Sundance Film Festival 2023: Day 6 Capsule Reviews | Buzz Blog
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Sundance Film Festival 2023: Day 6 Capsule Reviews

Judy Blume Forever, Infinity Pool, The Starling Girl, Twice Colonized and more


  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Judy Blume Forever
Judy Blume Forever ***1/2 [Premieres]
Full disclosure: By the end of Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok’s documentary about author Judy Blume, I was absolutely in love with its subject, not just as an artist but as a human being. The filmmakers cover the scope of her life from growing up in New Jersey, to trying to launch a writing career while living as a 1960s housewife and mother, to a 50-plus year legacy of ground-breaking books for kids like Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Deenie and Forever… that addressed difficult subjects like adolescent development and sexuality with an honesty that resonated with her readers. Plenty of famous fans—including Lena Dunham and Molly Ringwald—get a chance to sing Blume’s praises, which certainly helps emphasize the extent to which her books were influential and foundational for generations of children. The film is most affecting, however, at capturing the way so many kids responded to those books by reading out to Blume personally with letters—and, more significantly, how many of those letters Blume herself responded to, even developing years-long correspondences. What emerges is a profile of a woman absolutely committed to the idea of communicating openly with an age group in desperate need of such open communication. And as the lively interview segments in her current Key West home emphasize, that openness extends to talking about her own life, helping to create a profile that should make anyone fall in love with Judy Blume. (SR)

  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Infinity Pool
Infinity Pool ***1/2 [Midnight]
Brandon Cronenberg keeps leveling up as a filmmaker, to the point where it feels ridiculous to keep identifying his parentage. And it seems even more of a disservice considering the extent to which his latest feature revolves around a self-loathing tied up with privilege. It opens on a fictional resort island called Li Tolqa, where never-was novelist James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård) and his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) are vacationing. There they meet and befriend another couple, Gabi (Mia Goth) and Alban (Jalil Lespert), but a day trip outside their resort compound turns into a fatal accident that embroils them all in Li Tolqa’s … unique legal system. To say much more would be cheating, except that you should expect the same brand of graphic body horror Cronenberg fils has made his own in previous efforts like Possessor, and that Mia Goth is turning into one of the most fearless actors in cinema. But it’s also true that tangled up in the viscera, body fluids and graphic orgies is a fairly ruthless satire of the extent to which people in the developed world see the rest of creation as a place to fulfill all of their desires, and where money can always be the way to avoid consequences. “Anti-colonial” feels almost too reductive for what Inifinity Pool is up to, as it goes gleefully berserk in exploring a particular kind of dehumanization, without ever once underlining what the title of the film suggests about people who feel that their playground is without limits. (SR)

  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Twice Colonized
Twice Colonized *** [World Documentary]
Occasionally, it’s enough for a documentary simply to introduce you to a fascinating, complicated human being, even if the storytelling involved gets a little fragmented and unfocused. The primary subject here is Aaju Peter, an Inuit native of Greenland and indigenous-rights activist, whose history includes being sent off to school in Denmark and wrestling with how that experience distanced her from her own culture. The pain in her life extends beyond that childhood trauma—including the death by suicide of her son, and an ongoing relationship with an emotionally and physically abusive partner—and it humanizes Peter beyond the usual hero-worship documentary profile that we see so much of the personal struggles informing her political action. There is, unfortunately, a lack of momentum in director Lin Alluna’s structural decisions, which bounce around to material like visiting her childhood home with her brother, then back to her efforts to establish an Indigenous commission with the European Union, and kind of abandoning potentially fascinating material like the impact of seal-hunting moratoriums on the Inuit people’s way of life and losing the propaganda war to animal-rights activists. It’s inherently compelling, perhaps, to watch someone wrestle with the events that shaped her identity, the way Peter does, and to see such a mix of strength and pain in one person. And it’s also possible to wonder what choices might have made that person’s story into a stronger movie.  (SR)

  • Sundance Film Festival
  • The Starling Girl
The Starling Girl **1/2 [U.S. Dramatic]
One fascinating side-effect of watching Sundance movies virtually after years of watching them in person is that I can identify with certain movies about certain subjects the exact moment when viewers would groan and cluck their tongues in unison over recognizing how much more enlightened they are than certain characters. I’m not saying that phenomenon is writer/director Laurel Parmet’s fault, but this movie falls into a category of Sundance movie that relies a bit too much on an audience’s likely socio-political leanings. Set in a rural Kentucky community, it tells the story of Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen), a 17-year-old in a conservative Christian family who begins an affair with Owen (Lewis Pullman), her church’s married youth pastor and the son of the church’s minister. Parmet builds some solid material out of the cultural specifics of a church community where girls are effectively paired off to “court” a likely future husband, and Scanlen certainly has the acting chops to show the struggles of a young woman trying to reconcile her desires with her faith. The screenplay just seems too enamored of pointing out hypocrisies and hidden family secrets—like the alcoholism of Jem’s father—rather than grappling honestly with adolescents who truly want to be “good” in the way they’re raised but don’t know how. Most disappointing, it feels like a story where we’re all just waiting for the moments when some authority figure says something sexist, patriarchal, ignorant, etc. You can want for a girl like Jem to live a less constrained life, and still feel like it’s shooting "Jesus fish" in a barrel. (SR)

AUM: The Cult at the End of the World - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • AUM: The Cult at the End of the World
AUM: The Cult at the End of the World **1/2 [U.S. Documentary]
It feels a bit strange to be unenthusiastic about a documentary when there’s nothing particularly wrong with it, except that it also doesn’t feel that there’s anything particularly right with it. Directors Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto dutifully explore the story of Aum Shinrikyo, a Tokyo-based yoga school that somehow evolved into a doomsday cult—including carrying out the March 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system—under the leadership of charismatic leader Shoko Asahara. The details are plentiful in this account showcasing the reporting of journalists like David E. Kaplan and Andrew Marshall, including fascinating little snippets like the way Aum marketed itself through anime, and important context for how late-1980s/early 1990s Japan might have been particularly fertile ground for an organization of this kind. It’s also one of those documentaries that feels mostly like a visualized version of a book on the same subject, and doesn’t build toward anything except the end that we know must inevitably come. At the end, I felt fully informed about Aum Shinrikyo and the strange individual who led it. Is that the same as thinking that 106 minutes of documentary about the same subject felt exceptionally worth watching. Eh, not necessarily so much. (SR)

  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Fremont
Fremont *** [NEXT]
Immigrant stories abound in popular culture abound, and many of them aim for a similar vibe of gritty drama—so all credit to director/co-writer Babak Jalali for approaching that notion from a distinctive angle. The central character is Donya (Anaita Wali Zada), an Afghan expatriate/ex-U.S. Army translator living in Fremont, California while working across the San Francisco Bay at a fortune cookie factory, all while struggling with insomnia and a pervasive sense of isolation. Jalali and cinematographer Laura Valladao employ black-and-white images that feel like a perfect fit for the deadpan, Jarmusch-esque sensibility, captured most effectively in Donya’s sessions with her White Fang-obsessed therapist (Gregg Turkington). It’s in those therapy sessions that Donya’s history slowly reveals itself, and the unique sense of guilt associated both with her former work and with leaving her family behind for a country where, as one of her fellow Afghan neighbors observes, even the stars feel like they’re in the wrong place. The individual scenes don’t always work, and Zada’s internalized performance takes a while to lock in. But it pays off particularly over the final 20 minutes—including Donya’s encounter with a similarly lonely mechanic (Jeremy Allen White)—in a portrait of someone struggling to give herself permission to look for happiness. (SR)