eluded the FBI to this day and his whereabouts are unknown. Recently he was taken off the top ten list and replaced with another criminal who has since been apprehended. While we don’t know what happened to Jason Derek Brown in the days that followed the murder, there is still much to gather about his journey from grifter to fugitive.

Written and directed by debut filmmaker Matthew Gentile, American Murderer examines Jason Derek Brown’s origin story and the extenuating circumstances that led to his crime and eventual disappearance. Tom Pelphrey stars as Brown, a charismatic con man who portrays himself different depending on whom he’s interacting with. We learn about his estrangement from his mother Jeanne (Jacki Weaver), his criminal father’s disappearance, and his relationships with his trusting yet weary siblings David (Paul Schneider) and Jamie (Shantel VanSanten). Brown develops a relationship with Melanie (Idina Menzel), his landlady and neighbor, who believes that Brown is a trustworthy guy who loves kids and is flush with cash. But the truth is Brown is in serious debt and always working on his next scheme to get the money he needs to pay off his debtors. His story is told in flashback sequences along with present day, 2004, when Special Agent Lance Leising (Ryan Phillippe) of the FBI searches for Brown with full confidence that he won’t be a fugitive for long.

American Murderer is a fantastic character study that offers a nuanced look at the making of a criminal. Tom Pelphrey does an incredible job portraying Jason Derek Brown as an anti-hero rather than a villain. He brings an intensity to the role that is much desired and needed. While the performances overall were a mixed bag, I did enjoy Ryan Phillippe’s portrayal as the FBI agent. He plays polar opposite to Pelphrey’s manic intensity with a fierce determination to get his guy. The cat-and-mouse chase between Pelphrey and Phillippe drives the plot whereas the interpersonal relationships enriches the overall portrait of the protagonist.

The movie is mostly set in 2004 but also flashes back as far as 1994. With the setting, there are subtle hints about the era including a Bush Cheney keychain, flip phones, older computers, etc. While I don’t have a trained eye for filmmaking techniques, I did notice that there was more of a classic approach to the camera work and editing; no drone shots, no flashy cuts and no aesthetic overlays. I felt that American Murderer really captured the era without being too obvious about it.

Filmmaker Matthew Gentile has said he was influenced by noir film including In a Lonely Place (1950) which I can see especially with the relationship between Jason Derek Brown and his neighbor Melanie. 

American Murderer is available to rent on digital.

Get it on Apple TV

Double Exposure: Hazing

Directed by Byron Hurt, Hazing explores the brutal culture of hazing with a particular focus on HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Hurt meditates on his own experience with hazing in a fraternity to explore why hazing, despite it being illegal in many states, still persists in college culture. Several victims who have died as a result of hazing are profiled. Their stories are harrowing and you can’t help but feel for their families. These needless deaths are a result of an ingrained culture in which young people are socialized to endure violence as a means of attaining respect in their given group.  The initiated blindly trust the upperclassmen who then put them through barbaric rituals for no reason other than attaining pleasure from their own gross abuse of power.

Hazing has an important message to convey but it can get lost in a documentary format that is too long and a bit muddled. 

Recommended viewing: For Men Only (1952)

Hazing was part of the 2022 Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival.

Mill Valley Film Festival: Path of the Panther

“You have to show people the animal in order to create that connection, that love and appreciation. It’s all about setting the stage and waiting.”

— Carlton Ward Jr.

This quote made a big impact on me as soon as I heard it. As someone who has a deep love and appreciation for wildlife, I have long championed the preservation of these creatures and their habitat. And this quote struck me as to why all of those beautiful National Geographic photos and those awe-inspiring wildlife documentaries were important. We need to see in order to both understand and empathize.

Directed by Eric Bendick, Path of the Panther is a documentary that does just that. It allows the viewers to see the Florida panther in all its glory while also learning about the creature’s struggle to survive. With the encroaching suburbs shrinking its natural habitat and a mysterious neurological illness affecting kittens,panthers are up against a big battle in order to not go instinct. That’s where Carlton Ward Jr. steps in. As a photographer for the National Geographic, he truly understands that in order to save the panther people must see the panther. He and his team set up a sophisticated camera system in an area of the Florida Everglades in order to capture images of the panther in all its glory. And these images are truly breathtaking. The documentary also follows the efforts to rehabilitate injured panthers and to stop a new toll road from taking away even more of the panther’s habitat.

Path of the Panther is as stunning as it is revelatory. Come for the important conservation message, stay for some incredible images of the Florida panther.

Double Exposure: The Family Statement

Directed by Grace Harper and Kate Stonehill, The Family Statement is a 15 minute compilation of WhatsApp messages exchanged by the Sackler family during the time of their lawsuit. The Sackler family is particularly notorious for their company Purdue Pharma, which marketed and distributed OxyContin and is considered the root cause for the deadly opioid epidemic. Its alleged that the Sacklers filed for bankruptcy during the lawsuit as a means to shield themselves from financial loss.

The WhatsApp message, released in December 2020, are shown against images of your typical American suburban landscapes. The messages appear in small white text making it difficult for the viewer to read. This, and the fact that the messages aren’t that revelatory, strips the film of any real shock value. Throughout the film there are also snippets of pre-court interviews with the Sacklers. Will appeal to anyone interested in getting more insight into the opioid epidemic.

The Family Statement was part of the 2022 Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival.

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