Review: ‘Mami Wata’ (2023), starring Evelyne Ily, Uzoamaka Aniunoh, Emeka Amakeze, Rita Edochie and Kelechi Udegbe

January 31, 2023

by Carla Hay

Evelyne Ily in “Mami Wata” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“Mami Wata” (2023)

Directed by C.J. “Fiery” Obasi

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional West African village of Iyi, the dramatic film “Mami Wata” features a nearly all-black cast of characters (with one white person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A village that believes in the water goddess Mami Wata is disrupted by a stranger who doesn’t have the same beliefs.

Culture Audience: “Mami Wata” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in artistic-looking movies about African folklore and female empowerment.

Rita Edochie in “Mami Wata” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Dream-like and gorgeously atmospheric, the dramatic film “Mami Wata” offers a fresh and fascinating new story about Mami Wata, the water goddess of African folkore. The movie has a “slow burn” storytelling that picks up more fiery energy as it goes along when conflicts among the characters start to increase. “Mami Wata” has a lot to stay about respect—respect for nature, respect for spirituality and respect for female empowerment in a world where there are forces that want to disrespect or destroy all three. The movie’s deliberate pacing won’t be for everyone, but viewers with patience and open minds will be rewarded with an absorbing and thoroughly engaging story.

Written and directed by C.J. “Fiery” Obasi, “Mami Wata” takes place in the fictional and remote West African village of Iyi, which is located near a beach. The name of the country is not named in the movie, but it implied to be Nigeria. There are several languages in Nigeria, but in Nigeria, “iyi” means laws, rules and regulations. And in Iyi, the village lives by spiritual rules where the water goddess Mami Wata is worshipped. The village doesn’t trust outsiders and modern conveniences, such as technology or advanced medical practices. Iyi does not have a school, hospital or army because the villagers believe that Mami Wata will take care of all of their needs.

“Mami Wata” was filmed entirely in black and white, which makes the imagery in the movie even more striking. “Mami Wata” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Cinematography. “Mami Wata” cinematographer Lílis Soares makes the movie look both hypnotic and grounded in stark realism. It also looks “of the moment” yet timeless.

In the beginning of the movie, Iyi is under the leadership of Mama Eche (played by Rita Edochie), an intermediary who claims to have a direct spiritual line to Mami Wata. Mama Eche, who has a very stoic and solemn personality, is believed to have healing powers for physical and spiritual issues. But lately, some people in the village are starting to think that Mama Eche’s powers are slipping. And they are starting to question if Mami Wata even exists.

Mama Eche has a daughter named Zinwe (played by Uzoamaka Aniunoh), who is in her late teens or early 20s. Zinwe is expected to be Mama Eche’s successor as the village’s intermediary when Mama Eche dies or is ready to pass on those duties to Zinwe. However, Zinwe has a mind of her own and doesn’t really want to be the village’s next intermediary.

Zinwe is also upset with some of Mama Eche’s decisions. In one of the movie’s earliest scenes, a grieving mother has come to Mama Eche for spiritual guidance because the mother’s daughter has died. Mama Eche tells the woman, “Your child didn’t die. She went back to where she came from. You know how it is.”

Zinwe thinks Mama Eche has the power to bring this child back to life and should have done so to help the grieving mother. Zinwe tells Mama Eche, “Mama, if it was me, what woud you have done?” Mama Eche says nothing in response. Zinwe angrily says, “When I become the intermediary, I will abolish all this foolishness from Iyi. No mother will ever cry over the loss of her child to Mami Wata in Iyi again.”

Mama Eche has a protégée named Prisca (played by Evelyne Ily, also known as Evelyne Ily Juhen), who’s about 10 years older than Zinwe. Prisca was orphaned as a child and raised by Mama Eche, who knew Prisca’s parents. Therefore, Zinwe and Prisca were treated like sisters when they were growing up. Zinwe is impulsive and rebellious, while Prisca is methodical and obedient.

Zinwe and Prisca are also polar opposites when it comes to spiritual beliefs and the direction in which they think the village should go. Zinwe is very reluctant to become an intermediary and is growing disillusioned in the village putting all of its faith in the power of Mami Wata. Prisca believes wholeheartedly in the power of Mami Wata and has welcomed Mama Eche’s training as an intermediary.

The village’s faith in Mama Eche’s intermediary powers is tested when an ailing boy (who is about 7 or 8 years old) is brought to Mama Eche and dies while foaming at the mouth in front of her and other villagers. The boy’s father is infuriated that Mama Eche could not save his son’s life. One of the male villagers yells at Mama Eche that the child could have been saved if they had brough the child to a hospital.

Mama Eche’s only response is that modern medicine cannot be trusted, and this village must have a faith in what Mami Wata wants. However, the discontent spreads as certain people in the village start to talk about new leadership and being open to getting modern medical treatment. A young man named Jabi (played by Kelechi Udegbe) is leading the disgruntled talk about Mami Wata not existing and that Mama Eche should be replaced as the leader of Iyi.

A visiting doctor (played by “Mami Wata” director Obasi) and a nurse (played by Joyce Tobi Lileru) arrive in Iyi because they heard about children dying in the village and suspect that a virus is spreading. The doctor offers to administer free vaccines to the villagers, but Mama Ecehe refuses the offer and denies that there is a virus spreading in the village. With nothing more that they can do, the doctor and the nurse leave.

Another stranger arrives in the village, and he will have a huge impact on what happens for the rest of the movie. His name is Jasper (played by Emeka Amakeze), who was found washed up on the beach. Prisca gets to know Jasper, and they have a mutual attraction. Jasper eventually opens up to Prisca about his past and says that he was a rebel fighter in a civil war, but he quit the rebellion and deserted his army. Jasper is worried that some of his former comrades might find him and get revenge.

“Mami Wata” starts off looking like a simple story about a daughter who is resistant to becoming her mother’s successor, and it turns into a more complex story that makes astute observations about civil wars and the power dynamics between men and women. The movie offers different perspectives of how people are affected by the pros and cons of ancient traditions versus modern ways of life.

Viewers who are accustomed to watching fast-talking people in movies will have to get used to the measured pacing of the dialogue in “Mami Wata.” All of the cast members are competent, with Ily, Aniunoh and Amakeze standing out the most because their respective characters of Prisca, Zinwe and Jasper are the most fully developed. “Mami Wata’s” greatest strength is in its absorbing story and how it is told. It leads to a stunning ending that can leave viewers breathless and emotionally moved.

Review: ‘Bad Behaviour’ (2023), starring Jennifer Connelly, Alice Englert, Ben Whishaw and Dasha Nekrasova

January 30, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jennifer Connelly in “Bad Behaviour” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“Bad Behaviour” (2023)

Directed by Alice Englert

Culture Representation: Taking place in Oregon and in New Zealand, the comedy/drama film “Bad Behaviour” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A depressed actress, who used to be famous when she was a teenager, goes to a therapeutic retreat, and she experiences odd situations while trying to mend her strained relationship with her adult daughter, who is working in New Zealand as movie stunt performer. 

Culture Audience: “Bad Behaviour” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Jennifer Connelly and pointless and dull movies where self-absorbed people are obnoxious.

Observational comedies about self-pitying, privileged neurotics can be amusing if done with some clever self-awareness. “Bad Behaviour” tries too hard to be cutesy and dark, with no wit involved. It all adds up to being an irritating, self-indulgent mess. “Bad Behaviour” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It’s yet another movie about someone who goes on a “getaway trip” to try to find some relief from personal problems, and the person finds out that running away from these problems isn’t the answer.

“Bad Behaviour” is the feature-film directorial debut of Alice Englert, who also wrote the movie. Englert is best known as an actress, with roles in such films as 2012’s “Ginger & Rosa” and 2019’s “Them That Follow,” as well as TV series such as 2016’s “Top of the Lake,” 2020’s “Ratched” and 2022’s “Dangerous Liaisons.” Englert also happens to be the daughter of Oscar-winning director Jane Campion. This family connection is worth noting because Campion makes a cameo in “Bad Behaviour” as an unnamed doctor, while Englert has an acting role Campion’s 2021 film “The Power of the Dog.”

In “Bad Behaviour,” Jennifer Connelly portrays Lucy, a depressed actress who is going to a therapuetic retreat in Oregon at a place called Loveland Ranch. While driving by herself to this retreat, Lucy calls her daughter Dylan (played by Englert), a stunt performer who is in her 20s and is currently in New Zealand on the set of a sci-fi action movie. A lot of the movie’s action scenes take place in a wooded area. (“Bad Behaviour” was actually filmed in New Zealand.)

The phone conversation between Lucy and Dylan is brief, because Dylan’s phone service isn’t very good in these woods. However, they are on the phone long enough for Lucy to tell Dylan that Lucy is going on a “semi-silent retreat in the wildnerness, so don’t expect to hear from me.” Dylan is very indifferent and doesn’t seem very interested in talking on the phone with her mother. Before their phone connection get cut off, Dyland tells Lucy that Dylan is at work. “I have to teach a guy to strangle me,” Dylan says in a distracted tone.

When Lucy arrives at Loveland Ranch (which is in a semi-isolated wooded location), she’s told by the receptionist Petunia (played by Ana Scotney) that there is no WiFi service outside of the reception area. The retreat participants are also discouraged from using their cell phones, because cell phones are considered to distracting for this retreat. Petunia also says that the people on this retreat are being filmed for a documentary. It’s the first sign that this so-called “private” retreat has a lot of contradictory things about it. It’s partially because this retreat is like a very bad, unfunny joke, and partially because the writing for this movie is so sloppy.

Lucy is surprised to hear that the therapy sessions will be filmed. And so, Lucy tells Petunia that she doesn’t want to be filmed when she’s revealing personal information during these sessions. Petunia accepts this request from Lucy and says that Lucy can just tell the camera operator Mark (played by Thomas Sainsbury) when Lucy does not feel comfortable being filmed, and Mark will stop filming Lucy. All of this doesn’t matter in the end, because viewers will see later in the movie that Lucy eventually forgets that the cameras are there.

Everything about Loveland Ranch reeks of being pretentious, pricey, and aimed at gullible people who are desperate for emotional comfort. The retreat is led by a famous guru named Elon Bello (played by Ben Whishaw), a Brit whose therapy credentials are never mentioned, probably because he doesn’t have any legitimate therapy credentials. There are about 10 participants in the therapy sessions that take place in “Bad Behaviour,” with each therapy session becoming more and more annoying to watch.

