With most of the big premieres behind it, the 2023 Sundance Film Festival shifts into a lower gear ahead of its final day on January 29. Those who still have snow boots on the ground are packing multiple screenings into each day, joined by Park City locals and hard-working fest volunteers. Anna Camp, Jane Levy, and Will Pullen were among those promoting Angus MacLachlan’s A Little Prayer, and Ben Whishaw, fresh off his other Sundance premiere Bad Behaviour, showed up to support Ira Sachs’ grand return to Sundance, Passages.
In acquisition news, Passages will receive distribution from Mubi, while A Little Prayer went to Sony Pictures Classics and A24 added to its already-full roster with Danny and Michael Philippou’s buzzy horror flick Talk To Me. Flora And Son was acquired by Apple TV+, the first streamer to win the Best Picture Oscar, for CODA—the first Sundance title to win that prize. Could one of this year’s premieres be next season’s awards champ? Read on for capsule reviews for Flora And Son and two other films worth putting on your radar.
Director: John Carney
Cast: Eve Hewson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Orén Kinlan, Jack Reynor
John Carney’s latest ode to the power of music, Flora And Son may be the most conventional film on offer at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and that is by no means a mark against it. Attendees trudging through snowy Park City from artsy drama to artsy drama surely appreciate its warm embrace, and the same will hold true for audiences elsewhere when it inevitably becomes an instantly beloved release. Starring an irresistibly charming Eve Hewson as a young Irish mother raising her delinquent son (Orén Kinlan) and discovering her innate musical instincts thanks to a virtual guitar tutor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), it’s the kind of film engineered to generate smiles from ear to ear.
There’s plenty of sour mixed in with the sweet, especially thanks to Hewson’s foul-mouthed intensity, and Carney and Gary Clark’s original songs are to die for. You know that thing where a musical film has to include a songwriting montage, and the grand reveal of that song has to serve as the entire story’s emotional climax? With Flora And Son, like Once before it, there’s no doubt that the resulting musical performance will deliver the feel-good goods, and have you applauding as the credits roll. [Jack Smart]
Directors: Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn
It may sound like a backhanded compliment but Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn’s Going Varsity In Mariachi is a perfectly pleasant documentary. Arguably built in the spirit of underdog sports docs (though this one focuses not on athletics but on high school mariachi competitions), this South Texas-set doc wears its heart on its beautifully pressed sleeves. Shot over the course of a school year, this warmhearted film follows the Edinburg North High School’s Mariachi Oro as it rehearses and competes in various mariachi tryouts. Along the way, Vazquez and Osborn introduce us to several of its members who must juggle their everyday lives with the ofttimes grueling commitment that mariachi practice requires.
Some of those storylines (including that of the teacher leading the mariachi ensemble) are gripping more for their familiarity and mundanity than for anything else; the well-trod beats here feel less like a miss than the entire point. For Going Varsity In Mariachi is a celebration of a musical culture that, as the doc reminds us time and time again, has a long history of allowing South Texan teens to find their voice through the music of their culture. [Manuel Betancourt]
Director: Jacqueline Castel
Cast: Bobbi Salvor Menuez, Amandla Stenberg, Stephen McHattie
Painted in swathes of intense red light and moody winter landscapes, Jacqueline Castel’s ’80s-infused romantic horror film My Animal is a low-key entry in Sundance’s “Midnight” program, but a compelling one nonetheless. Starring Bobbi Salvor Menuez and Amandla Stenberg, the film follows Heather (Menuez), a tomboyish hockey goalie harboring a crush on figure skater Jonny (Stenberg) as well as a dangerous secret—she’s a werewolf. As she navigates her blossoming feelings and a tight-knit community reluctant to embrace queerness, Heather struggles to keep Jonny safe from her darker side as the blood moon slowly approaches.
Though the script can feel frequently sparse and the direction leaves something to be desired, My Animal nonetheless perseveres as a sensual, queer drama that pulls interesting inspiration from erotic thrillers and classic horror, and capital-G capital-R Gothic Romance. Grounded around an encompassing performance from Menuez, My Animal’s thematic and aesthetic strengths make up for the aimless direction. [Lauren Coates]