It’s that time of the year! Screen Speck will venture on their first coverage of the Sundance Film Festival of 2023. With such an extensive lineup, we can all agree that there’s a little bit of everything for everybody. We will share our most anticipated watches as we gear up for the fest! From black-led romcoms to Cronenberg body horror, here are Screen Speck’s top picks at this year’s Sundance Film Festival!
Polite Society (Nida Manzoor)
Written and directed by Nida Manzoor, Polite Society follows Ria Khan (Priya Kansara), a London schoolgirl/martial-artist-in-training with dreams of becoming a professional stuntperson. But when her big sister Lena (Ritu Arya) suddenly drops out of school and starts dating Salim, only to get engaged only after a month of dating and planning to move away, it’s clear what Ria must do – kidnap her sister from her own wedding and save her from this trophy wife life she “clearly” doesn’t want.
I’ve been a huge fan of Nida Manzoor’s incredibly funny and heartwarming series We Are Lady Parts (which, if you haven’t, you should definitely check out). I’m just as excited to watch her make her feature directorial debut with this film. The funny premise of Polite Society drew me in, but the themes of diaspora, sisterhood, and genre mashing have grown my excitement for it. (Aiko Hilkinger)
The Accidental Getaway Driver (Sing J. Lee)
Written and directed by Sing J. Lee, The Accidental Getaway Driver follows Long (Hiệp Trần Nghĩa), a Vietnamese cab driver in Southern California who answers a late-night call for a ride. But instead of being a regular pick-up, Long gets taken hostage at gunpoint by Tây (Dustin Nguyen) and his two companions, who recently escaped Orange County jail.
I will give myself away and admit that what immediately drew me into this film was how beautiful it looked. Sing J. Lee’s striking visual style beautifully juxtaposes the film’s central conflict and works to align the character’s dramatic conflict and the crime at the center. I am very excited to watch how the two play together to create an intense yet humorous film that’s really all about how far we’re willing to go when starved for connection. (Aiko Hilkinger)
Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls (Andrew Bowser)
Written, directed, and starring Andrew Bowser, Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls follows amateur occultist Marcus J. Trillbury, aka Onyx the Fortuitous, Bowser’s viral online character, in a horror/comedy extravaganza of Satanic worship and friendship. Marcus feels like no one in his life understands him and yearns for a new life, a dream that is promptly answered by receiving a coveted invitation to the mansion of his idol Bartok the Great (Jeffrey Combs) for a ritual to raise the spirit of an ancient demon.
What drew me in for this film was the fact that it’s made for and by weirdos. The film is a love letter to weirdos of all kinds and the friendships forged because of it. The film also dives into the idea of destiny and how far we’re willing to sacrifice to ascend to it, especially if it’s what we think we want but not what we need. (Aiko Hilkinger)
birth/rebirth (Laura Moss)
Easily one of my most anticipated films, from first-time non-binary director Laura Moss, birth/rebirth follows Rose (Marin Ireland), a pathologist who prefers working with corpses to people. She also just so happens to be obsessed with the idea of reanimating the dead. So, when Celie (Judy Reyes) loses her baby girl Lila (A.J. Lister), Rose sets on a dark path to bring her back to life.
Based on the novel “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelly, Moss goes on an exploratory journey that reimagines the classic horror story through a twisted friendship and the stakes of motherhood. Something I didn’t know before writing this piece is that the key part of how Rose can keep Lila alive lies solely in the harvesting of biological materials from pregnant women, and that knowledge has only made me more intrigued to find out just how that key plot point will come into play. (Aiko Hilkinger)
Fancy Dance (Erica Tremblay)
There’s something so intrinsically joyful about this promotional image from Fancy Dance that caught my attention the second I laid eyes on it. These past few years, we’ve had a (long overdue) rise in Native US American stories, particularly the cultural impact of FX’s Reservation Dogs comes to mind, a show that director Erica Tremblay has directed and been the executive story editor on. And Fancy Dance will undoubtedly be a phenomenal addition to that list.
In her dramatic feature film debut, Tremblay tells the story of Jax (Lily Gladstone), a young indigenous girl taking care of her niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) after her sister’s disappearance. At the risk of losing custody to Jax’s father, Frank (Shea Whigham), the pair hit the road and scoured the backcountry to track Roki’s mother in time for the powwow. At its core, the film is a vibrant coming-of-age tale about the complexities of indigenous women finding their way in a colonized world. (Aiko Hilkinger)
In My Mother’s Skin (Kenneth Dagatan)
From Filipino writer-director Kenneth Dagatan comes a chilling fairy tale set in WW2. We follow Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli), a young girl driven to bargain with a fairy to help her mother beat a sickness that falls on her because her husband has run away to America after stealing gold from occupying Japanese soldiers. However, Tala’s bargain quickly turns dark as the fairy is determined to consume them all.
