Best of Sundance 2024

Action grandmas, devoted daughters, cantors in crisis, Irish-language rappers, and Jesse Eisenberg and Riley Keough in Sasquatch prosthetics rank among our crew’s highlights of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

LIST: OUR FESTIVILLE CREW FAVORITES FROM SUNDANCE 2024

Independent filmmakers out there, make your movie. We’re all nervous, raw, scared. But you know what? Take the chance. Take the creative chance and trust telling your stories. People are out there. They’re waiting to hear great stories.

—⁠Efren Ramirez

“Sundance is really dear to my heart. It’s always an honor. It is really nice to get to come and be recognized for really important, out-there, independent work,” Jena Malone told us on the red carpet at the 40th edition of the festival that’s been loved for its support of independent cinema since it first launched in 1985 (after several years of being known as The Utah Film Festival). In that inaugural edition, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Blood Simple won the Grand Jury Prize, while titles like The Brother from Another Planet, Stranger Than Paradise and Paris, Texas were among those attendees caught high up in that Park City altitude. Those films are a testament to the spirit that has coursed through this bastion of year-round community building and filmmaking ingenuity in the past four decades—a spirit that was certainly felt on the ground this year.

Over the course of eleven days, we spoke with artists including Indya Moore, Boots Riley, Gaby Hoffmann, Esteban Arango, Dylan O’Brien and Riley Keough about the importance of indie voices and film audiences to the future of the art form (you can see them in the video below). “I think indie filmmaking is the only kind of filmmaking that allows for any sense of poetry,” declared Ponyboi writer and star River Gallo, while Suncoast director Laura Chinn said, “It’s a medium where people from all different walks of life can tell stories, and anybody who has a few dollars can see those stories.” Sundance is a place where you can feel the richness of this community, such as when Jesse Eisenberg told us about being so blown away by Eliza Hittman’s 2020 Sundance selection Never Rarely Sometimes Always that he called her up and asked to read her next script just because he needed to devour whatever came out of her head.

Big award winners from Sundance’s Grand Jury this year included In the Summers, Porcelain War, Sujo and A New Kind of Wilderness (all the winners are listed here). Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie won a directing prize for their work on the Canadian Indian residential school system documentary Sugarcane, and our Indigenous editor Leo Koziol had a riveting conversation with the lauded duo. There wasn’t as much of a feeding frenzy this year—no twenty-million-dollar price tags like we’ve seen in recent times (that we know of)—but plenty of work still landed plum acquisition deals, including My Old Ass, Ghostlight, Presence and Didi (弟弟). There are still so many more out there deserving of distribution, too.

Our intrepid Sundance team—Adesola Thomas, Alejandra Martinez, Katie Rife, Mitchell Beaupre, Rafa Sales Ross, Leo Koziol—attended the fest on the ground and at home in the online portal, and we kept a keen eye on which films were rising up the Letterboxd charts. As Sasquatch Sunset co-director Nathan Zellner tells us, “Independent film needs their champions, and I think that’s where the community of Letterboxd can come together and really get behind the things that they love.” So here is our curated selection of the movies that we (and you!) loved the most at Sundance 2024.


Between the Temples

Directed by Nathan Silver, written by Silver and C. Mason Wells

Wes Anderson fave Jason Schwartzman, Letterboxd’s Most Watched Actor in 2023, has been winning over film lovers since his teenaged debut in Rushmore in 1998. Since then, he’s made regular Sundance appearances with titles including Listen Up Philip and The Overnight, returning this year with Between the Temples, an achingly tender portrait of a cantor (Schwartzman) whose life is rearranged when he crosses paths with his old music teacher (Carol Kane). His performance confirms Brian’s belief “that “middle-aged Schwartzman is gonna be the best Schwartzman,” as though the actor has been honing his streak of sad-sack neurotics for three decades specifically to portray this character.

Director Nathan Silver and the great cinematographer Sean Price Williams shot Between the Temples in 16mm in a way that makes you feel like you’re watching a John Cassavetes movie funneled through some warped fusion of Shiva Baby and Harold and Maude. “There’s embarrassment, and there’s secondhand embarrassment, and then there’s watching the dinner scenes in this,” notes Lauren, while numerous Letterboxd reviews highlight the particularly rib-tickling creaky-door gag that somehow only gets funnier each time it pops up.

