Sundance Film Festival 2023: Day 7 Capsule Reviews | Buzz Blog
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Sundance Film Festival 2023: Day 7 Capsule Reviews

You Hurt My Feelings, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, Mutt, Cat Person and more

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus in You Hurt My Feelilngs - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus in You Hurt My Feelilngs
You Hurt My Feelings ***1/2 [Premieres]
On the surface, it’s a relationship comedy-drama about honesty, but scratch a little deeper, and writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s latest is also a wonderfully perceptive piece about the way we perceive ourselves. New York-based writer Beth Mitchell (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is on the verge of finishing her second book, but faces a crisis when she overhears her beloved husband Don (Tobias Menzies) tell her brother-in-law Mark (Arian Moayed) that he doesn’t like it. And she’s not alone in suddenly facing a turning point regarding her work, as therapist Don starts to wonder if he’s doing his patients any good, Mark wrestles with his career as a struggling actor, and Beth’s sister/Mark’s wife Sarah (Michaela Watkins) wonders if her job as a high-end interior designer has any real value. Holofcener probes and pokes with wonderful wit at the ways in which people find their employment defining them, and suddenly finding themselves adrift when they’re faced with the possibility that they might not be good enough at it. Yes, it’s also about when and why the little white lies we tell our loved ones are appropriate, and when they’re not, and the performances are uniformly terrific at capturing people who are basically decent despite their various insecurities. It just feels most interesting when Holofcener shows how much she understands the way people internalize the answer to “so, what do you do” as “so, who are you.” (SR)

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt **** [U.S. Dramatic]
If Sundance is about nothing else, it’s about the opportunity to discover singular artistic voices, and that’s what writer/director Raven Jackson proves to be in this debut that takes its own path through a journey of family and memory. Though it opens in what appears to be late 1960s/early 1970s Mississippi—following a young girl named Mack (Kaylee Nicole Johnson—the narrative bounces around in its chronology, occasionally revisiting the childhood of Mack and her younger sister Josie (Jayah Henry) as well as the lives of the adult Mack (Charleen McClure) and Josie (Moses Ingram). It’s inaccurate to say that “nothing happens” in All Roads Taste of Salt—there are a couple of crucial events, including a tragic death—but it is fair to say that Jackson is far less concerned with following a plot than with evoking a feeling, a sense of a particular place and how the connections of the natural world can be as potent as the connections of family. She and cinematographer Jomo Fray capture that notion through a powerful sense of tactility, observing as Mack absorbs the memory of things—the scales on a fish, the smooth hardness of her mother’s painted toenails, a muddy river bottom—through her fingers. And they show a remarkable sense for where to point the camera, like a reunion between Mack and her first love, Wood (Reginald Helms, Jr.) where their embrace is shot initially not with the emphasis on their faces, but on the wedding band on Wood’s finger. It’s a risky choice to present a scene like that before we’ve seen the relationship it follows, but it’s evidence of Raven Jackson’s gift that so much emotion is conveyed not as an accumulation of what we’ve seen, but through what we’re seeing, and hearing, and feeling, at any given moment. (SR)

Mutt - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Mutt
Mutt **1/2 [U.S. Dramatic]
Look, I’m not going to pretend to know how it feels to live inside someone else’s skin; I just know that it feels weird when a story tries to pack the entirety of that experience into one 24-hour time frame. Writer/director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz tells the story of Feña (Lío Mehiel), a trans man living in New York who faces a messy day of re-connecting with John (Cole Soman), an ex-boyfriend from pre-transition; spending time with his estranged 14-year-old sister Zoe (MiMi Ryder); and trying to obtain a car to pick up his Chilean father (Alejandro Goic) up from the airport. Mehiel turns in a terrific lead performance, evoking the emotional exhaustion of dealing with the unique challenges of trans life along with the day-to-day challenges of any life. And Lungulov-Klotz does craft a few pitch-perfect scenes, like finding a particular intimacy in Feña allowing someone to touch the scars from his top surgery. The fundamental structural problem is that each one of the three primary character dynamics in Mutt could have—and perhaps should have—been its own movie, rushing through the revelations and frustrations involved in both romantic and familial relationships. That’s over and above the sense that Lungulov-Klotz includes seemingly every shitty thing that could befall a trans person in a single day, from lacking proper ID to cash a check to getting dead-named by parents. As important as it is to get representation for the trans experience on screen, a filmmaker needs to know that one movie doesn’t have to do it all. (SR)