Dagatan’s direction, coupled with Russell Morton’s cinematography, creates this perfectly eerie backdrop to an equally chilling story that reminds me a lot of Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, as both Catholic and Filipino themes and folklore are used to build a fantasy world. This approach to dark fantasy has always been one of my favorite styles to watch out for, and I hope this film goes for the jugular. (Aiko Hilkinger)
Shortcomings (Randall Park)
From first-time director Randall Park comes Shortcomings, a feature film written by Adrian Tomine and based on his own acclaimed graphic novel of the same title. In it, Ben (Justin H. Min), a struggling filmmaker, finds himself alone for the first time in a while after his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) moves to New York for an internship, forced to finally figure out what he might actually want out of life.
Honestly, as much as I love Randall Park, I’m here solely for Justin H. Min and Sherry Cola. It’s an added bonus that the film is set to explore varying Asian-American identities and experiences through these incredibly charming and talented actors. I’m always on the hunt for new films that openly and rawly explore the AAPI experience through faulty protagonists because, at the end of the day, that is what life is all about – fucking up and learning. (Aiko Hilkinger)
Radical (Christopher Zalla)
Eugenio Derbez and I have a (totally one-sided) love-hate relationship, solely based on the fact that ‘Instructions Not Included makes me cry every time I watch it, and I think he should personally reimburse me for all the tears I’ve shed. From his newer projects like Acapulco and his work with his production company 3Pas studios, I’ve kept tabs on him, always excited to see what he puts out next. This time around, from writer-director Christopher Zalla comes Radical, a film I’m sure will be on the award season roster next year.
Based on the article by Joshua Davis, Radical follows sixth-grade teacher Sergio Juarez (Eugenio Derbez) as he sets off to turn the tide at Jose Urbina Lopez Elementary and take his students from the “worst performing students” in Mexico to the best. Only one problem, he has no idea what he’s doing. In the feel-good and inspiring nature of Ted Lasso, the film strives to trigger curiosity and for kids to discover the joy of learning, but most importantly, just allowing kids to be kids and have fun. (Aiko Hilkinger)
My Animal (Jacqueline Castel)
First-time feature film director Jacqueline Castel brings an energetic and animalistic story of love and obsession with My Animal. It follows Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), an outcast hockey goalie suppressing her romantic and animalistic urges. When intriguing figure skater Jonny (Amandla Stenberg) enters the rink, Heather’s life, sexuality, and personhood are pried open.
My Animal looks to be a promising twist on the classic werewolf story through its theme of all-consuming love and self-acceptance. I think Amandla Stenberg is one of the most talented young actors working at the moment. I’m tuned into everything they do, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the film balances its familial conflict and builds a relationship between the two leads to showcase the theme behind the story. (Aiko Hilkinger)
Sometimes I Think About Dying (Rachel Lambert)
This final film can easily be hit or miss for me, but I wanted to include it because I love Daisy Ridley. Directed by Rachel Lambert, Sometimes I Think About Dying follows Fran (Daisy Ridley), a woman ghosting her way through life stuck in a bubble of isolation. That is until Robert (Dave Merheje) starts working at the same company. Dave’s friendly disposition shifts the dynamics at the office, he’s constantly trying to chat with Fran, and though it goes against every fiber of her being, Fran finds herself giving this guy a chance.
I often have trouble keeping my excitement and attention peaked when a film’s pacing isn’t energetic. And while I don’t know how the film will unfold or how much I’ll be hooked by it, there’s a voice in the back of my mind that’s keeping me apprehensive about how much I’ll enjoy it. But I’m going into it with an open mind, and hopefully, I will be proven completely wrong. (Aiko Hilkinger)
Cassandro (Roger Ross Williams)
Academy Award–winning documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams brings his fiction directorial debut to Sundance following the real-life story of Cassandro, the “Liberace of Lucha libre.” In Juárez, Mexico, gay luchador Saúl (Gael García Bernal) wants to be a star. His fierce new trainer, Sabrina, suggests he develop an exótico character — an unmasked, stereotypically effeminate role audiences love to hate. But exóticos never get to win. All that changes when Saúl debuts the flamboyant and powerful Cassandro, who captures the crowd’s attention and affection. But how will Cassandro’s ascent affect Saúl’s relationship with his mother — still pining away for his unavailable father — and with Gerardo (Raúl Castillo), Saúl’s secret lover?
