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Sundance 2023 dispatch: Early reactions to Cat Person, Passages, and more

As this year's Oscar nominations arrive, Sundance attendees wonder if they're watching next year's contenders

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(Clockwise from bottom left:) Cat Person, Run Rabbit Run, Passages, All Dirt Roads Taste Of Salt (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)
(Clockwise from bottom left:) Cat Person, Run Rabbit Run, Passages, All Dirt Roads Taste Of Salt (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)
Graphic: The A.V. Club

While publicists manning Park City’s red carpets may groan at the fact that the Academy Award nominations are announced midway through the Sundance Film Festival, the simultaneity of these two industry events reminds us of a tantalizing question: How many of next year’s Oscar contenders are premiering here now?

Tiffany Haddish and Michael Gandolfini premiered their film Landscape With Invisible Hand, while the subject of Stephen Curry: Underrated made a Sundance appearance alongside producer Ryan Coogler. Other documentaries receiving buzz in recent days include Food And Country, Victim/Suspect, Plan C, King Coal, and Going Varsity In Mariachi. For early tastes of some of the narrative films making waves here in Utah, The A.V. Club’s capsule reviews are below.

All Dirt Roads Taste Of Salt

All Dirt Roads Taste Of Salt
All Dirt Roads Taste Of Salt
Image: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
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Director: Raven Jackson

Cast: Charleen McClure, Moses Ingram, Kaylee Nicole Johnson, Reginald Helms Jr., Sheila Atim, Chris Chalk, Jayah Henry, Zainab Jah

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Two hands caressing each other. A long embrace between two people where we only see their arms and backs. A child’s hand on a fishing rod as her father instructs her, off camera, on how to catch fish. All Dirt Roads Taste Of Salt luxuriates in these montages. Slow as molasses and narratively opaque, it’s a movie that demands patience from the audience.

Writer and director Raven Jackson is also a poet and photographer, and you can see those influences here. Ostensibly a decades-spanning story of a woman from Mississippi, it unspools like visual poem vignettes that give us tiny glimpses into that life. Watching All Dirt Roads Taste Of Salt feels like watching an anthology of poems semi-connected in theme, come to gorgeous life on screen. Trying to discern a complete narrative is a futile undertaking; just relax and let it envelop you. Drawing inspiration from her own life and relatives, Jackson has created a unique cinematic experience that celebrates Black Southern life and traditions. [Murtada Elfadl]

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Run Rabbit Run

Run Rabbit Run
Run Rabbit Run
Image: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
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Director: Daina Reid

Cast: Sarah Snook, Lily Latorre, Damon Herriman, Greta Scacchi

There’s a rich history of psychological horror films focusing on the unraveling sanity of parents grappling with unnerving children. And it’s this well which the Australian-set Run Rabbit Run, from Emmy-nominated television director Daina Reid, seeks to tap. A putative exploration of trauma’s long shadow, this Sundance premiere tries to wring suspense from sleight-of-hand in form, threading the needle between telling a story about the lengths to which the human psyche will go to protect itself, and the more literal manifestation of a childhood demon held long at bay.

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Following a death in the family, divorced mother Sarah (Sarah Snook) struggles emotionally when her daughter Mia (Lily LaTorre) insistently assumes another identity and starts demanding more information about her grandmother Joan (Greta Scacchi), from whom Sarah is estranged. Scripted by Hannah Kent, the movie leans away from goosing scares (not at all a bad thing), but struggles with escalating tension as well as believable and compelling character shading. There’s a very basic level of hold Run Rabbit Run achieves, which comes largely from the inherent intrigue of inscrutable child characters, plus Snook’s professional investment. In short order, though, this thinly sketched offering devolves into a drinking game powered by how often Sarah questioningly calls out her daughter’s name. [Brent Simon]

Cat Person

Cat Person
Cat Person
Image: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
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Director: Susanna Fogel

Cast: Emilia Jones, Nicholas Braun, Geraldine Viswanathan, Hope Davis, Fred Melamed, Isabella Rossellini

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Adapting one of the most viral short stories of the last few years was never going to be an easy feat. Especially one which flirted with competing and conflicting points of view, all in the service of elucidating what modern dating can feel like. Framed by Margaret Atwood’s famed line, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them,” Susanna Fogel’s Cat Person, working from Michelle Ashford’s adapted script, is centered on the relationship between awkward (and maybe all-too-desperate) Robert (Nicholas Braun) and aloof (and maybe all-too-conceited) Margot (Emilia Jones). After meeting at her job as she sells him Red Vines and a large popcorn, Robert and Margot let their text-based interactions slowly bloom into something more. But after a disastrous date, Margot must come to terms with whether breaking up bluntly (read: honestly) is a good idea when he could very well be a violent stalker. Throwing everything at the screen (from imagined fantasies to dreamed-up therapy sessions), Cat Person never quite hits the mark—either as a biting dating satire nor as a potentially violent thriller. It ends instead as a mostly cerebral exercise that leaves you wanting to read Kristen Roupenian’s original story. [Manuel Betancourt]

Passages

Passages
Passages
Image: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
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Director: Ira Sachs

Cast: Franz Rogowski, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Ben Whishaw

Sundance mainstay writer-director Ira Sachs knows something fundamental about the connecting tissues of relationships both familial and romantic: they are messy and all the glories reside within the cracks of that disarray. In a fluid and casually immersive script co-penned by Mauricio Zacharias—usually a New York-based storyteller with the likes of Little Men and Love Is Strange—Sachs sets his Passages in Paris, the sensual city of romance, swoony architecture, and cigarettes. The story follows the often amusingly (and sometimes, insufferably) egotistical filmmaker Tomas (a sharp and hilarious Franz Rogowski), as he cheats on his level-headed husband Martin (Ben Whishaw, in a gracefully minor-key performance) and embarks on an affair with a woman. She is Agathe (an alluring Adèle Exarchopoulos), an independent personality who gets briefly entangled in their crossfire.

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Through studious long takes, a textured look, and playful choreography, Sachs’ Passages examines the ever-evolving nature of sexuality and attraction with both intelligence and a sense of humor, knowing that the pursuit of a formulaic answer to the eternal mystery of love is only a fool’s errand and there’s no darker comedy than whatever happens around a dining table. Passages is both unapologetically sexy and infinitely wise in its refusal to succumb to the traditional norms of coupledom; what a novel and grown-up combination in cinema these days. [Tomris Laffly]