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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.

Sundance: Last Flight Home

Documentary filmmaker Ondi Timoner has given us all a precious gift with her deeply personal film Last Flight Home. Her father Eli Timoner is the focus of this moving documentary about dying with dignity. He was the co-founder of Air Florida and with his wife Elissa they raised three children. A stroke in the early 1980s left Eli disabled. With the prejudice that came with a noticeable disability and some bad luck, Eli and his family eventually went bankrupt. Eli held onto the shame of this for many years. And for the last few weeks of his life, his family helped guide him in his journey to release this shame and to realize that his great success was the love he both gave and received.

Last Flight Home follows Eli and his family during his time at home in hospice. Because the family was based in California, he was able to opt for death with dignity so that he could pass away on his own terms. Timoner generously lets the viewer in, allowing us to feel like we are part of this very loving family. Death is a difficult subject to tackle but the more we know, the more we’re empowered to help each other and to help ourselves in this last journey in life. I’m not sure I’ve ever been as moved by  a documentary as I have with this one. Thank you to the Timoner family for letting us be part of Eli’s last flight home.

Last Flight Home premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Update: Last Flight Home is distributed by MTV Documentary Films and hits theaters October 7th, 2022.

Sundance: Alice

“Doing the right thing is never wrong.”

Alice

Alice (Keke Palmer) has caught the eye of tyrant plantation owner Paul Bennet (Johnny Lee Miller). He teaches her to read and favors her but will not allow her to marry a fellow slave. When her love Joseph (Gaius Charles) tries to escape, Alice lashes out. After enduring a brutal punishment, she escapes through a secret portal in the woods traveling from antebellum Georgia to the early 1970s. She’s found by the side of the road by truck driver Frank (Common) who takes her in and shields her from potential internment at a sanitarium. Alice discovers what the world is like decades later, an improvement from her previous life but with progress still needing to be made. She must find the courage in herself to help her family back home and to inspire Frank to rediscover his activist roots.

Directed by debut filmmaker Krystin Ver Linden, Alice is a highly rewarding time-travel drama.  Keke Palmer is superb in the title role. Time travel elements are tricky but I found that Palmer did great job conveying the fish-out-of-water experience while also demonstrating her characters inner strength. Excellent performance by Johnny Lee Miller is truly terrifying in his role. This is sure to be a crowd pleaser especially when through Alice’s POV we get to fight back with her. There are several references in the film to Pam Grier and her character Coffy. The film is set and shot in Georgia which gives the film a great southern Gothic vibe. The soundtrack features some wonderful 1970s jams.

Alice premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance: The Mission

Directed by Tania Anderson, The Mission follows a group of young Mormon missionaries as they travel to Finland to proselytize. The missionaries work in twos of the same gender, a way to protect each other but also maintain purity and keep tabs on each other. The film follows the young  elders and sisters as they struggle to learn Finnish, deal with resistance from the locals and connect with other Mormons. 

Anderson’s documentary is very straightforward. There are no formal interviews, no narration, no history lessons, no opinion or debate. The Mormon missionaries are presented in a way that is enlightening and respectful. Sometimes you just need the subjects to tell their own story and Anderson recognized this and gave the missionaries space to do so.

As someone who used to be in a religion that put emphasis on proselytizing, I really felt for the elder who had to cut his mission short because he was suffering from panic attacks. I went through the same thing and I hope he’s able to find help and an escape from his situation.

The Mission premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance: Piggy

13 year old Sara (Laura Galán) is incessantly bullied by her peers because of her weight. On a hot summer day, after helping her dad out at his butcher shop, she heads over to the pool to cool off. There she endures harassment by the local girls who call her “Piggy” and stealing her backpack and shoes. When she makes the treacherous walk back home, she witnesses a mysterious stranger kidnaping the three girls who only moments ago were tormenting her. This man has been killing random people in the area but has a particular interest in punishing the people who hurt Sara. She’s conflicted by the attention given to her by this man and whether to help the local community find the girls before it’s too late.

Written and directed by Carlota Pereda, Piggy is enjoyable light horror with some problematic elements. It’s based on the short film by the same name released in 2018. It expands the story into a full length horror film. It reminded me greatly of the last 20 minutes of Catherine Breillat’s 2001 film Fat Girl. Both feature heavyset 13 year old girls who are favored by a much older serial killer and must endure the trauma of not being accepted because of their appearance. 

In Piggy, the actress playing Sara is in her mid 30s yet the character is 13. The age difference is very apparent and we have to really suspend our disbelief in order to buy that the character is a pre-teen and not a grown woman. Also, there were a couple of scenes in which Sara devours junk food. These do not serve the plot whatsoever and could have easily been removed to avoid reinforcing stereotypes.

Piggy premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

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