I’m sold already if a film includes Gael García Bernal, but it’s also rumored (according to the IMDb cast list) that Bad Bunny will make an appearance in this film! (Josie Meléndez)
Past Lives (Celine Song)
A budding childhood romance between Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), classmates at a primary school in Seoul, ends abruptly when Nora’s family emigrates to Canada. Twelve years later, they reconnect online, talk frequently, and even imagine a reunion. But another dozen years pass before they finally meet over a few fateful days during his visit to New York. Although their lives have changed dramatically, they remain bound by a wistful connection.
I can’t wait for the world to be engrossed in the wonderfully heartbreaking and touching story of this beautiful feature debut from playwright Celine Song. (Josie Meléndez)
Mami Wata (C.J. “Fiery” Obasi)
In the oceanside village of Iyi, the revered Mama Efe (Rita Edochie) acts as an intermediary between the people and the all-powerful water deity Mami Wata. But when a young boy is lost to a virus, Efe’s devoted daughter Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) and skeptical protégé Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen) warn Efe about unrest among the villagers. With the sudden arrival of a mysterious rebel deserter named Jasper (Emeka Amakeze), a conflict erupts, leading to a violent clash of ideologies and a crisis of faith for the people of Iyi. (Josie Meléndez)
Infinity Pool (Brandon Cronenberg)
Directed and written by Brandon Cronenberg, Infinity Pool follows James (Alexander Skarsgård) and Em (Cleopatra Coleman) Foster take off to an all-inclusive beach getaway in the fictional state of Li Tolqa to help jump-start his writer’s block. Their lazy days are spent relegated to their pricey resort, isolated from the surrounding land. Gabby (Mia Goth) introduces herself and her partner, Al (Jalil Lespert), as she’s a fan of James’ last novel, and they would like to spend some time together with the Fosters. The couples plan a secret day trip outside the compound that ends in a fatal accident with James to blame. For a hefty price, there are loopholes to aid foreign travelers convicted of crimes there, which is how James is first introduced to a perverse subculture of hedonistic tourism.
Audience Advisory per Sundance: This film contains strobe effects and may potentially trigger seizures. Viewer discretion is advised. It also has graphic depictions of animal abuse, sexual violence, and other subjects that could be offensive to some viewers. Audiences must be 18 or older. (Josie Meléndez)
La Pecera (Glorimar Marrero Sánchez)
In Glorimar Marrero Sánchez’s debut feature, after years of remission, Noelia’s (Isel Rodríguez) cancer has returned and is spreading quickly. Exhausted by relentless treatment plans and pills that do more harm than good, she seeks another way out. Brushing aside her boyfriend Jorge’s well-meaning but suffocating gestures, she heads back to Vieques, the blissful eastern Puerto Rican island where she grew up, a land grappling with its own poisoning after decades of contamination from U.S. Army operations. With Hurricane Irma closing in, alongside her mother in the serene comforts of home, Noelia looks for an answer to her pain in the land she’s always been intertwined with.
What else can I say? The first Puerto Rican feature to be selected to compete in World Cinema Dramatic Competition. This is history in the making, and it must be acknowledged! (Josie Meléndez)
Eileen (William Oldroyd)
Based on the book of the same name by literary powerhouse Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen follows a peculiar young woman whose dreary life stretches on toward unending misery. In frigid 1960s Boston, Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) shuffles between her father’s dingy, emotionally haunted home and the prison where she works alongside colleagues who have ostracized her. When an intoxicating woman (Anne Hathaway) joins the prison staff, Eileen is taken. When the possibility of a salvational friendship (or maybe more) takes hold and forms a singular glimmer in Eileen’s darkness, her newfound confidant entangles her in a shocking crime that alters all. (Josie Meléndez)
Slow (Marija Kavtaradze)
Contemporary dancer Elena (Greta Grineviciute) meets Dovydas (Kestutis Cicenas) when he is assigned to interpret via sign language in a class she teaches deaf youth. Their connection is immediate, kinetic, and frictionless. As they gravitate toward each other, resisting the forces and interventions of their separate daily lives, their bond deepens from platonic to romantic. When Dovydas discloses his asexuality, the couple commits themselves to honor their individual needs in tandem. As they continue to weave more tightly together, they struggle to negotiate sacrifice and compromise and are forced to discover the edges of their generosity toward the other.