It’s not all a bucket of laughs, though. Alycia writes that the film also comes with “a simultaneously gut-punching and quiet existentialism.” Schwartzman and Kane have extraordinary chemistry, giving us all hope that connection is out there, be it platonic, romantic or an amorphous concoction somewhere in between. Letterboxd crew member Samm got to the credits “screaming, crying, throwing up, tearing my hair out, bursting with love. My brain is having a heart attack and so is my heart. I wanna kiss someone.” What more could you ask for? MB

Daughters

Directed by Angela Patton and Natalie Rae

Angela Patton and Natalie Rae’s feature debut Daughters chronicles the rollout of a US program that allows incarcerated fathers to take part in a special Daddy Daughter Dance—seen often as a last resort for parents who have been deprived of regular contact with their children. The result is a devastatingly moving documentary that not only prods at the intricacies of parenthood but also walks the very tricky line between humanizing incarcerated men without overlooking the shattering effects of the fathers’ absences in the lives of their daughters. The textured cinematography from Michael Cambio Fernandez is gorgeous—light fluttering through windows as if to frame precious memories in the glow of shared joy, little feet on top of big feet as words are mumbled at first and then spilled with the violent flow of an urgency only known by those with a deep awareness of time.

Many of our members experienced body-shaking sobs, with Cate saying she “cried so hard I gave myself a migraine,” and nicole issued a very important alert to “remember to hydrate before and after!” You might feel yourself welling up even before watching, courtesy of H.I.’s touching reaction to the film’s portrayal of fatherhood: “I worry all the time about what I’m doing for my kid. I’m always thinking about how I can be worthy of her love. Personally, I never feel it. No matter how much time I give to her, no matter how well I try to take care of her, no matter how often I make her smile or laugh. And yet, I feel it all the time and I feel it throughout me.” The winner of the Festival Favorite and US Documentary Audience Awards from Sundance, Daughters was acquired for distribution by Netflix, so you’ll be able to bring out the tissues in the comfort of your own home. RSR

Freaky Tales

Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Glowing green goo, katana revenge gore and kicking ass with your punk girlfriend. This might read like your average Saturday night or perhaps a sublime Mad Lib, but in fact they are the winning elements of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Sundance hit Freaky Tales. The filmmaking duo aren’t new to glittering music moments, having demonstrated their knack for the art in the ‘Under Pressure’ daydream sequence of their 2010 film It’s Kind of a Funny Story. This new four-part episodic feature is a celebration of late ’80s Oakland, its varied, vibrant subcultures and musicality. Freaky Tales takes its name, after all, from the eponymous, sexed-out anthem by the film’s narrator and executive producer, Bay Area rapper Too Short.

Between Normani and Dominique Thorne’s rap cyphers, Pedro Pascal’s video-drone crime underworld, and the peppering of spiritual ascension infomercials (think Paddy Considine’s ninja character in Submarine), Freaky Tales interlaces uncanny slices of life in a Buster Scruggs anthology style that left hoards of Letterboxd members (including me) visually satiated. Allie writes, “I kinda love thinking about all the tiny ways humans touch and change each others’ lives. and I’ll just say… the outcomes of the punk fight and Sleepy Floyd’s meditative rampage with the neo-Nazis were very morally satisfying.”

Reviews overwhelmingly note the film’s bloody connective tissue to Tarantino; I’d throw Drive into the mix. Jamie cites an even deeper cut, writing of the fourth-quarter act: “Great performance and an awesome scene with Jay Ellis that will have everyone talking. People will compare it to Kill Bill, I was thinking more Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game of Death.” AT

Good One

Written and directed by India Donaldson

Kelly Reichardt fans will feel right at home with Good One, India Donaldson’s stirring debut centered on seventeen-year-old Sam (Lily Collias) as she backpacks through the Catskills on a weekend camping trip with her father (James Le Gros) and his best friend (Danny McCarthy). It’s all very Old Joy, with naturalistic photography from Wilson Cameron and performances from the core trio that feel as of-the-earth as the soil they are trekking across. Through Sam, we experience the world as a constant observer, witnessing the rickety bond that has endured between the two middle-aged men as they navigate regrets over the women they’ve scorned and the consequences of their actions.