This is the type of nonsense that Elon spouts when greeting the therapy participants: “I invite you to begin this time with yourselves, without the stories that drove you here … I invite us to be quiet, to give yourself permission to be a little mysterious … I encourage you not to smile at each other, no winking, so signing. You can use the [writing] board, or come to me or Petunia if you’re feeling panic, of course.”

The problem with Elon’s instructions is that he constantly contradicts them, thereby giving the therapy sessions a rambling and unfocused tone—much like how Englert directs this movie. For a so-called “semi-silent” retreat, people sure do a lot of talking about themselves and their sob stories, and they make a lot of noise. In one therapy session, the participants are paired up for role playing, with one person in the pair acting as a sad baby, while the other person is acting as a comforting mother.

At first, Lucy is emotionally closed-off and doesn’t want to reveal too much of herself. Eventually, she is told that she has to fully open up about herself to the rest of the group, which is a direct contradiction to Elon saying earlier, “I give you permission to be a little bit mysterious.”

It’s how viewers find out that Lucy is a “has-been” actress whose fame peaked when she was a teenager. Her main claim to fame was starring as a “warrior princess” in a TV series called “Florida Fierce.” She also has a long history of depression, stemming from her unhappy childhood being raised by alcoholic parents, who also had a history of depression.

In a “confession session,” the participants are told to confess the biggest thing that makes them feel ashamed about themselves. Lucy says she’s ashamed that “I’m just a greedy, needy, lazy paranoid human being, living off the money I made from the character that gave me an eating disorder.” Elon irresponsibly makes no effort to find out from Lucy how this eating disorder is affecting her now.

During a break from the sessions, Lucy sneaks outside in the back of the building to use her phone to text an unidentified person. This person advises Lucy that she needs to “purge” her emotional baggage at this retreat. The text conversation also includes some other information about Lucy’s life that can only be seen if viewers are able to pause the screen and read these text messages.

This information includes the fact that Lucy’s mother was suicidal. When Lucy was 17, she used to date a friend of her father. This “friend” gave herpes to Lucy. Later in Lucy’s life, Lucy’s ex-husband Ralph, who is Dylan’s father, left Lucy and Dylan. These are all important details of Lucy’s background that can explain why Lucy feels depressed and damaged, but “Bad Behaviour” only touches on the suicidal tendencies of Lucy’s mother. It’s a missed opportunity to explore other aspects of Lucy’s life that led her to this point.

Instead, “Bad Behaviour” goes on an off-putting tangent where Lucy and another retreat participant get into an unspoken competition about who’s going to get the most sympathy in these therapy sessions. Lucy’s rival to be the Loveland Ranch queen of neuroses is a fashion model in her 20s named Beverly (played by Dasha Nekrasova), who soon tells everyone at the retreat that she has suicidal thoughts. “I like to write suicide notes, and I fantasize about my funeral,” says Beverly. “I’d rather be dead. That’s my shame.”

In response, Elon says: “You are at an airport right now. You know your flight will crash. Do not get on it.” He adds with a smirk: “Although sometimes, crashing has its benefits.” This comment is meant to be part of the the dark comedy of “Bad Behaviour,” but it’s all just so lackluster, despite having the very talented Whishaw in this role of a flaky guru.

At first, Lucy tries to be friendly to Beverly, but Lucy loses interest when Beverly acts haughty and superior to Lucy. For example, during a break from the therapy, Beverly asks Lucy to take photos of Beverly on Beverly’s cell phone, so that Beverly can post the photos on Beverly’s social media. The two women then low-key bicker about the proper lighting and how Beverly poses for these pictures.

Lucy and Beverly then take their hostility to each other into the therapy sessions. They trade thinly veiled insults related to their respective ages. When Beverly confesses that she’s worried about losing her “currency” of youth and beauty when she gets older, Lucy snarkily says that it’s inevitable. Meanwhile, Beverly makes snide remarks to make Lucy feel like a washed-up old hag.

It’s unfortunate that with all the ways that this movie’s plot could have gone, it devolves into a tiresome and lazy cliché of two women who are jealous of each other and get catty about it. Something happens later in the movie between Beverly and Lucy that takes this already jumbled and unappealing movie to the point of no return in ridiculousness. “Bad Behaviour” is trying desperately to be an artsy dark comedy, but too many aspects of this dreadful film look like ripoff ideas from a semi-scripted and tacky reality show.

In addition, “Bad Behaviour” awkwardly meshes the concurrent storylines of Lucy and Dylan. Most of “Bad Behaviour” goes back and forth between showing Lucy at the Loveland Ranch in Oregon, and Dylan on the movie set in New Zealand. Dylan’s activities are even more tedious and less insightful into her personality than what is shown about Lucy. Occasionally, Lucy and Dylan are seen talking to each other on the phone while they are so far away from each other.

There are too many scenes of Dylan running, fighting, and jumping around the movie set in visual effects costumes, with no real point to these scenes. She’s training another stunt performer named Dion (played by Beulah Koale) during the filming of this movie. There’s some sexual attraction between Dion and Dylan. And you can easily predict the rest.

“Bad Behaviour” brings up too many questions that it never bothers to answer. Sure, viewers know that Dylan has a lot of resentment toward Lucy, but the movie offers very little explanation for what their mother/daughter relationship was like before the events in the movie take place. The cast members’ performances aren’t bad, but they’re not that special either. The best acting in the movie comes from Connelly, who delivers some convincing-looking emotions in the scenes where she has to show those emotions.

However, the dialogue and tone of “Bad Behaviour” are just a confused mishmash, since Englert can’t quite capably juggle the movie’s intended combination of comedy and drama. The character of Elon is very shallow, as are all the people at the retreat. The movie spends so much of its focus on the “Lucy verses Beverly” storyline, it’s to the detriment of character development. Karan Gill has a very clumsily written role as a young attorney named Leonard “Leo” Gow, who becomes part of the story in the last third of the movie.

“Bad Behaviour” isn’t the worst movie you could ever see. The cinematography, especally in the outdoor scenes, can be quite eye-catching. However, considering the talent in this movie’s cast, “Bad Behaviour” should have been a lot better than the monotonous and aimless slog that it is. There’s an attempt to “shake things up” with a sudden turn of events, but everything about it looks phony and out-of-touch. “Bad Behaviour” is like a misguided therapy session that tries to look it might have some purpose, but it ends up doing more things wrong than right, and it becomes a waste of everyone’s time.

Review: ‘Close’ (2022), starring Eden Dambrine, Gustav De Waele, Émilie Dequenne and Léa Drucker

January 29, 2023

by Carla Hay

Gustav De Waele and Eden Dambrine in “Close” (Photo courtesy of A24) (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Close” (2022)

Directed by Lukas Dhont

Dutch, French and Flemish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Belgium, the dramatic film “Close” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two 13-year-old boys, who are best friends, become the targets of gossip that the boys are gay, they get bullied for it, and then tragedy strikes. 

Culture Audience: “Close” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching emotionally authentic dramas about how bullying and repressed feelings can affect young people.

Pictured clockwise, from left to right: Eden Dambrine, Gustav De Waele and Émilie Dequenne in “Close” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Close” is a memorable coming-of-age film that effectively shows the intersections of identity self-esteem, homophobia and mental illness from an adolescent viewpoint. If you’re looking for a Hollywood-made version of these issues, then you won’t find it in “Close.” And that’s not because the movie takes place in Belgium. “Close” has a more thoughtful, realistic and subtle approach that is the opposite of Hollywood-made movies that tend to have obvious messaging in overly contrived melodrama.

Directed by Lukas Dhont (who co-wrote the “Close” screenplay with Angelo Tijssens, “Close” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, where the movie won the Grand Jury Prize. “Close” also received an Academy Award nomination for Best International Feature Film. It’s not a movie about trying to guess if the close friendship between two 13-year-old boys is about homosexuality. Rather, the movie explores themes of coping with grief, staying true to one’s self, and a heart-wrenching reality that love sometimes isn’t enough to prevent a tragedy.

“Close” takes place in an unnamed city in Belgium, where 13-year-old best friends/schoolmates Léo (played by Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (played by Gustav De Waele) are so close, when they have sleepovers, they cuddle next to each other in the same bed. This imagery in the movie is meant to get viewers to question and evaluate what they think is “appropriate” for kids of this age, in terms of masculinity and femininity. When 13-year-old girls act this way, it’s not automatically assumed that they are homosexual. But 13-year-old boys who act this way are usually perceived as being homosexual or being curious about homosexuality, if they express close and affectionate emotional intimacy with each other.

From the start of the movie, Léo shows that he’s the more confident and more extroverted of the two pals. Rémi plays the oboe as a hobby. Léo tells Rémi when they are in Rémi’s bedroom: “I have an idea. I’ll become your manager. And we’ll travel the world, even the moon. And we’ll become filthy rich.”

Léo also offers to upload a video on YouTube of Rémi playing the oboe. “It will get a million views,” Léo says enthusiastically of this proposed video. However, Rémi declines this offer. He wants to play the oboe for the pure enjoyment of it, not to get rich and famous

While they are in bed together, Léo tells Rémi a story in which Rémi must imagine himself as a newborn duckling who is more beautiful than the others. “You encounter a rhyming lizard, and you like it. You both leave and end up jumping on a trampoline. You jump as high as the stars.” And then, Léo blows air from his mouth on Rémi, to simulate the wind outside.

Throughout the movie, scenes with Léo and Rémi leave it open to interpretation if there’s something homoerotic brewing between these two teens, or if they really are just platonic friends. Other students at their school notice the ambiguity. Some of the students assume that Léo and Rémi are “dating” each other. One girl comes right out and asks Léo and Rémi if they are more than friends because she says Léo and Rémi act like they are couple.

Léo responds by saying that he and Rémi are best friends and are like brothers. However, Léo has more delicate-looking physical features, so he gets bullied more often than Rémi does for being “girlish” or “effeminate.” Some of the boys at school call Léo a “girl” and a derogatory term used for gay males that starts with the letter “f.”

If there is something “gay” going on between Léo and Rémi, then Léo is the one who’s more likely to show it physically, through affection or aggression. A scene in the movie shows Léo and Rémi playfully rough housing in bed. At the breakfast table the next morning, Rémi is tearful and says his stomach hurts. What really bothers him—but what he won’t tell his family—is that Léo got a little too rough in their playfighting the night before. As a result, Rémi acts aloof with Léo and seems to want to distance himself from Léo.