It’s incredible to see asexual representation at the forefront of a story about romance and intimacy. We can’t wait for this to be available! (Josie Meléndez)
The Disappearance of Shere Hite (Nicole Newnham)
“The Hite Report,” a groundbreaking study of the intimate experiences of women, remains one of the bestselling books of all time since its publication in 1976. Drawn from anonymous survey responses, the book challenged restrictive conceptions of sex and opened a dialogue in popular culture around women’s pleasure. Its charismatic author, Shere Hite, a feminist sex researcher and former model became the public messenger of women’s secret confessions. With each subsequent bestseller, she engaged television titans in unforgettably explicit debates about sexuality while suffering the backlash her controversial findings provoked. But few remember Shere Hite today. What led to her erasure? (Josie Meléndez)
Magazine Dreams (Elijah Bynum)
Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors) lives with his ailing veteran grandfather, obsessively working out between court-mandated therapy appointments and part-time shifts at a grocery store where he harbors a crush on a friendly cashier. Though Killian’s struggles to read social cues and maintain control of his volatile temper amplify his sense of disconnection amid a hostile world, nothing deters him from his fiercely protected dream of bodybuilding superstardom, not even the doctors who warn that he’s causing permanent damage to his body with his quest.
Audience Advisory per Sundance: This film contains strobe effects and may potentially trigger seizures. Viewer discretion is advised. (Josie Meléndez)
Ever wondered what the reality of spending months on a spaceship might be like? Not the romanticized, exciting vision of a space mission, but the fundamentals of day-to-day reality: the isolation, confinement, and lack of privacy and social contact. Sounds similar to our pandemic lives, you might think. But in this case, it’s your job, and sadly you can’t escape to the woods when you’re feeling blue.
In his engrossing, heartwarming, and beautifully contemplative documentary, Ido Mizrahy ponders the conflict between our need for connectivity and the urge to explore the unknown. Scientists predict that we will be able to send humans to Mars (and to return them safely) within the next decade. Dr. Al Holland, a senior NASA psychologist, studies the effects of prolonged separation of individuals from Earth. The Longest Goodbye offers us an opportunity to witness as Dr. Holland investigates the ways to provide support and coping mechanisms to the red planet-bound explorers to prepare them for the actuality of becoming a long-mission astronaut. (Josie Meléndez)
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson)
Of all the films premiering at Sundance this year, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is one of the few shrouded in a bit of mystery. Touted as an “expressionistic journey” that spans decades in the life of Mack, a Mississippi native, the film marks Raven Jackson’s feature debut. It also boasts a striking cast led by the phenomenal Moses Ingram (Queen’s Gambit, Obi-Wan Kenobi) and Sheila Atim (The Underground Railroad, The Woman King). Whatever story it holds, it’s thrilling to see more Black female directors — and casts — making their mark on this festival this year. (Lyvie Scott)
The Starling Girl (Laurel Parmet)
In The Starling Girl, Eliza Scanlen is Jem Starling, a 17-year-old girl struggling to reconcile desire, shame, and sin in her rural Kentucky town. The Starlings are devout fundamentalist Christians, which saddles Jem with a growing list of questions and conflicts as she comes of age. Things only get more complicated as she is drawn to her youth pastor, the charismatic Owen (Lewis Pullman). Through their clandestine relationship, writer-director Laurel Parmet addresses the double standard that all women face, no matter their faith, and overcoming shame no matter the cost. (Lyvie Scott)
Pianoforte (Jakub Piątek)
Pianoforte follows a group of young pianists looking to make their mark at the International Chopin Piano Competition, a prestigious, legendary, and daunting tournament with all manner of hurdles to overcome. The world of classical music has been a fascinating little microcosm for me lately — especially after witnessing the quiet drama and ego clashing at the center of Todd Field’s Tár — so I can only imagine what the real thing must be like. Director Jakub Piątek promises an odyssey full of intensity, and there’s little doubt that Pianoforte will deliver. (Lyvie Scott)
MAMACRUZ (Patricia Ortega)
Cruz (Kiti Mánver) is a wife and mother with deep ties to her faith. She and her husband are raising their granddaughter, Viky, while her mother trains in dance in Vienna. It’s a peaceful, unassuming life, held together by routine and little else. But when Cruz stumbles down an Internet rabbit hole — and is exposed to online pornography in the process — it triggers an awakening. MAMACRUZ follows its titular heroine on a journey to rediscover her own desires — not through the church or her husband, but through her relationship with herself. That rediscovery seems to be a common theme at Sundance this year, but as someone who’s had to embark on a similar journey herself, I’ll never say no to such a refreshing narrative. (Lyvie Scott)
Drift (Anthony Chen)
Cynthia Erivo is one of many actresses I am always enthralled by, whether it be her scene-stealing debut in Widows or her powerhouse performance in Harriet — and her role in Anthony Chen’s English-language debut sounds like another winner from here. In Drift, Erivo is Jacqueline, a Liberian refugee seeking refuge on a Greek island. Though she was the daughter of a wealthy partisan back home, she struggles to make ends meet alone. When she strikes up a tentative friendship with eccentric tour guide Callie (Alia Shawkat), Drift transcends the trappings of a by-the-book refugee drama.