As director and star delicately traverse the tidal waves of teenage womanhood, it’s unsurprising that Letterboxd members have turned introspective in their reviews. “Had a conversation with some friends this morning about remembering how much more open and optimistic and free the world felt when we were just a little bit younger, and how sad it feels to remember the pain we were in as bad things happened, and others reacted in the wrong ways, and we started to lose that naïveté,” Selome writes. “You watch that happen to Sam in a matter of twelve hours in this movie… realizes the truth so quietly. It hurts a lot.”

Justin aptly describes Good One as “less a ‘coming of age’ film than a ‘coming to terms’ film,” specifically pointing to spiritual inspiration from “cinematic tales of agency like Je, Tu, Il, Elle… exquisitely serene in a way that few films are (until it’s not).” This one is major, and so much of its power is held in the silent glances and shifted body expressions of Collias’s titanic central performance. MB

I Saw the TV Glow

Written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun

I Saw the TV Glow is a stunning example of art’s ability to find the universal in the specific. The second feature from writer-director Jane Schoenbrun builds on the aesthetics and themes of their debut We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, drawing from Schoenbrun’s ’90s suburban upbringing and personal relationship with gender identity to create a work of surreal art-horror that’s “like witnessing a new color,” as SamB writes on Letterboxd.

The universality comes from the way Schoenbrun’s film conveys the loneliness of teenage alienation: “High school me, who watched Adventure Time every day to disassociate, understood this film immediately,” B writes. The specificity is tied to the film’s horror: I Saw the TV Glow translates the gut-wrenching terror of a trans awakening—and the devastating consequences of refusing this call—into images that crackle with urgency. It “doesn’t tell you what it is like to be trans, but rather envelops you in the very specific way that one trans person processes their experiences,” as Sydney says, with “some moments that are absolutely horrific, [and] some that will break your heart into a million pieces.”

It’s a cautionary tale that’s also an enveloping hug for the lost and questioning, and—as is often the case with visionary works—if you try too hard to understand what I Saw the TV Glow is “about,” you’re missing the point. This movie is an emotion, a vibe, something ephemeral and beautiful like the blue cotton candy, plumes of green smoke and glowing pink light that envelops the characters as they bond over their favorite TV show. The soundtrack is awesome, the cinematography astonishing, and the performances heartfelt—believe the many Letterboxd members who are already calling this film “major.” More audiences will be able to find out soon, as A24 brings TV Glow to theaters. KR

Ibelin

Directed by Benjamin Ree

Yours truly is as foreign to the world of gaming as crocodiles are to the world of skateboarding, but one needs very little understanding of multiplayer online role-playing games to be utterly devastated by the beauty of Ibelin. Benjamin Ree follows up the highly acclaimed The Painter and the Thief with another insightful prodding of unusual friendships, this time through the story of Mats Steen, a Norwegian gamer who died of a degenerative muscular disease at the age of 25—his legacy unspooled through the discovery of his World of Warcraft persona, the titular Ibelin.

Labeled by Letterboxd member (and No One Will Save You director) Brian Duffield as “probably the most positive movie about online relationships and gaming there will ever be,” Ibelin is cleverly told through a mix of narrated entries from Steen’s blog, firsthand testimonials from family and friends, and reconstructed animated moments from his gameplay. Ree uncovers an alternative reality filled with friends, lovers and partners who defied the notion of companionship as physical presence. Its effectiveness is apparent in Ibelin earning the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary, along with a Grand Jury Prize for Ree’s direction and an acquisition deal from Netflix.

Gamers loved Ibelin, too, with Liam saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film connect the world of gaming to the real world in such an effective manner. While it may seem both are two separate entities, the world of gaming is merely an extension of our real lives. A place where the rules and expectations of society are null and you can express yourself without fear of judgment.” You won’t see a more beautiful testament to that fact than Ree’s loving ode to the power of community, whenever one may find it. RSR

In a Violent Nature

Written and directed by Chris Nash

If you think about it, Jason Voorhees must spend most of his time walking. In all those downtime scenes where each film’s cast of disposable teenagers is busy getting drunk, and having sex and bullying one another, what’s Jason up to off camera? Walking to the next murder, of course. In a Violent Nature takes this comics-shop musing and turns it into high art, grafting art-house influences onto a classic cabin-in-the-woods premise to create a truly fresh example of the slasher subgenre.