And what do the families of Léo and Rémi think of the relationship between these two teens? Léo lives with his mother Nathalie (played by Léa Drucker), his father Yves (played by Marc Weiss) and his older brother Charlie (played by Igor van Dessel), who’s about 16 years old. The parents are cotton farmers who expect Léo and Charlie to help out pick cotton in the field when they can. These family members of Léo are preoccupied with their own lives and don’t seem to have an opinion either way about the close relationship of Léo and Rémi.

Léo spends a lot of time at Rémi’s house and is very fond of Rémi’s mother Sophie (played by Émilie Dequenne), who is mutually admiring of Léo. An early scene in the movie shows Léo, Rémi and Sophie lounging together on some grass outside. Sophie tells Léo in a teasing voice that he’s more devoted to her than to Rémi. As for Rémi’s father Peter (played by Kevin Janssens), he doesn’t disapprove of Léo and Rémi’s relationship, but Peter is more of an observer who doesn’t get as personally involved as Sophie does.

At school, Léo is on the ice hockey team, where he gets increasing hostility from boys who think that Léo is gay. Rémi observes some of this bullying, but he does nothing to stop it. The hockey coach and any of the school’s faculty and staff don’t do anything either about this verbal abuse. Léo is often outnumbered when he’s being bullied, so he doesn’t think there’s much he can do to stand up for himself.

Meanwhile, Léo reacts to Rémi’s aloofness by spending more time with other kids in the school who are very tolerant of who Léo is. One day, Rémi has what can best be described as an emotional meltdown when he sees that Léo left hocky practice early and didn’t wait for Rémi so they could do their usual hangouts after hockey practice. Rémi starts a physical brawl with Léo in the school yard. The fight is so bad that some adults at the school have to intervene and put a stop to it.

It’s easy to see that even though Rémi initially put some distance between himself and Léo, it really bothered Rémi that Léo was going on with his life and spending time with other kids. What could prompt this possessiveness from Rémi? Many people could interpret it as Rémi being secretly in love with Léo and having a hard time coming to terms with it. However, “Close” never shows any explicit homosexuality between Léo and Rémi. Therefore, much of what the movie shows of Léo and Rémi’s relationship is left up to interpretation and speculation.

The relationship between Rémi that Léo is forever changed when an unexpected tragedy happens. It’s enough to say that one of the boys finds out that within this close relationship, he might not have known his best friend as well as he thought he did. How he copes with this harsh reality is one of the main plot developments in the second half of the movie.

In the production notes for “Close,” director/co-writer Dhont says that one of his biggest sources of inspiration for this partially autobiographical movie was Dr. Niobe Way’s 2011 non-fiction book “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection.” The book expounds on how society’s definitions of masculinity and feminity affect friendships between boys. When boys reach puberty age, they’re expected to show their emotions less, as “proof” that they’re becoming men. That repression of emotions can often extend to friendships between boys too.

After all, when two 13-year-old male best friends say “I love you” to each other, people will often interpret it as “effeminate homosexual,” whereas if two 13-year-old female best friends say “I love you” to each other, they don’t get the same type of judgment. There is underlying homophobia and sexism in these gender expectations. “Close” invites viewers to contemplate and to be mindful of how this bigotry can affect emotionally fragile people.

All of the cast members of “Close” are admirable in their roles, but viewers will remember Dambrine’s performance the most. He makes an impressive feature-film debut as a 13-year-old boy who learns some adult life lessons in ways that his character Léo did not expect. The movie ultimately shows, in heartbreaking ways, the damage that can be done when people can’t or won’t express their true emotions to the people who matter the most to them.

A24 released “Close” in select U.S. cinemas for a one-week limited engagement in select U.S. cinemas on December 2, 2022. The movie was re-released in U.S. cinemas on January 27, 2023. “Close” was released in Belgium on November 9, 2022.

Review: ‘Infinity Pool’ (2023), starring Alexander Skarsgård, Mia Goth and Cleopatra Coleman

January 27, 2023

by Carla Hay

Alexander Skarsgård and Mia Goth in “Infinity Pool” (Photo courtesy of Neon and Topic Studios)

“Infinity Pool” (2023)

Directed by Brandon Cronenberg

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed European country, the horror film “Infinity Pool” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: While on vacation at a luxury resort, a frustrated author is arrested for being the driver in a hit-and-run accident, and he is offered the high-priced option to avoid execution by having a body double created to be executed instead. 

Culture Audience: “Infinity Pool” will appeal primarily to people who are have a tolerance for watching grotesque body horror and dark observations about abuse of privilege and power in human cruelty.

Mia Goth and Alexander Skarsgård in “Infinity Pool” (Photo courtesy of Neon and Topic Studios)

With disturbing visual images and loathsome characters, “Infinity Pool” will disgust and divide some viewers. This horror movie’s performances deliver the intended discomfort in the often-satirical social commentary about how people can become sadists. It’s a story that is definitely not for sensitive viewers, because “Infinity Pool” gets very bloody, dark, and weird. “Infinity Pool” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg, “Infinity Pool” begins in what appears to be an idyllic location: a luxury resort in an unnamed European country. (“Infinity Pool” was actually filmed in Šibenik, Croatia, and in Budapest, Hungary.) The resort is near a beach and has all the comforts that people can expect from this elite getaway location. Two of the people on this resort will find their dream vacation turn into a nightmare.

James Foster (played by Alexander Skarsgård) is an American author with writer’s block. He’s on this vacation to get inspiration for his second novel. His first novel, “The Variable Chic,” was published six years ago and was a modest seller. James is starting to feel like he’s a fraud for not being able to start his second book.

James is on this vacation with his cynical and snobby British wife Em Foster (played by Cleopatra Coleman), who seems to be alternately irritated by or bored with James. It’s mentioned later in the movie that James and Em have been together for 10 years. At one point in the movie, Em says that she married James because she has “daddy issues” with her father, who did not approve of this marriage.

Em says she despises her father Alvin, a wealthy book publisher who warned her not to marry a financially poor writer. “So I married the first broke writer who spilled coffee on me,” Em says about James. However, Em now openly resents that James is living off her wealth without making any money of his own. She comments sarcastically, “I’m in danger of becoming a charitable organization at this point.”

Em makes these comments to another vacationing couple that James and Em have met at the same resort. Gabi Bauer (played by Mia Goth) and Alban Bauer (played by Jalil Lespert) are seemingly cheerful spouses who are outgoing and fun-loving. Gabi and Alban both live in Los Angeles. Gabi is an actress who’s originally from London, while Alban is originally from Switzerland, and he previously lived in Paris.

Gabi invites Em and James to have dinner with Gabi and Alban. Em is somewhat wary of Gabi being so enthusiastically quick to befriend them. Gabi is more than friendly to James, because when they’re alone together in a private area on the beach, she sexually pleasures him with her hands, without saying a word.

Soon after the two couples meet each other, they’re going on double dates in the evening—first at a restaurant, and later at a nightclub. One night after partying together at a nightclub, Alban is too drunk to drive the rental car that the four of them took to the nightclub, so James offers to drive instead. Everyone is in good spirits on this drive back to the resort.

But on this deserted road, James accidentally hits a man, who appears suddenly in front of the car. The man is killed instantly. James, who is understandably very distraught, wants to get help and let the authorities know that it was an accident. However, Gabi insists that they leave the body on the road and not tell anyone else. She warns James that he does not want to end up in jail in this country. James reluctantly goes along with the plan.

However, James does get caught. He knows it when police officers show up at the door of his resort suite, and they take James and Em into custody. The spouses are separated at the police station and interrogated in different rooms. The lead investigator Detective Thresh (played by Thomas Kretschmann) tells James that Em confessed everything. And the punishment for this crime is execution.

Detective Thresh also says that the dead man is a local farmer named Myro Myron, who comes from a family with a religion that states his death can be avenged by his eldest son. In other words, the son will be the one who gets to kill James. However, Detective Thresh says there’s one way for James to get out of this execution: For a hefty price (which is never detailed in the movie), the authorities in this country can create a body double of James. This body double will be executed instead, but James is required to watch this execution.

The trailer for “Infinity Pool” already reveals that James takes the option of the body double to be executed. However, this decision takes him down a very twisted path of blood lust and violence that is easy to predict but no less horrifying to watch. Each time a body double is executed, the body double is cremated, and the body double’s original person is given the ashes in an urn.

As already revealed in the trailer, Gabi becomes an instigator and manipulator for much of the chaos that happens to James and Em. Gabi and Alban soon introduce James and Em to some two other couples at the resort who are part of their hedonistic social circle: Charles (played by Jeffrey Rickets) and Jennifer (played by Amanda Brugel) and Dr. Bob Modan (played by John Ralston) and Bex (played by Caroline Boulton), who all blur the lines between pleasure and pain, and they don’t seem to have any boundaries for either.

“Infinity Pool” goes exactly where you think it’s going to go, with psychedelic drug-fueled sex orgies and gruesomely violent scenes. The violence escalates as a way of showing how James’ moral compass is tested and how he is psychologically affected by the increasingly unhinged actions of the group. Where is Em during all of this madness? The movie shows what happens to her, but it might not be what some people might assume in a horror movie.

Does James try to escape? Of course he does. It’s enough to say that Goth (who gave stellar performances in the 2022 horror films “X” and its prequel “Pearl”) steals the show again with another maniacal and murderous character. Gabi isn’t as interesting as Goth’s characters in “X” or “Pearl” (and 2023’s “Maxxxine,” which is a sequel to “X”), but she’s the type of character in a horror movie that viewers know that what she will say or do next is going to make someone else’s life hell.

“Infinity Pool” is a grotesque display of the cruelty that rich people can inflict on others, just because they can afford to do it and can afford to get away with it. The movie has some twists that aren’t too surprising, but they still provide some shock value to viewers who won’t see these twists coming. “Infinity Pool” is a bacchanalia of horror that isn’t subtle in delivering its message about the abuse of power and privilege, but it certainly makes an unforgettable impression for people who can tolerate this type of unnerving movie.

Neon and Topic Studios released “Infinity Pool” in U.S. cinemas on January 27, 2023.