Going Varsity in Mariachi - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Going Varsity in Mariachi
Going Varsity in Mariachi **1/2 [U.S. Documentary]
As my writeup of Pianoforte early this week indicated, competition documentaries are generally my jam, which makes it all the more disappointing that this one somehow never quite comes together. Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn take on a potentially fascinating subject in South Texas’s unique institution of high-school mariachi competitions, focusing on the 2021-2022 school year for Edinburg North High School’s Mariachi Oro group and its faculty leader, Abel Acuña. And all the ingredients are there for potential drama: a successful program facing a lot of turnover from the previous year; an inexperienced (and possibly not-particularly-committed) player on the guitarrón; the return after a COVID year leading to added stresses. There’s simply something that feels incomplete and unfocused as the filmmakers try to find the human stories of the young musicians, in an area with many low-income families. Sure, it’s solid material exploring how one senior might be able to turn her violin playing into a desperately-needed college scholarship, but do we need to follow her on a driving lesson with her father? And as depressing as it might be that two gay female Mariachi Oro members are contemplating having to leave the state if they want to have a career as teachers, is that story in any way connected to the primary narrative of the group’s need to develop cohesion? Going Varsity in Mariachi is full of wonderful music, and builds to the tension of the big final competition. It’s the journey to that destination that’s as bumpy for viewers as it seems to be for the musicians. (SR)

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Cat Person ** [Premieres]
Alarm bells went off when I noticed a two-hour run time for an adaptation of Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker short story—and as it turns out, that proved to be a trustworthy first impression. In broad strokes, the set-up is the same: College student Margot (Emilia Jones) has an awkward first meeting with Robert (Nicholas Braun) at her movie-theater job, which turns into a text-based flirtation, which gets awkward again when they try to pair up in real life. Roupenian’s story was a darkly comic look at how easy it is to be romantic in the virtual world compared to the messiness of actual relationships, seasoned with women’s anxieties about making a man feel bad. But screenwriter Michelle Ashford and director Susanna Fogel turn that seasoning into a lot of the meal, emphasizing the existential terror women face every time they’re alone with a man, punctuated by the perpetual warnings of Margot’s strident best friend (Geraldine Viswanathan). And while that’s a potentially compelling story to tell, it completely flops while this adaptation is also trying to maintain the lighter tone of the source material, through plenty of fantasy sequences (complete with Wilhelm scream!) and the exaggerated literalized internal monologue by Margot during a sexual encounter. Individual moments in Cat Person pop, but it suffers from a completely misguided attempt both to be provocative in the same way the short story was provocative, and also to be provocative in a different, completely clashing way. (SR)

The Disappearance of Shere Hite - SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • The Disappearance of Shere Hite
The Disappearance of Shere Hite *** [U.S. Documentary]
Director Nicole Newnham’s profile of pioneering 1970s human sexuality researcher Shere Hite takes on a particularly interesting perspective when viewed through a contemporary lens of online anti-science rhetoric: It’s about how much people refuse to believe a thing is true if they don’t want it to be true, or if they can point to an anecdotal example for whom it’s not true. Hite proves to be a fascinating character even aside from all that, as Newnham digs into her work as a model (including pulp paperbacks and a James Bond movie poster) and her personal flamboyance, all of which made it easier, upon the publication of her controversial books like The Hite Report, for critics to attack her on a personal level for not meeting some standard of scientific “seriousness.” But the best material emerges as Hite comes under siege for conclusions about sexuality and gendered relationship dynamics that freak people out, leading to absurd scenarios like having to defend her research methodology on TV panels with a bunch of actors. It’s a bit surprising that the most personal content—like Hite’s diaries and other writings, as narrated by Dakota Johnson—ends up adding less to the story than simply observing Hite dealing with the public, but that alone makes for a depressingly timely tale of how dangerous inconvenient facts become to some people. (SR)