In a Violent Nature contains scenes of soothing, meditative calm—“the director called it ASMR horror and that is 100% true,” Belledixie25 writes—as well as moments of sick humor and gruesome carnage. The word “gnarly” shows up in four separate Letterboxd reviews from the premiere, along with “creatively gory,” “gross,” “deranged” and “truly unhinged.” (All of these are compliments.) Referring to the film’s masked killer, HLegend says that “Johnny earned a seat at the table with the slasher icons.”

This movie plays with viewer expectations in ways that can be challenging, as it indulges in and sadistically withholds conventional slasher thrills at various points. That being said, writer-director Chris Nash obviously has a solid base in, and genuine affection for, horror movies—this isn’t a case of a director slumming it in a disreputable genre for kicks. The level of intentionality behind the choices Nash makes is impressive, as Guerra notes in a five-star review: “what I love most is how sophisticated and refined Nash is with the camera… I won’t ever look at the forest the same, and I’ve seen a lot of these cabin-in-the-woods type movies.” IFC Films and Shudder will release In a Violent Nature later this year, a perfect fit. KR

PLUS: SEE CHRIS NASH’S FILM INFLUENCES FOR IN A VIOLENT NATURE

Kneecap

Written and directed by Rich Peppiatt

Making a big impression out of Sundance and earning the Audience Award in the NEXT selection was Irish rap-music comedy Kneecap. For over 500 years, the British have suppressed the native tongue of Ireland, such that out of over six million people only 80,000 can speak their traditional language—with only 6,000 in Northern Ireland. In this context, the real-life band Kneecap emerged in Belfast as the first Gaelic-language rap group, swearing its way to fame with high-energy music celebrating unabashed drug use and unashamedly giving the finger to the British.

The film is based on a true story, and the real-life young rappers (Móglaí Bap and Mo Chara)—who, with their former teacher (DJ Provaí), form Kneecap—play themselves with genuine acting chops and an anarchic playfulness that is a joyride from start to finish. Dan was fully on board, saying, “Straight out the gate, pure adrenaline, absolute bananaland, psychedelic fun… smashes your brains in and drags you with a racecar into the underground world of Gaelic hip hop.”

There’s a strong message here about language revitalization mixed with a radical activist decolonization energy that will resonate with Native viewers around the world. A comparison can be made to New Zealand metal band Alien Weaponry, who have found global fame singing completely in their Native Māori language (they also have a film coming out later this year). Kneecap is primed to go far, with Michael Fassbender (in a plum supporting role) lending the film some extra name value, and an acquisition deal from Sony Pictures Classics. LK

Love Lies Bleeding

Directed by Rose Glass, written by Glass and Weronika Tofilska

Red light filling up the desert landscape, sweat dripping down a flexed bicep, smoke billowing over the canyons—these are some of the images that have stuck with me since seeing Love Lies Bleeding. The follow-up to director Rose Glass’s 2019 feature debut Saint Maud is full of indelible imagery punctuating its pulpy, violent, ultra-hot story, and cements Glass’s singular vision. Love Lies Bleeding follows Lou (Kristen Stewart), a solitary gym manager who isn’t interested in the world beyond her workplace and apartment. Then Jackie (Katy O’Brian), a bodybuilder, comes into town, walks into Lou’s gym, and sets her world on fire. Together, the pair will head down a twisty, bloody path that never slows down.

Desire is at the heart of this love story, radiating off the screen whenever Lou and Jackie are together. This desire wouldn’t be as palpable without the performances of Stewart and O’Brian, who smolder together on screen and sometimes even explode. The performances from the entire cast make Love Lies Bleeding a compelling, adrenaline-soaked watch (not to be missed: Ed Harris as Lou’s menacing father, wreaking havoc in a mullet-style wig).