Review: ‘A Thousand and One,’ starring Teyana Taylor, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, Josiah Cross and William Catlett

January 27, 2023

by Carla Hay

Teyana Taylor and Aaron Kingsley Adetola in “A Thousand and One” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“A Thousand and One”

Directed by A.V. Rockwell

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, from 1993 to 2005, the dramatic film “A Thousand and One” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After she is released from prison for theft, a New York City mother illegally avoids child welfare services that want to put her underage son in foster care, so she moves to another part of the city with him and gives him a false identity. 

Culture Audience: “A Thousand and One” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching intense dramas about troubled families that are plagued by poverty and dysfunction.

“A Thousand and One” could be an apt description about all the storylines in movies and TV shows about African American pain and struggles. What makes this dramatic film different from the many that just wallow in negative stereotypes is how authentically the complex humanity is presented in the story. The well-worn subject of an African American family living in urban poverty gets a rarely seen perspective of an undocumented U.S.-born child living in America. The middle of the movie tends to drag, but the last third of the film is emotionally powerful.

Written and directed by A.V. Rockwell, “A Thousand and One” won the grand jury prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie had its world premiere. “A Thousand and One”—which takes place in New York City, from 1993 to 2005—follows the lives of two people who are on the margins of society because one of them is a child with a false identity. “A Thousand and One” shows how this identity deception was made with good intentions to benefit the child in a system that often neflects or abuses children with unstable home lives. “A Thousand and One” shows in unflinching ways whether or not this decision to change the child’s identity was the right decision.

“A Thousand to One” begins by showing the woman who is the catalyst for most of what happens in the story. Inez de la Paz (played by Teyana Taylor) is a prisoner at Rikers Island Correctional Facility in 1993. The opening scene shows Inez appying makeup on the face of a female inmate. The movie then abruptly cuts to 1994, when Inez is 22 years old. Inez, who has a feisty and outspoken personality, is now out of prison and trying to get her life back on track.

Inez returns to her Brooklyn neighborhood and reconnects with a shy and quiet 6-year-old boy named Terry (played by Aaron Kingsley Adetola), who knows Inez as his mother, but he seems emotionally distant and very mistrustful of her. Terry refuses to talk to Inez and can barely look at her. That’s because for however long that Inez was in prison, Terry has been living in foster care, and he feels like Inez abandoned him.

Terry’s father has not be involved in raising Terry, who has no other known relatives. Inez has told people that her ex-boyfriend Lucky (played by William Catlett) is Terry’s father, but Inez says that Lucky and Inez broke up shortly after she gave birth to Terry. For now, Inez plans to raise Terry on her own. But because she currently has no job and no permanent home, it’s very unlikely that Inez will get custody of Terry.

Inez insists on spending time with Terry, whom she usually gets to see when he’s hanging out with his friends on the streets. She promises Terry that she will stay out of trouble and that she won’t ever leave him again. Eventually, Terry starts to warm up to Inez and begins to trust her again.

Meanwhile, Inez wants to work as a hairstylist, but her criminal record and not having a permanent address make it hard for her to get hired at places that do background checks. She also has a reputation in her neighborhood for being a convicted thief. In an effort to find work, she hands out flyers to advertise her services as an independent hair stylist.

A montage early in the movie shows Inez calling people she knows to find a place to stay, and she gets frustrated when people say no, or she can’t reach them on the phone because she gets voice mail or the phone number is no longer in service. Remember, this is in 1994, when most people did not have mobile phones, so Inez has to rely on pay phones to make her calls. Because Inez doesn’t have her own phone, it’s another reason why it’s hard for her to find a job.

Just as Inez thinks she’s making progress with Terry, he ends up in a hospital with a non-critical head injury from a fall out of a window. Although Terry says that he fell on his own, it’s implied that it’s very likely his foster mother abused him, and it resulted in the injury. One of the signs that Terry is being abused in his foster home is that he is afraid to go back and live there. Another sign is that Inez is told that Terry will probably be moved to another foster home after he’s discharged from the hospital.

Inez is so upset by the thought of Terry going back to a foster home, she asks Terry if he wants to stay with her for a couple of days. He says yes. That’s all Inez needs to hear to decide to take Terry with her without telling the proper authorities. Inez and Terry go to Harlem, where Inez grew up. They temporarily hide out with Inez’s close friend Kim Jones (played by Terri Abney), who has known Inez since childhood. Kim lives with her mother Mrs. Jones (played by Delissa Reynolds), who openly disapproves of Inez, because she thinks Inez is a bad influence on Kim.

Inez confides to Kim that Inez has illegally taken Terry and has no intention of returning him to the child welfare system. Inez makes Kim promise to keep it a secret. However, the local news is reporting that Inez has kidnapped Terry. Photos of Inez and Terry are on local TV stations and in other visual media’s news reports about this kidnapping. Even though the Internet was in its infancy in 1994, a kidnapping reported on the TV news would be a big deal in 1994, as it would be today. “A Thousand and One” doesn’t handle the effects of this mass-media coverage very realistically.

That’s why viewers need a huge suspension of disbelief for the rest of “A Thousand to One,” which shows that Terry and Inez stayed in Harlem through 2005, the year that the movie ends. This isn’t spoiler information, because the movie is being marketed as a story about a woman who kidnapped her son and was able to raise him through his teenage years by giving him a false identity. The movie’s remaining chapters take place in 2001, when Terry (played by Aven Courtney) is 13 years old, and in 2005, when Terry (played by Josiah Cross) is 17 years old.

It’s very hard to believe that people who know Inez (who makes no attempt to disguise herself) wouldn’t find out that she was in the news for kidnapping. It would be easier to believe that Inez got away with it for several years if Inez and Terry had moved to another part of the United States, or even out of the New York City metropolitan area. In real life, too many social workers and law enforcement officials (including parole officers) would be able to easily track down Inez and Terry because she went back to her childhood neighborhood.

And making things even more implausible, Inez and Terry stay in the same Harlem apartment for several years, which would make them even easier to find. (Most fugitives don’t live in one place for too long.) Inez and Terry live an apartment that has the number 10-01 on the door. This apartment number is the inspiration for the movie’s title, because without the hyphen, the number would be 1,001.

Terry is homeschooled for some of his early childhood when Inez goes into “hiding” with him, but Terry eventually goes to public schools, where Inez occasionally interacts with some of the schools’ faculty and staff. It’s another plot hole in the movie, because some of these school employees would realistically be aware of local child kidnappings that were in the news and would recognize Inez. It’s important to mention that Inez’s physical appearance barely ages in the movie. Through the years, her very distinctive face looks exactly the same in the photos of Inez that are shown in the news about the kidnapping case. Law enforcement wouldn’t have do any “aging updates” to her photos.

Inez and Terry being able to “hide in plain sight” and go undetected for years is this movie’s way of saying that children like Terry often “fall through the cracks” of the child welfare system, because no one is really looking that hard for them. A better and more realistic narrative to the story would have been that Terry’s disappearance would not have made the news at all. But because “A Thousand and One” repeatedly shows Inez’s and Terry’s photos on TV as a kidnapping case, this TV news coverage seems very contrived for the movie’s dramatic purposes, in order to make the character of Inez more paranoid about getting caught.

Despite the credibility flaws in this part of the kidnapping investigation narrative, “A Thousand and One” is more authentic in showing the turmoil and dysfunction that result from being an outlaw and having poverty problems. Yes, there are many cringeworthy scenes of Inez being the “angry black woman” stereotype, but Taylor delivers a good-enough performance that it doesn’t devolve into being a pathetic parody. Viewers will see more than enough of Inez’s “I’m angry because I’ve had a hard life” attitude.

However, “A Thousand and One” saves itself from being racially offensive with these negative stereotypes for Inez because the movie shows her vulnerable side, especially during Terry’s early teenage years when she starts to mellow out a little bit when the life that she makes for herself and Lucky becomes more stable. The movie also presents a variety of other African American people who are also living in poverty but who aren’t the clichés of being bitter and “ready to pick a fight” that Inez can often be. Inez’s friend Kim is street-smart too, but Kim is more compassionate and more patient than Inez.

Lucky comes back into Inez’s life, and he’s not quite the deadbeat dad that he could easily be if the movie followed the usual race-demeaning formulas that other movies and TV shows have about low-income African American fathers. Lucky is flawed but he does try to redeem himself as a parent. The scenes with Lucky and Terry are among the most authentic because they show that it takes time for Lucky to build trust as a father who was absent for Terry’s formative childhood years.

What will probably impress people the most about “A Thousand and One” is how superbly the movie shows Terry growing up into the bright and sensitive person that he is, with a lot of potential to succeed, despite Terry coming from dire circumstances and a volatile family background. Terry has a knack for science and technology. But what he really wants to do with his life is to be a music composer like his idol, Quincy Jones. Adetola, Courtney and Cross are all terrific in their roles as Terry in the three life stages that are depicted in “A Thousand and One.”

“A Thousand and One” has plenty of hard edges to its storytelling, but there are some sweet-natured scenes of teenage Terry awkwardly trying to impress his longtime crush Simone (played at age 14 by Azza El, and at age 17 by Alicia Pilgrim), who is dismissive and rude to Terry. As 17-year-old Terry, Cross is particularly skillful at showing introverted Terry’s frustration of wanting to be more confident, but his shyness and insecurity often get in the way. Terry has a slight stutter that is realistically depicted. There are also some tender mother/child moments between Inez and Terry.

“A Thousand and One” transitions between each of the three chapters of Terry’s life, by showing aerial views of New York City with audio clips of news reports about New York City’s mayor at the time. These transitions are an effective way to not only give a quick history lesson of New York City during these years but also put into context the types of mayoral policies that were put in place during these time periods. The news clips highlighted in the movie reflect the type of news that African Americans likely would be paying attention to the most because it’s news that would have an impact on African American communities.

For 1994 and 2001, these clips briefly encapsulate the reign of Rudolph “Rudy” Giuliani, who is credited with “cleaning up” New York City and reducing the city’s crime rate, but who also instilled a damaging and racist “stop and frisk” police policy that disproportionately targeted African Americans and Latinos of the male gender. These clips have mentions of the police brutality cases that violated young, unarmed African American men Abner Louima (a victim of police sodomy in 1997) and Amadou Diallo (killed by 41 rounds of police gunfire in 1999), to serve as reminders of the racial dangers in New York City for young African American men like Terry. The 2005 audio excerpt of the reign of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg foreshadows how certain people will be affected by Bloomberg’s legacy of bringing more big business and more gentrification to New York City.