Audience Advisory per Sundance: Drift contains graphic depictions of sexual violence. (Lyvie Scott)
Fair Play (Chloe Domont)
Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are on top of the world. Newly engaged and thriving at their white-collar jobs, everything seems to be going according to plan. That is, until a coveted position opens at an intensely competitive firm, Emily and Luke’s supportive dynamic is quickly soured by the intense competition. Chloe Domont’s feature debut is a painfully-taut, razor-sharp exploration of the dynamics between power couples in high-stakes professions — and with Dynevor and Ehrenreich at the center of it all, it’s probably going to be an interesting ride in the best of ways.
I’ve been quietly riding for Alden Ehrenreich since his big break in Solo: A Star Wars Story, even more so after the film’s less-than-glowing reception. Fair Play is just one of the actor’s upcoming projects, and I’m beyond ecstatic to watch him at work again.
Audience Advisory per Sundance: Fair Play contains graphic depictions of sexual violence. (Lyvie Scott)
Rye Lane (Raine Allen-Miller)
Despite their popularity in the ‘90s and ‘00s, Black-led romantic comedies are rare today. Their scarcity today is why I’m so jazzed for Rye Lane, a Black British rom-com from another first-time female filmmaker, Raine Allen-Miller. When the happy-go-lucky Yas (Vivian Oparah) catches Dom (David Jonsson) crying over his ex in a bathroom stall, the unlikely duo set off on a quest across South London. What starts off as a way to forget about their respective exes quickly turns into a new chance at love — and I’m sorry, but if that doesn’t sound unbelievably adorable already, I’m not sure what else to say. (Lyvie Scott)
Invisible Beauty (Bethann Hardison & Frédéric Tcheng)
In the world of high fashion, the Black supermodel is synonymous with the pioneer. But before well-loved names like Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks, there was Bethann Hardison. A contemporary of Iman, Hardison had quite a career in fashion. She mentored Campbell, discovered Tyson Beckford, and helped spearhead major industry change. Co-directed by Hardison herself and filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng, Invisible Beauty explores the struggle for diversity and inclusion in such a stubborn and exploitative industry. (Lyvie Scott)
Passages (Ira Sachs)
Tomas (Franz Rogowski) and Martin (Ben Whishaw) have been together for 15 years. When Tomas explores his sexuality in an affair with a woman named Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), it ruptures the comfortable balance in their marriage. Martin quickly enters into his own affair in the hopes of reclaiming Tomas’ attention — and while it initially succeeds, it also triggers a fiery bout of jealousy, forcing them to reevaluate the terms of their relationship. Passages is a quiet, intimate character study and an unflinching exploration of physical and emotional attraction. Through this complex story, director Ira Sachs peels back the layers of a unique section of the human experience. (Lyvie Scott)
The Eight Mountains (Felix van Groeningen & Charlotte Vandermeersch)
The Eight Mountains premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2022, taking home the Jury Prize for its tender story about friendship and coming of age. The film follows Bruno (Alessandro Borghi), a local boy from a remote mountain village, and Pietro (Luca Marinelli), a city kid visiting for the summer. The two grow closer as friends each summer vacation — but after a few years, Pietro’s trips become less frequent, while Bruno remains. Pietro eventually returns to rebuild the house that belonged to his late father, and the two friends end up rekindling their lost bond, answering questions about their lives, their dreams, and the burden of fatherhood along the way. (Lyvie Scott)