This is a film that refuses to sand down its edges or take the most palatable way out, and it’s all the better for it. Letterboxd members agree. “I feel like I need a baptism after watching this. Absolutely stunning and destructive,” writes Philip, while Corrin puts it simply: “Eroticism, violence, heart, killing for love. All my favorite things.” Come for the promise of ’80s-tinged pulp, and stay for the bloody, messy ride. You won’t have to wait long, as A24 releases Love Lies Bleeding in US theaters on March 8. AM

Malu

Written and directed by Pedro Freire

“Like Lady Bird but more intense and with attempted murder.” Well, I think showtimepanda’s one-line Letterboxd review does an excellent job of selling Malu, but there are many more reasons to keep an eye out for Pedro Freire’s melancholic feature debut. Freire finds inspiration in his real-life mother, thespian Malu Rocha, to investigate the relationship between three generations of women whose lives were molded by drastically different cultural and political times in Brazil.

Anchored by a monumental performance by veteran Yara de Novaes as the titular bohemian, the film steps even further into the personal with the casting of Freire’s very own grandmother as the fictional matriarch. La Chimera’s Carol Duarte completes the ensemble with another greatly moving turn as a young woman stuck between the outside pressures of early adulthood and the almost surrealist land of her family home—a ramshackle farmhouse framed beautifully by Mauro Pinheiro Jr.’s luscious cinematography, time marked by moisture staining windows, benches and walls, the physical corrosion of the house mirroring the emotional corrosion of the women within.

Drew was one of many Letterboxd members to reflect upon Freire’s refined understanding of the family’s complex dynamics: “Freire doesn’t hold back, allowing his characters to fight as hard as they love. Their conflicts are fundamental, going beyond the interpersonal and encompassing issues of politics, illness, and generational trauma. There are gulfs between these characters—especially the three women—that no amount of care can traverse.” RSR

Ponyboi

Directed by Esteban Arango, written by River Gallo

Valentine’s Day in New Jersey seldom glimmered so blue, but River Gallo’s pen and performance turns the throes of mob time woes into a stinging crime thriller. The feature follow-up to his 2019 short of the same name, Ponyboi follows Gallo’s intersex sex worker as he tries to skip town after a client encounter turns deadly.

Esteban Arango directs Dylan O’Brien and Victoria Pedretti’s toxic laundromat romance with debonair as O’Brien pathologically lies and pookie-pushes his way upwards, while Murray Bartlett’s mustang-driving cowboy crooner Bruce (yes, like Springsteen) is a highlight of the feature. Marya writes, “This had me at the a cappella duet of Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’ inside a fluorescent lit laundromat. A stellar neon-soaked New Jersey fever dream replete with dreamscape diners, nocturnal cowboys, and the incandescent Indya Moore as a glamorous night club MC. I can’t wait to see what other stories writer-star River Gallo has to share with the world.”

Through the film’s white-hatted cowboy winks and sprints in and out of havoc city, it’s Charlie (Indya Moore) and Ponyboi’s conversation about perception, hormones and community tension between intersex and transpeople that translates with the greatest force. At the Ponyboi premiere, Moore remarked that the scene was perhaps the first of its kind in all of film history.

Viewers sensitive to incidents of domestic abuse and heavy drug use be forewarned. AT

A Real Pain

Written and directed by Jesse Eisenberg

This year’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award went to Jesse Eisenberg for A Real Pain, his tale of mismatched cousins David (Eisenberg) and Benji (Kieran Culkin), who take a trip to Poland for a Holocaust tour, as a way to get in touch with their roots after their grandmother’s passing. Given the leads, it’s little surprise that it scooped up an acquisition deal from Searchlight Pictures for a cool ten million dollars early on in the fest. There is piping-hot buzz coming off Kieran Culkin’s performance, as the actor takes his well-established mercurial, arrested adolescent charm and infuses it with raw-nerve emotionality—you can sense a deep reservoir of anguish battling inside of him at all times.

Benji is also the catalyst for the film’s incredibly sharp conversations around how we as a society can spend even a second of our lives feeling a sense of joy when we know that others have faced unthinkable atrocities—and so many continue to face those atrocities in our present moment. Zach describes A Real Pain as “one of the most empathetic, well-told looks at inherited trauma that I’ve seen,” while Cobbb says it’s “an absolute triumph. Speaks to humanity on every level. I laughed, I cried, I cheered.”