Viewers of “A Thousand and One” will get the sense that all the problems experienced by Inez and Terry are not meant to invoke condescension or pity, as some of the move’s more privileged characters react when they’re with Inez and/or Terry. Instead, the movie shows in frank and empathetic ways how quickly people’s lives can spiral in these circumstances. It would be very easy to judge people in these circumstances as self-destructive or lazy. But the ending of “A Thousand and One” makes it very clear that it’s a mistake to harshly judge someone without knowing that person’s whole life story, because some of life’s bad decisions start off as good intentions.

Focus Features will release “A Thousand and One” in select U.S. cinemas on March 31, 2023.

2023 Sundance Film Festival: winners announced

January 27, 2023

Teyana Taylor and Aaron Kingsley Adetola in “A Thousand and One” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

The following is a press release from the Sundance Film Festival:

The Sundance Film Festival, a program of the nonprofit Sundance Institute, returned back in person and across the country online for 2023. Whether you gathered in theaters or are joining us from home, the Festival offers the opportunity to be a part of the discovery of stories and artists that will  inspire and entertain us for years to come. The 2023 Sundance Film Festival jurors and audiences have voted with the awards announced today during an event at The Ray Theatre in Park City and updated on Sundance Film Festival’s official social accounts. The award-winning films will screen in person and via the online Festival platform on Saturday, January 28, and Sunday, January 29. Tickets for all award-screening films are available beginning at 1:00 p.m. MT today.

The jury and audience-awarded prizes amplify the fearless and dynamic stories across sections, with Grand Jury Prizes awarded to A Thousand and One (U.S. Dramatic), Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project (U.S. Documentary), Scrapper (World Cinema Dramatic), and The Eternal Memory (World Cinema Documentary), and the NEXT Innovator Award presented by Adobe was awarded to KOKOMO CITY.

Voted on by the audience, Radical was granted the Festival Favorite Award. Audience Awards for films in competition were presented by Acura to The Persian Version (U.S. Dramatic) and Beyond Utopia (U.S. Documentary), and presented by United Airlines to Shayda (World Cinema Dramatic) and 20 Days in Mariupol (World Cinema Documentary). KOKOMO CITY won the audience award for NEXT.

“This year’s Festival has been an extraordinary experience,” said Joana Vicente, Sundance Institute CEO. “The artists that comprise the 2023 Sundance Film Festival have demonstrated a sense of urgency and dedication to excellence in independent film. Today’s award winners highlight our programs’ most impressive achievements in the current moment of cinematic arts. I hope you will join me in congratulating our winners, as well as thanking all artists across sections for sharing their stories with the Sundance community.”

“In addition to acknowledging our artists, I want to thank this year’s jurors for their time and thoughtful consideration,” added Kim Yutani, Sundance Film Festival Director of Programming. “Their efforts help contextualize our artists’ work beyond the Festival program and elevate their stories to new audiences around the globe. The winners themselves represent a diverse mix of bold storytelling, thought-provoking reflections, and critical representations of our world today.”

The awards announcement marks a key point of the 2023 Festival, where 111 feature-length and 64 short films — selected from 15,856 submissions — have been presented in Park City, Salt Lake City, and at the Sundance Resort, while over 75% of the feature films, plus Shorts and Indie Episodics, are available via the Festival’s online platform through Sunday, January 29.

This year’s jurors were: Jeremy O. Harris, Eliza Hittman, and Marlee Matlin for U.S. Dramatic Competition; W. Kamau Bell, Ramona Diaz, and Carla Gutierrez for U.S. Documentary Competition; Shozo Ichiyama, Annemarie Jacir, and Funa Maduka for World Cinema Dramatic Competition; and Karim Amer, Petra Costa, and Alexander Nanau for World Cinema Documentary Competition; Madeleine Olnek for the NEXT competition section; Destin Daniel Cretton, Marie-Louise Khondji, and Deborah Stratman for the Short Film Program Competition.

Feature film award winners in previous years include: Nanny, The Exiles, CODA, Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), Flee, Hive, Minari, Boys State, Epicentro, Yalda, A Night for Forgiveness, ClemencyOne Child Nation, Honeyland, The SouvenirThe Miseducation of Cameron PostI Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, WeinerWhiplash, Fruitvale Station, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Twenty Feet from Stardom, Searching for Sugarman, The Square, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Cartel Land, The Wolf Pack, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Dope, Dear White People, The Cove, and Man on Wire.

The 2023 Sundance Film Festival awards are:

GRAND JURY PRIZES

The U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic was presented to A.V. Rockwell for A Thousand and One / U.S.A. (Director and Screenwriter: A.V. Rockwell, Producers: Eddie Vaisman, Julia Lebedev, Lena Waithe, Rishi Rajani, Brad Weston) — Convinced it’s one last, necessary crime on the path to redemption, unapologetic and free-spirited Inez kidnaps 6-year-old Terry from the foster care system. Holding on to their secret and each other, mother and son set out to reclaim their sense of home, identity, and stability in New York City. Cast: Teyana Taylor, Will Catlett, Josiah Cross, Aven Courtney, Aaron Kingsley Adetola. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: Never have I seen a life so similar to my own rendered with such nuance and tenderness. I walked out of the theatre and wept in front of people I barely know because this film reached into my gut and pulled from it every emotion I’ve learned to mask in these spaces. As a jury we know how impossible it is to make work that is real, full of pain, and fearless in its rigorous commitment to emotional truth born of oppressive circumstances. It is our honor to award the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic to A Thousand and One.
The U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary was presented to Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson for Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project / U.S.A. (Directors and Producers: Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson, Producer: Tommy Oliver) — Intimate vérité, archival footage, and visually innovative treatments of poetry take us on a journey through the dreamscape of legendary poet Nikki Giovanni as she reflects on her life and legacy. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: This film focuses on a singular, unapologetic voice, and through her story it captures the experience of the collective. The strong directorial vision illuminates the joy and the raw reality of the Black experience. Also it is fucking funny. The U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary goes to Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project.

The World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic was presented to Charlotte Regan for Scrapper U.K. (Director and Screenwriter: Charlotte Regan, Producer: Theo Barrowclough) — Georgie is a dreamy 12-year-old girl who lives happily alone in her London flat, filling it with magic. Out of nowhere, her estranged father turns up and forces her to confront reality. Cast: Harris Dickinson, Lola Campbell, Alin Uzun, Ambreen Razia, Olivia Brady, Aylin Tezel. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: A charming and empathetic film full of integrity and life. Scrapper is a poignant study on grief and how the protagonist attempts to shrink her world. Through a child’s eyes, we observe abandonment, detachment and coldness, delivered with love, humor and warmth. The jury was drawn by the honest and sincere performances, strong direction, playful cinematography, and impressive script. The authenticity and command of place and space by the filmmaker and her insistence in creating a world where pain and joy align perfectly delivered a story full of heart and soul. The World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic goes to Scrapper.

The World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary was presented to Maite Alberdi for The Eternal Memory / Chile (Director and Producer: Maite Alberdi, Producers: Juan de Dios Larraín, Pablo Larraín, Rocío Jadue) — Augusto and Paulina have been together for 25 years. Eight years ago, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Both fear the day he no longer recognizes her. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: This film opened our hearts by bringing us closer to the meaning of life and death, and the element that threads sense into all of it – love. Through a simple yet complex portrayal of a confinement, it brings us to the lives of these fascinating characters who make us wiser and more loving the longer we stay with them. The World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary goes to The Eternal Memory.

FESTIVAL FAVORITE AWARD

Eugenio Derbez in “Radical” (Photo by Mateo Londono)

Selected by audience votes from the feature films that screened at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, the Festival Favorite Award was presented to Radical / U.S.A (Director and Screenwriter: Christopher Zalla, Producers: Ben Odell, Eugenio Derbez, Joshua Davis) — In a Mexican border town plagued by neglect, corruption, and violence, a frustrated teacher tries a radical new method to break through his students’ apathy and unlock their curiosity, their potential… and maybe even their genius. Based on a true story. Cast: Eugenio Derbez, Daniel Haddad, Jenifer Trejo, Mia Fernanda Solis, Danilo Guardiola. World Premiere. Fiction. Available online.

AUDIENCE AWARDS

Pictured in front row: Layla Mohammadi and Niousha Noor in “The Persian Version” (Photo by Andre Jaeger)

The Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic, Presented by Acura was awarded to The Persian Version / U.S.A. (Director, Screenwriter, and Producer: Maryam Keshavarz, Producers: Anne Carey, Ben Howe, Luca Borghese, Peter Block, Corey Nelson) — When a large Iranian-American family gathers for the patriarch’s heart transplant, a family secret is uncovered that catapults the estranged mother and daughter into an exploration of the past. Toggling between the United States and Iran over decades, mother and daughter discover they are more alike than they know. Cast: Layla Mohammadi, Niousha Noor, Kamand Shafieisabet, Bella Warda, Bijan Daneshmand, Shervin Alenabi. World Premiere. Available online.

The Audience Award: U.S. Documentary, Presented by Acura was awarded to Beyond Utopia / U.S.A. (Director: Madeleine Gavin, Producers: Jana Edelbaum, Rachel Cohen, Sue Mi Terry) — Hidden camera footage augments this perilous high-stakes journey as we embed with families attempting to escape oppression from North Korea, ultimately revealing a world most of us have never seen. World Premiere. Available online.

The Audience Award: World Cinema Dramatic, Presented by United Airlines was awarded to Shayda Australia (Director, Screenwriter, and Producer: Noora Niasari, Producer: Vincent Sheehan) — Shayda, a brave Iranian mother, finds refuge in an Australian women’s shelter with her 6-year-old daughter. Over Persian New Year, they take solace in Nowruz rituals and new beginnings, but when her estranged husband re-enters their lives, Shayda’s path to freedom is jeopardized. Cast: Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Osamah Sami, Leah Purcell, Jillian Nguyen, Mojean Aria, Selina Zahednia. World Premiere. Available online.

The Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary, Presented by United Airlines was awarded to 20 Days in Mariupol Ukraine (Director and Producer: Mstyslav Chernov, Producers: Michelle Mizner, Raney Aronson-Rath, Derl McCrudden) — As the Russian invasion begins, a team of Ukrainian journalists trapped in the besieged city of Mariupol struggle to continue their work documenting the war’s atrocities. World Premiere. Available online.

