Snow is falling gently on Park City, Utah, in the opening days of the Sundance Film Festival. The 2023 iteration of everyone’s favorite indie fest is a particularly special one, after online-only versions in 2021 and 2022. In person and virtually, The A.V. Club writers are among the attendees relieved the fest is back on track, schmoozing with fellow cinephiles and checking out as many screenings as possible—always a fool’s errand with so much exciting, innovative, buzzworthy filmmaking on hand.
Day 1 of the fest featured a thrilling live performance from Amy Ray and Emily Sailers of the Indigo Girls, whose documentary It’s Only Life After All was one premiere helping get audiences back into the swing of things. Another music doc, Little Richard: I Am Everything, has fans of the legendary singer abuzz. And the likes of Emilia Clarke, Daisy Ridley, Jonathan Majors, Gael García Bernal, Dakota Johnson appeared at theaters across Park City to promote their premieres. Below are capsule reviews for three films that screened in the first days of the festival. And stay tuned for more dispatches from the wintry frontlines.
Director: Andrew Durham
Cast: Scoot McNairy, Nessa Dougherty, Emilia Jones, Geena Davis, Maria Bakalova
For his debut feature, Andrew Durham adapts Alysia Abbott’s memoir about growing up motherless with her queer father Steve in 1970s and 1980s San Francisco. After her mother’s tragic death, Steve (Scoot McNairy) starts living as an out and proud gay man. Alysia (played as a child by Nessa Dougherty) gets a crash course in anti-establishment culture. Steve lets his open life educate his daughter about the world, sex, and queer identity. Fairyland’s early scenes are marred by earnestness. Alysia is literally called precocious and the screenplay literalizes that a tad too much.
The film hits a higher gear when Emilia Jones appears as the teenage Alysia, delivering on the promise she showed in last year’s Oscar best picture winner CODA, which premiered at Sundance. Alysia grows up on screen and so does Jones’ confidence as an actor. Both Steve and Alysia have a witty and biting humor, sometimes verging on the sardonic. But the film doesn’t always follow them there, instead falling back on the obvious. But McNairy, especially, handles this complex character with poignancy. There is a moment when Steve realizes Alysia has grown up and is no longer a child, and with a flicker of the eye McNairy rises above the movie’s sometimes hooky script to tell the story of this relationship in full. Because of his performance, Fairyland is ultimately, utterly heartbreaking. [Murtada Elfadl]
Director: Sophie Barthes
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rosalie Craig
Surrealism, science fiction, and satire are the main ingredients of Sophie Barthes’ The Pod Generation, a tale set in the uncomfortably not-so-distant future. Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor star as a married couple who join the latest trend in parenting: artificial wombs, or pods, that enable prospective mothers to carry on with their lives with less inconvenience. While Ejiofor’s Alvy, a botanist clinging to the old ways of real plants and trees, believes pregnancy should be “natural,” Clarke’s Rachel is an ambitious career woman who values her marriage, but maybe not as much as the promotion that includes a coveted slot at the dreamily futuristic Womb Center.
Cinematographer Andrij Parekh is one of the real stars of The Pod Generation, which immerses us in a distinctly feminine future, all soft edges and pastel hues. Life in this advanced New York City feels so soothing and full of ease, you almost miss the troubling assertions that AI is considered a better provider of therapy and a better creator of art than humans could ever be. It’s clear how Barthes feels about our so-called technological evolution: she’d call it a devolution. If that message is hit a little hard, at least there are moments of offbeat humor to delight and gorgeously lit futuristic decor to entrance. Another important element here is comedy, which hits a peak when Clarke and Ejiofor’s characters excitedly, but confusedly, watch his sperm inseminate her egg on video in real time. It’s a wild piece of sci-fi speculation, but ironically one depicting the most natural act. [Jack Smart]
Director: Chloe Domont
Cast: Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich, Rich Sommer, Sebastian De Souza
Chloe Domont makes a confident feature-length debut with Fair Play, a nerve-shredder of a romantic thriller that rests all its stakes on the intersection between love, ambition, and gender in the workplace. It cleverly introduces us to a newly engaged couple obsessed with each other, only to reveal what really gets them off: climbing the financial corporate ladder. They have one playful dynamic at home, and quite another in the toxic and overwhelmingly masculine workplace to which they dedicate most of their waking hours.
When a coveted promotion—all such promotions are coveted, with hawk-like intensity, at a firm like this—doesn’t go the way Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) expect, the psychological minefield Domont has meticulously created sets off explosive payoffs. She does tip the scales in favor of one half of this couple, and while one could pick apart the third act’s talking points—or rather yelling points—there’s no denying the satisfaction of a deliciously feminist vindication. Dynevor is a revelation as a shrewdly cutthroat yet utterly humane woman of ambition. But then again, it tracks that an actress ascending the industry of Hollywood would click with navigating the perils of a male-dominated, female-objectifying space where the stakes always seem at an all-time high. [Jack Smart]