As a director, Eisenberg captures these characters on an individual level with aplomb, while using them as funnels for larger conversations—about who we are, how we see one another, and what kind of balance we can reach around acknowledging the pain of the world without letting it completely consume us. MB

Rob Peace

Written and directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, based on a novel by Jeff Hobbs

How do you capture a life? This is one of the questions that arises with any biopic, but it’s one that resonates throughout Rob Peace, the latest film from director, writer and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Based on the biography The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs, Rob Peace is a heart-wrenching examination of a life whose potential was cut short by systemic failings. We watch as Rob is forced to grow up quickly when his father (played by Ejiofor) is arrested and charged with murder. His mother, Jackie (Mary J. Blige), works several jobs to continue to nurture his naturally brilliant mind, sending him to St. Benedict’s Preparatory School as an adolescent. At the same time, Rob (Jay Will, in a stunning debut performance) takes it upon himself to do whatever he can to help his father with his case. Over time, Rob makes it into Yale, studying molecular biology and graduating with honors.

This academic success is paralleled by the very real economic struggles Rob faces, in school and out. Eventually, the lack of resources and choices Rob must make to survive lead to his demise, underscoring the cognitive dissonance of the American Dream. Reeferdank is among the Letterboxd members to admire the powerful storytelling in Rob Peace, writing that the film “beautifully weaves a narrative that explores the intersection of systemic flaws, unwavering community loyalty, and an individual’s profound passion for science.” Among everything else, this is a warm, powerful portrait of Rob and the legacy of love and care he left behind. Capturing a life, especially one that was cut so short, is a heavy task. Rob Peace rises to the occasion, providing a fully realized portrait of this man. AM

Sasquatch Sunset

Directed by Nathan Zellner, co-directed and written by David Zellner

Sasquatch Sunset could have been just a big old joke. And indeed, the audience at the film’s Sundance premiere giggled through most of the first half hour, not to mention the walkouts that were scattered throughout. Sure, the Sasquatch sex scene is silly. And ugh, fine, as long as we’re talking about it—there is a good amount of farting and poop-flinging in this movie. There’s no dialogue, and very little plot; this absurdist tragicomedy is simply a year in the life of a band of Sasquatches, battling the twin threats of human encroachment and male stupidity.

Riley Keough and Jesse Eisenberg star under layers of fake fur and latex prosthetics so thick that it takes a while to figure out who’s who. This is yet another of the film’s farcical jokes: Why hire movie stars and then cover their famous faces? According to Eisenberg at the post-premiere Q&A, it was a stimulating challenge as an actor. But it’s Keough who really shines: this is a role that requires her to get on her hands and knees and give birth to a squirming prosthetic baby Sasquatch, and she sells the hell out of it.

The level of craft behind the camera is extremely high, and the commitment to the bit from the cast and the crew is so earnest and so absolute that it all gels into something touching and even profound. As critic Robert Daniels says in his Letterboxd review of the film, “Only the Zellners could turn Sasquatches throwing feces into an aching commentary on overconsumption, broken capitalism, global warming, and humanity’s devastating effect on rare species. I nearly wept.” Or, as Thomascalhoun writes, “this is the stupidest movie I’ve seen in a really long time, and it was f—king beautiful!” Sasquatch Sunset came into Sundance with distribution already in the bag courtesy of Bleecker Street, who will release this curious tale in theaters this April. KR

Seeking Mavis Beacon

Written and directed by Jazmin Jones

To enhance the investigation of the figure or event at the heart of their film, documentarians often erase themselves from their finished pictures. Seeking Mavis Beacon stands out in the willingness of its makers—director Jazmin Jones and cyber doula Olivia McKayla Ross—to think about their personhood in conversation with their subject.

Renée L’Espérance, the Haitian cover model of the popular typing program Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, has left a thumbprint on the digital lives of computer-literate people since the program’s release in 1987. Where did Mavis Beacon come from and where did she go? As Jazmin and Olivia connect with the program developers, tech scholars and ultimately Renee’s family, they assemble an elegant and alluring quilt of interview footage, video diary entries and archival photography that simultaneously expands and questions our vocabulary for Black personhood in cyberspace.