The Audience Award: NEXT, Presented by Adobe was awarded to KOKOMO CITY / U.S.A. (Director and Producer: D. Smith, Producers: Harris Doran, Bill Butler) — Four Black transgender sex workers explore the dichotomy between the Black community and themselves, while confronting issues long avoided. World Premiere. Documentary. Available online.

JURY AWARDS FOR DIRECTING, SCREENWRITING & EDITING

“A Still Small Voice” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

The Directing Award: U.S. Documentary was presented to Luke Lorentzen for A Still Small Voice / U.S.A. (Director and Producer: Luke Lorentzen, Producer: Kellen Quinn) — An aspiring hospital chaplain begins a yearlong residency in spiritual care, only to discover that to successfully tend to her patients, she must look deep within herself. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: This film is a deep dive into grief and the complications of mourning. It has a rigorous and unflinching lens that holds steadfast to the cinematic language the director chose for the film. The Directing Award: U.S. Documentary goes to Luke Lorentzen, A Still Small Voice.

The Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic was presented to Sing J. Lee for The Accidental Getaway Driver / U.S.A. (Director and Screenwriter: Sing J. Lee, Screenwriter: Christopher Chen, Producers: Kimberly Steward, Basil Iwanyk, Andy Sorgie, Brendon Boyea, Joseph Hiếu) — During a routine pickup, an elderly Vietnamese cab driver is taken hostage at gunpoint by three recently escaped Orange County convicts. Based on a true story. Cast: Hiệp Trần Nghĩa, Dustin Nguyen, Dali Benssalah, Phi Vũ, Gabrielle Chan. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: The jury was bowled over by this director’s singular vision that merged the grit of a Western crime film and the poetic imagery of Asian New Wave. This hybridized approach revealed the complexities of existing between cultures and evoked an enormous amount of empathy for its protagonist and the true story underneath it from this jury. The Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic goes to Sing J. Lee, The Accidental Getaway Driver.
The Directing Award: World Cinema Documentary was presented to Anna Hints for Smoke Sauna Sisterhood Estonia, France, Iceland (Director: Anna Hints, Producer: Marianne Ostrat) — In the darkness of a smoke sauna, women share their innermost secrets and intimate experiences, washing off the shame trapped in their bodies and regaining their strength through a sense of communion. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: A transcendental story of women that bring us into their bodies, their traumas and their healing. Tales of patriarchy that we have rarely seen on screen come together with cinematic beauty, humor, wisdom and refreshing self-awareness. The directing award goes to Anna Hints, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood.

The Directing Award: World Cinema Dramatic was presented to Marija Kavtaradze for Slow Lithuania, Spain, Sweden (Director and Screenwriter: Marija Kavtaradze, Producer: Marija Razgute) — Dancer Elena and sign language interpreter Dovydas meet and form a beautiful bond. As they dive into a new relationship, they must navigate how to build their own kind of intimacy. Cast: Greta Grinevičiūtė, Kęstutis Cicėnas. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: In this untraditional love story, we follow the journey of two individuals who pose the question: what is desire? Marija Kavtaradze’s expert direction guides her audiences to discover their own answer, which delightfully shifts as each act provokes greater interrogation. Kavtaradze is a poet and an expert weaver, intertwining scenes of provocative movement with more quiet, insightful moments rich in dialogue. It combines to deliver a drama that resonates long after the film ends; a tenderness that lingers in the minds and hearts of viewers. The Directing Award: World Cinema Dramatic goes to Marija Kavtaradze, Slow.

The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: U.S. Dramatic was presented to Maryam Keshavarz for The Persian Version / U.S.A. (Director, Screenwriter, and Producer: Maryam Keshavarz, Producers: Anne Carey, Ben Howe, Luca Borghese, Peter Block, Corey Nelson) — When a large Iranian-American family gathers for the patriarch’s heart transplant, a family secret is uncovered that catapults the estranged mother and daughter into an exploration of the past. Toggling between the United States and Iran over decades, mother and daughter discover they are more alike than they know. Cast: Layla Mohammadi, Niousha Noor, Kamand Shafieisabet, Bella Warda, Bijan Daneshmand, Shervin Alenabi. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: We were impressed by the craft of this screenplay that wove together the lives of a fractured family over multiple generations with humor, candor, affection, and verve before surprising us all with the revelation of a family secret that healed past wounds. The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: U.S. Dramatic goes to Maryam Keshavarz, The Persian Version.

The Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award: U.S. Documentary was presented to Daniela I. Quiroz for Going Varsity in Mariachi / U.S.A. (Directors: Alejandra Vasquez, Sam Osborn, Producers: James Lawler, Luis A. Miranda, Jr., Julia Pontecorvo) — In the competitive world of high school mariachi, the musicians from the South Texas borderlands reign supreme. Under the guidance of coach Abel Acuña, the teenage captains of Edinburg North High School’s acclaimed team must turn a shoestring budget and diverse crew of inexperienced musicians into state champions. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: A joyful edit that carries the heart of the characters while still exploring difficult and sensitive issues in a delicate and beautiful way. We deeply care for our heroes and the spirit of life on the border. The Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award: U.S. Documentary goes to Editor, Daniela I. Quiroz, Going Varsity in Mariachi.

SPECIAL JURY AWARDS

Pictured in front: Molly Gordon and Ben Platt in “Theater Camp” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

A U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award: Ensemble was presented to the cast of Theater Camp / U.S.A. (Directors and Screenwriters: Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman, Screenwriters: Noah Galvin, Ben Platt, Producers: Erik Feig, Samie Kim Falvey, Julia Hammer, Ryan Heller, Will Ferrell, Jessica Elbaum) — When the beloved founder of a run-down theater camp in upstate New York falls into a coma, the eccentric staff must band together with the founder’s crypto-bro son to keep the camp afloat. Cast: Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Noah Galvin, Jimmy Tatro, Patti Harrison, Ayo Edebiri. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: Creativity does not have to be a torturous, solitary endeavor–it often rarely is. A film is made with a community and those that celebrate that invite new communities to the worlds they have built. As a jury of theatre nerds who felt welcomed back to a place that feels like home it is our pleasure to award the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award: Ensemble to the cast of Theater Camp.

A U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award: Creative Vision was presented to the creative team of Magazine Dreams / U.S.A. (Director and Screenwriter: Elijah Bynum, Producers: Jennifer Fox, Dan Gilroy, Jeffrey Soros, Simon Horsman) — An amateur bodybuilder struggles to find human connection as his relentless drive for recognition pushes him to the brink. Cast: Jonathan Majors, Haley Bennett, Taylour Paige, Mike O’Hearn, Harrison Page, Harriet Sansom Harris. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: This immersive film’s relentless tension achieved through the rigorous marriage of light, camera movement, sound, and an overwhelming performance left us all disturbed, yet riveted. It will reverberate through audiences to much debate. The U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award: Creative Vision goes to the creative team of Magazine Dreams.

A U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award: Acting was presented to Lio Mehiel for Mutt / U.S.A. (Director, Screenwriter, and Producer: Vuk Lungulov-Klotz, Producers: Alexander Stegmaier, Stephen Scott Scarpulla, Jennifer Kuczaj, Joel Michaely) Jury citation:— Over the course of a single hectic day in New York City, three people from Feña’s past are thrust back into his life. Having lost touch since transitioning from female to male, he navigates the new dynamics of old relationships while tackling the day-to-day challenges of living life in between. Cast: Lío Mehiel, Cole Doman, MiMi Ryder, Alejandro Goic. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: We were charmed, seduced, and compelled by this fresh new performer as we watched them navigating the intimate complexities of their everyday life and relationships in his search for acceptance. We award the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award: Acting to Lio Mehiel, Mutt.

A U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award: Clarity of Vision was presented to The Stroll / U.S.A. (Directors: Kristen Lovell, Zackary Drucker, Producer: Matt Wolf) — The history of New York’s Meatpacking District, told from the perspective of transgender sex workers who lived and worked there. Filmmaker Kristen Lovell, who walked “The Stroll” for a decade, reunites her community to recount the violence, policing, homelessness, and gentrification they overcame to build a movement for transgender rights. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: It demonstrates an intimate look from the people who have the lived experience. It shows why it is important for the people who are members of the community to be at the helm of their stories. The U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award: Clarity of Vision goes to The Stroll.

A U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award: Freedom of Expression was presented to Bad Press / U.S.A (Directors: Rebecca Landsberry-Baker, Joe Peeler, Producers: Conrad Beilharz, Garrett F. Baker, Tyler Graim) — When the Muscogee Nation suddenly begins censoring its free press, a rogue reporter fights to expose her government’s corruption in a historic battle that will have ramifications for all of Indian country. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: An essential story that is being told at a critical time featuring Indigenous people confronting their own power structures. It shines a light on the fact that even though freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitution, none of us can take it for granted. And it has the best ending line of any documentary. “My name is angel. And there’s a rainbow!” The U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award: Freedom of Expression award goes to Bad Press.

A World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award: Creative Vision was presented to Fantastic Machine Sweden, Denmark (Directors and Producers: Axel Danielson, Maximilien Van Aertryck) — From the first camera to 45 billion cameras worldwide today, the visual sociologist filmmakers widen their lens to expose both humanity’s unique obsession with the camera’s image and the social consequences that lay ahead. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: For sending us on a journey to realize that the invention of image was perhaps one of the most important turning points of our recent history, reshaping radically our inner structure and sense of identity. In a time where everyone is the creator of their own narrative, through image, the film forces, everyone, even us filmmakers, to take a step back and reflect upon our intentions regarding the images we want to put out into the world. It is an artful, hilarious and terrifying homage to the importance of critical thinking. The World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award: Creative Vision goes to Fantastic Machine.

A World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award: Verite Filmmaking was presented to Against the Tide India (Director and Producer: Sarvnik Kaur, Producer: Koval Bhatia) — Two friends, both Indigenous fishermen, are driven to desperation by a dying sea. Their friendship begins to fracture as they take very different paths to provide for their struggling families. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: In a time where we are inundated with climate change headlines that seems to not be leading to much change, here is a film that places us in the point of view of two unforgettable protagonists. Their lives, hardships and humor reflect those of billions of people that are most affected by global warming and who are seeing their livelihoods being threatened in its essence. It reminds of the power of verite filmmaking to transport us into the lives of people who might be so distant from us and experience the challenges of their life circumstances first hand. The World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award: Verite Filmmaking goes to Against the Tide.

A World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award: Creative Vision was presented to Sofia Alaoui for Animalia / France, Morocco, Qatar (Director and Screenwriter: Sofia Alaoui, Producers: Margaux Lorier, Toufik Ayadi, Christophe Barral) — A young, pregnant woman finds emancipation as aliens land in Morocco. Cast: Oumaïma Barid, Mehdi Dehbi, Fouad Oughaou. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: In this original story of a woman making her way through a living and breathing landscape, we experience a world turned upside down, of humans in collision with nature and an uncovering of supernatural forces. We were delighted to discover in Sofia Alaoui’s first feature a subversive voice that tackles and interrogates the universe in what is ultimately a journey to simply discover oneself. The World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award: Creative Vision goes to Sofia Alaoui, Animalia.

A World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award: Cinematography was presented to Lílis Soares for Mami Wata Nigeria (Director and Screenwriter: C.J. “Fiery” Obasi, Producer: Oge Obasi) — When the harmony in a village is threatened by outside elements, two sisters must fight to save their people and restore the glory of a mermaid goddess to the land. Cast: Evelyne Ily, Uzoamaka Aniunoh, Kelechi Udegbe, Emeka Amakeze, Rita Edochie, Tough Bone. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: Through each frame, Lilis Soares’ expert lens mesmerized the jury. The richness of the black and white images, combined with the intricate and intimate camerawork of both the performances and natural landscape, elevated this folkloric tale to an intoxicating, visual experience. The World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award: Cinematography goes to Lílis Soares, Mami Wata.

A World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award: Best Performance was presented to Rosa Marchant for When It Melts Belgium (Director and Screenwriter: Veerle Baetens, Screenwriter: Maarten Loix, Producers: Bart Van Langendonck, Ellen Havenith, Jacques-Henri Bronckart) — Many years after a sweltering summer that spun out of control, Eva returns to the village she grew up in with an ice block in the back of her car. In the dead of winter, she confronts her past and faces up to her tormentors. Cast: Charlotte De Bruyne, Rosa Marchant. World Premiere. Available online.

Jury citation: For delivering a piercing and resonant performance that haunted the jury for days. She employed a poetic nuance and complexity throughout her interpretation of the role, belying experience well beyond her years. This is an actor to follow and the jury looks forward to watching her command more screens. The World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award: Best Performance goes to Rosa Marchant, When it Melts.

NEXT INNOVATOR AWARD PRESENTED BY ADOBE

The NEXT Innovator Award presented by Adobe was presented to KOKOMO CITY / U.S.A. (Director and Producer: D. Smith, Producers: Harris Doran, Bill Butler) — Four Black transgender sex workers explore the dichotomy between the Black community and themselves, while confronting issues long avoided. World Premiere. Documentary. Available online.

Jury citation: For taking the traditional “talking heads” documentary structure and opening it up with the use of camera, sound, editing techniques, and imagery to create a dazzling journey with a fluidity that is entirely new. For a groundbreaking presentation of the lives of black trans women sex-workers in black and white, for taking us into their bedrooms and sharing in their incredible vulnerability as we hear their stories, all the while listening with her camera in a way that is electric and alive. For examining the injustice of a world that relegates so many women to a second-class citizenship and the oppressive nature of gender roles for everyone. For making perhaps the funniest movie Sundance has ever shown, and reminding us that the life or death struggle of these women is best understood in their defiant use of humor as a weapon. The NEXT wave of cinema is the profound use of comedy for serious subject matter, and for bringing us all together with laughter, in a hope that the love we come to feel for the people in this film can result in a larger social transformation. The NEXT Innovator Award goes to KOKOMO CITY directed by D. Smith.

SHORT FILM AWARDS PRESENTED BY SHUTTERSTOCK

Kailyn Dulay in “When You Left Me on That Bouelvard” (Photo by Rajinee Buquing)

Jury prizes for short filmmaking were awarded to:

The Short Film Grand Jury Prize presented by Shutterstock was awarded to When You Left Me On That Boulevard / U.S.A. (Director and Screenwriter: Kayla Abuda Galang, Producers: Alifya Ali, David Oconer, Udoy Rahim, Samantha Skinner) — Teenager Ly and her cousins get high before a boisterous family Thanksgiving at their auntie’s house in southeast San Diego in 2006. Cast: Kailyn Dulay, Melissa Arcaya, Elle Rodriguez, Whitney Agustin, Gina May Gimongala, Allan Wayne AndersonWorld Premiere. Available Online.

Jury citation: From the first moment, we were fully on board for this rowdy ride. An uproarious take on extended family, irreverence and tradition with incredible attunement to details and frame. This directorial feat of freshness is our enthusiastic choice for the Sundance Grand Jury Short Film Prize goes to When You Left Me On That Boulevard
The Short Film Jury Award: U.S. Fiction presented by Shutterstock was awarded to Rest Stop / U.S.A. (Director and Screenwriter: Crystal Kayiza, Producers: Jalena Keane-Lee, Brit Fryer) — On a bus ride from New York to Oklahoma, Meyi, a young Ugandan-American girl, realizes her place in the world through her mother’s ambitious effort to reunite their family. Cast: Leeanna E. Tushabe, Alicia Basiima, Khalid Semakula, Robert Wanyama, Margaret Bisase, Olivia Nantongo. Available Online.

Jury citation: An exquisite song of the ordinary.  We were struck by this unhurried portrayal of itinerancy and estrangement. To this deeply American story, we give the Best US Fiction Short Film Award to Rest Stop.

The Short Film Jury Award: International Fiction presented by Shutterstock was awarded to The Kidnapping of the Bride / Germany (Director and Screenwriter: Sophia Mocorrea, Producer: Sarah Valerie Radu) — Luisa from Argentina and Fred from Germany are confronted with their social roles at their wedding. The German tradition of kidnapping the bride shakes the couple’s equality. There is no room for love in this role-play of marriage. Cast: Rai Todoroff, David Bruning, Tatiana Saphir, Anne Kulbatzki, Michaela Winterstein, Niels Bormann. World Premiere. Available Online.

Jury citation: An elegant telling of a relationship caught between worlds.  Directed with a honed sense of the ever-shifting dynamics and limits of gender and culture, this film reoriented us, drawing from the power of what’s felt and what’s left unsaid. The Best Intl Fiction Short Film Award goes to The Kidnapping of the Bride.

The Short Film Jury Award: Animation presented by Shutterstock was awarded to The Flying Sailor / Canada (Directors and Producers: Wendy Tilby, Amanda Forbis, Producer: David Christensen) — Two ships collide in a harbor, an explosion shatters a city, and a sailor is blasted skyward, where he soars high above the mayhem and toward the great unknown. Available Online.

Jury citation: This beautiful portrait of both an instant and a life lifted us out of our seats and took us on an emotional, innovative and explosive ride. The Best Animation Short Film Award goes to The Flying Sailor.

The Short Film Jury Award: Non-Fiction presented by Shutterstock was awarded to Will You Look At Me / China (Director, Screenwriter, and Producer: Shuli Huang) — As a young Chinese filmmaker returns to his hometown in search of himself, a long-overdue conversation with his mother drives them into a quest for acceptance and love. Available Online.

Jury citation: A complex personal journey of a son accepting his mother’s refusal.  Enchanting, unpretentious images accompany an unflinching soundtrack to portray both a private self and universal misunderstanding. The Best Non-Fiction Short Film Award goes to Will You Look at Me.

A Short Film Special Jury Award, International: Directing presented by Shutterstock was awarded to AliEN0089 / Chile (Director and Screenwriter: Valeria Hofmann, Producers: Augusto Matte, Daniela Camino, Pascual Mena) — While a gamer uploads a testimonial video to denounce the harassment she suffers in a video game, a stranger enters her home and hacks her computer, blurring the boundaries between the real and virtual worlds. Cast: Mariana di Girolamo. World Premiere.

Jury citation: A frightening tale blending online gaming, contemporary politics, and genre elements to create a striking horror story. We give a Short Film Special Jury Award for Directing to AliEN0089.

A Short Film Special Jury Award, U.S: Directing presented by Shutterstock was awarded to The Vacation / U.S.A. (Director and Screenwriter: Jarreau Carrillo, Producers: Marttise Hill, Julius Pryor) — A Black man attempts to take a vacation. Cast: Drew Harris, Jarreau Carrillo, Ohene Cornelius, Trae Harris. Available Online.

Jury citation: An ingenious reinvention of the chamber-drama as a vehicle for neighborhood dreamers and schemers.  For its comic timing and assured direction, we give a Short Film Special Jury Award for Directing to The Vacation.

PREVIOUSLY GRANTED 2023 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL AWARDS

The 2023 Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, presented to an outstanding feature film about science or technology, was presented to The Pod Generation. The filmmakers received a $20,000 cash award from Sundance Institute with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The Sundance Institute | Amazon Studios Producers Award for Nonfiction went to Jess Devaney for It’s Only Life After All (Premieres).

The Sundance Institute | Amazon Studios Producers Award for Fiction went to Kara Durrett for The Starling Girl (U.S. Dramatic Competition).

The Sundance Institute | Adobe Mentorship Award for  Nonfiction went to Mary Manhardt, and the Sundance Institute | Adobe Mentorship Award for Fiction went to Troy Takaki.

The Sundance Institute | NHK Award went to Olive Nwosu for Lady.

Sundance Institute | Stars Collective Imagination Awards went to Tamara Shogaolu for their project 40 Acres, Navid Khonsari, Vassiliki Khonsari, and Andres Perez-Duarte for their project BLOCK PARTY BODEGA, and Vanessa Keith for their project Year 2180.

The Sundance Film Festival®
The Sundance Film Festival, a program of the nonprofit, Sundance Institute, is the pre-eminent gathering of original storytellers and audiences seeking new voices and fresh perspectives. Since 1985, hundreds of films launched at the Festival have gone on to gain critical acclaim and reach new audiences worldwide. The Festival has introduced some of the most groundbreaking films and episodic works of the past three decades, including Fire of Love, Cha Cha Real SmoothFlee, CODA, Passing, Summer Of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), Clemency, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Zola, O.J.: Made in America, On The Record, Boys State, The Farewell, Honeyland, One Child Nation, The Souvenir, The Infiltrators, Sorry to Bother You, Top of the Lake, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Hereditary, Call Me By Your Name, Get Out, The Big Sick, Mudbound, Fruitvale Station, Whiplash, Brooklyn, Precious, The Cove, Little Miss Sunshine, An Inconvenient Truth, Napoleon Dynamite, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Reservoir Dogs and sex, lies, and videotape. The program consists of fiction and nonfiction features and short films, series and episodic content, emerging media, and performances, as well as conversations, and other events. The Festival takes place both in person in the state of Utah and online, connecting audiences across the U.S. to bold new artists and films. The 2023 Festival takes place January 19–29. Be a part of the Festival at Sundance Film Festival and follow the Festival at Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.