What might it mean to not want to be found in an era of virality and hyperaccessibility? Lyvie speaks to the film’s force and fashion: “Utterly endeared to and devastated by this. Loved the e-girl investigation, the use of internet meme as emotional shorthand, the communal witchy atmosphere. Loved the ideas this puts forth about Black girls searching for meaning and belonging, but simultaneously pained to watch that belonging get denied at every turn. Bittersweet that a form of that rejection comes from another Black woman, one who’s already been stripped of her autonomy and spent decades trying to reclaim it, who doesn’t want to be perceived or recognized, even by the people who might genuinely cherish her.” NEON has the rights to Seeking Mavis Beacon, so keep an eye on their calendar for release details. AT

Thelma

Written and directed by Josh Margolin

There is something joyous about June Squibb’s screen presence. Take, for instance, her standing in the kitchen with her now iconic “Boner Donor” shirt in Hubie Halloween. Squibb finally has a leading role worthy of her luminous presence and impeccable comedic timing in Thelma. Taking cues from the Mission: Impossible franchise, Josh Margolin’s action comedy happens to have a big heart, too. When Thelma (Squibb) is scammed out of $10,000 after being told her grandson needs the money due to a car accident, she decides to take back what was hers. With the help of her friend Ben (a brilliant Richard Roundtree in his last film performance), Thelma hunts down the people who wronged her, and worries her overprotective family (Fred Hechinger, Parker Posey and Clark Gregg) as they try to find her.

Thelma’s delights are in the unexpected combination of genres and themes that work together miraculously. The film is an action/revenge story, but it also reckons with the complications of aging and autonomy. Here, something as innocuous as taking a fall while unattended can be as harrowing as jumping across buildings. Inspired by Margolin’s own grandma (stick around for the credits), it’s a tender ode to fiercely independent grandmas everywhere. The crowd-pleaser was a sure thing for a deal at the festival, where it notched distribution from Magnolia Pictures.

“Was not expecting a heist film with a twist to bring a tear to my eye, but it did. Like several tears,” writes Nick, while ShaoYu notes that “the film flows like a warm stream, providing a heartwarming viewing experience.” As I watched in a packed theater, buzzing with laughter and the occasional sniffle, I thought of my aging loved ones. It was thrilling to think that they could have a movie that doesn’t resign itself to the tragedy of aging, but soaks in all its colors and complications, ultimately creating something delightful. AM


Spotlight on Shorts

The shorts programs at Sundance are always a robust and visionary offering, and often fertile ground for filmmakers looking to secure funding for feature-length expansions—Damien Chazelle’s 2013 short Whiplash is one famous example. If I can make a plea for a single title to get the full-length treatment, it would be Angalis Field’s Bust (pictured above), the story of a trans woman cop who goes undercover to make a drug bust on a trans dealer. In just eleven minutes, we are given a rich world of trans women trying to make it in this life, grinding it out however they can. Lux Pascal’s central performance is a master class in silent acting; she conveys a lifetime of turmoil as she grapples with the obligations of her job versus a moral responsibility to a woman who has faced so much of the same.

Many of this year’s shorts found beauty in a bonkers premise. 2024’s Jury Award for U.S. Fiction (Short) went to Kate Hollowell’s Say Hi After You Die, in which a woman begins seeing visions of her recently deceased best friend appearing in the form of a portable toilet. Read that again if you need to, or move on to The Bleacher, a disturbing experimental oddity about a woman sucked into a washing machine at a laundromat and forced to confront some repressed demons. That one harkens back to the early short film days of David Lynch’s career. PrinceFatomas writes “Yikes! After watching this, I’ve decided to set aside all thoughts of leaving my wife for a dolphin.” (Sundance shorts are keeping families together.)

Also getting an outing at the fest was Short Film Palme d’Or winner 27, a Hungarian ode to threesome fantasies and inhibition-free dance parties. If you were hoping for a story about a boy who gets abducted by an angel and forced to watch Riverdale after he selflessly takes the smallest slice of carrot cake at his school, you’re in luck! Martyr’s Guidebook caused Des to reflect, “People-pleasing really can eat someone from the inside out and you lose so much life and enjoyment for experiences you want just to cater to those who may not think twice.”

One of my favorite shorts of the fest was Bug Diner, the Animation Jury Award winner. The logline is essentially this: there’s a diner full of anthropomorphic bugs and they’re all horny as hell. “The problem with screening Bug Diner first in the animated shorts category is that none of the other films are Bug Diner,” writes Jacktheemerson, a problem I thankfully avoided by catching Phoebe Jane Hart’s delightfully mad vision at the end of the fest, sending me out on a creepy-crawly, ultra-horny high. MB

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