The Festival is a program of the nonprofit Sundance Institute. To date, 2023 Festival sponsors include: Presenting Sponsors – Acura, AMC Networks, Chase Sapphire®, Adobe; Leadership Sponsors – Audible, DIRECTV, Netflix, Omnicom Group, Shutterstock, Stacy’s® Pita Chips, United Airlines, XRM Media; Sustaining Sponsors – Canada Goose, Canon U.S.A., Inc., DoorDash, Dropbox, World of Hyatt®, IMDb, Lyft, MACRO, Rabbit Hole Bourbon & Rye, Stanley, University of Utah Health, White Claw Hard Seltzer; Media Sponsors – IndieWire, Los Angeles Times, NPR, Variety, Vulture, The Wall Street Journal. Sundance Institute recognizes critical support from the State of Utah as Festival Host State. The support of these organizations helps offset the Festival’s costs and sustain the Institute’s year-round programs for independent artists. festival.sundance.org

Sundance Institute
As a champion and curator of independent stories, the nonprofit Sundance Institute provides and preserves the space for artists across storytelling media to create and thrive. Founded in 1981 by Robert Redford, the Institute’s signature Labs, granting, and mentorship programs, dedicated to developing new work, take place throughout the year in the U.S. and internationally. Sundance Collab, a digital community platform, brings a global cohort of working artists together to learn from each other and Sundance Advisors and connect in a creative space, developing and sharing works in progress. The Sundance Film Festival and other public programs connect audiences and artists to ignite new ideas, discover original voices, and build a community dedicated to independent storytelling. Sundance Institute has supported and showcased such projects as Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), CODA, Flee, Passing, Clemency, Never Rarely Sometimes AlwaysZola, On The Record, Boys State, The Farewell, HoneylandOne Child NationThe Souvenir, The Infiltrators, Sorry to Bother You, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Hereditary, Call Me By Your Name, Get Out, The Big Sick, Mudbound, Fruitvale StationCity So Real, Top of the Lake, Between the World & Me, Wild Goose Dreams and Fun Home. Join Sundance Institute on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.

Review: ‘Fancy Dance’ (2023), starring Lily Gladstone and Isabel Deroy-Olson

January 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Isabel Deroy-Olson and Lily Gladstone in “Fancy Dance” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“Fancy Dance”

Directed by Erica Tremblay

Some language in Cayuga with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Tulsa County, Oklahoma, the dramatic film “Fancy Dance” features a cast of Native American and white characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman with a troubled background comes up against obstacles in finding her missing sister, whose 13-year-old daughter could end up in the custody of the sisters’ estranged father. 

Culture Audience: “Fancy Dance” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in emotionally riveting movies about families coping with a missing loved one, and how issues of race and social class affect Native Americans in the United States.

“Fancy Dance” is a well-acted story of Native American culture and law enforcement’s treatment of cases involving missing Native American women, who are rarely the focus of narrative feature films. The relationships in the movie are depicted authentically. At a certain point in “Fancy Dance,” the movie’s last five minutes are easily predictable, but this last scene is handled with a mixture of sentiment and realism. Viewers who think the movie’s ending is too vague aren’t really paying attention, because there’s a certain inevitability to what will happen to the main characters. It’s just not explicitly shown in the movie.

Directed by Eric Tremblay (who co-wrote the “Fancy Dance” screenplay with Miciana Alise), “Fancy Dance” takes place in Tulsa County, Oklahoma (where the movie was filmed on location), and centers mostly on working-class members of the Seneca Nation tribe of Native Americans. The movie has several examples of how ancient traditions in the Seneca Nation have survived but sometimes clash or are misunderstood by a modern American culture dominated by white people. “Fancy Dance” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

At the beginning of “Fancy Dance,” viewers see Jax Goodiron (played by Lily Gladstone) working in tandem with her 13-year-old niece Roki Goodiron (played by Isabel Deroy-Olson) to steal some items from a middle-aged man who’s fishing by himself in a local creek. Jax, who is in her 30s, distracts the man by pretending to cool off with some water in the creek. She takes her top off to reveal her bra, because she knows that the man will be distracted by looking at her.

While the fisherman is ogling Jax in a voyeuristic manner, Roki sneaks up from behind and rifles through his belongings that are in a duffel bag in a nearby grassy area. Roki steals the man’s wallet, his car keys and some other items. After Jax finishes her contrived “bath,” she and Roki steal the man’s car to go to a grungy convenience store, which is an unofficial pawn shop. The store is operated by a scruffy dealer named Boo (played by Blayne Allen), who also sells illegal drugs out of the shop. After some bargaining, Jax and Roki sell a gold wedding band to Boo for $350.

At this convenience store, Roki sadly glances at a posted flyer for a missing woman named Wadatwai “Tawi” Goodiron, who is Roki’s single mother. (Roki’s father, who is briefly mentioned with contempt in the movie, abandoned the family and is not involved in raising her.) Viewers soon find out that Jax, Tawi and Roki all live together in a modest house on a Seneca Nation reservation.

Jax has a sullen, jaded attitude, but she has a soft spot for Roki, whom she treats as if Roki were her own daughter. Roki is inquisitive and has an upbeat personality. However, Roki is not so innocent, because she’s a willing accomplice in the thefts that Jax instigates, and Roki does some shoplifting on her own.

Tawi disappeared two weeks ago without any clues of where she went. Roki and Tawi are scheduled to appear at an upcoming powwow, where they are the reigning champs of a traditional mother/daughter dance. Jax has been keeping Roki’s hopes up that Tawi, who has never missed this powwow with Roki, will come home soon. But is this expectation realistic or false hope?

Tawi works as a dancer at a strip club called Tail Feathers, so it’s possible that she could have run into some sleazy people through her job and met with foul play. Jax is romantically involved with a dancer at the strip club named Sapphire (played by Crystle Lightning), who is also worried about where Tawi is, but Sapphire doesn’t know what happened to Tawi. Jax and Tawi have an older brother named JJ (played by Ryan Begay), a local police officer who hangs out at the strip club in his spare time.

Later, viewers soon find out that Jax is no stranger to felonious criminal activities. She spent time in prison for drug trafficking, although the movie doesn’t say how long her prison sentence was or how long ago it happened. Based on the crimes that Jax commits in the movie’s opening scene and later in “Fancy Dance,” she’s having a hard time “going straight” as a law-abiding citizen.

The disappearance of Tawi is the catalyst for almost everything that happens in the story. Law enforcement officials don’t take the disappearance very seriously, so Jax decides to investigate on her own. It’s implied that because Tawi is Native American and a stripper, authorities don’t really care about investigating her disappearance.

Tawi is a resident of a Native American reservation on federal land, so her disappearance falls under the jurisdiction of the FBI, which has sent an agent with the last name Morris (played by Jason Alan Smith) to investigate. Agent Morris makes it obvious to the family that this missing person case is a low priority. Jax asks some of the shady characters who might know what happened to Tawi, but Jax also gets a hostile or indifferent reaction.

Things get more complicated when the Goodiron siblings’ estranged father Frank Harris (played by Shea Whigham) shows up unannounced with his wife Nancy (played by Audrey Wasilewski), to check in on how Roki is doing. Frank is also a local police officer, who uses his law-enforcement connections later in the movie for other reasons. This fractured family has a lot of resentment and hard feelings that go back several years.

Frank was married to the mother of JJ, Jax and Tawi. After the mother died, Frank “ran off” with Nancy, according to what Jax says in a bitter argument with Frank. JJ seems to have forgiven Frank, but Jax and Tawi have not been as understanding. In fact, Tawi was no longer on speaking terms with Frank at the time that Tawi disappeared. Frank and Nancy are both white, so there are racial implications to how Frank and Nancy lead separate lives from the Native American side of Frank’s family.

Nancy is verbally pleasant but socially awkward with her stepfamily. In a scene demonstrating the racial tensions and cultural divide, Nancy makes ignorant remarks about the upcoming powwow. She calls the powwow regalia a “costume” and thinks of the powwow as some kind of “theater” event where people dress up like actors, instead of trying to understand that a powwow is a tradition that honors a tribe’s culture. It’s also an event where people are encouraged to be themselves. In other words, it’s not like a Halloween party where people dress up in costumed disguises.

When Nancy hears that Roki and Tawi are supposed to participate in a mother/dance at the powwow, Nancy gives a pair of Nancy’s old ballet slippers as a gift to Tawi to wear at the powwow dance. “Fancy Dance” isn’t subtle at all in showing that Nancy is somewhat dismissive of this Native American tradition and would rather impose the white, Eurocentric cultural ways that Nancy is used to living. Roki politely thanks Nancy for the gift, Roki but says that she has no interest in ballet. This misguided gift also shows Nancy’s ignorance or denial that ballet lessons cost the type of money that Roki and her mother obviously don’t have.

“Fancy Dance” has other examples of how Native Americans are treated differently by people in a culture that enables and encourages white supremacist racism. However, the movie doesn’t let Jax and Roki off the hook for some of the risky and illegal things that they do that cause more trouble for themselves. It’s enough to say that the search for Tawi gets more dangerous and complicated.

Jax’s competence as a temporary guardian for Roki also gets questioned because of Jax’s criminal record. Officials from child protective services get involved. Child custody arrangements could result in Frank and Nancy getting permanent custody of Roki if Tawi remains missing. Jax doesn’t want Frank and Nancy to raise Roki, because the spouses barely know Roki, and Roki will be forced to live away from her Native American culture on the reservation. Jax also doesn’t trust Frank, and she thinks that Frank and Nancy won’t be able to properly teach Roki about Native American culture.

What makes “Fancy Dance” such a compelling story is how the principal cast members are able to embody these characters in ways that look entirely natural—not staged, over-rehearsed or forced. The scenes and conversations flow with fluctuating energy that effectively convey what each character might be thinking or feeling, instead of putting too much emphasis on just the perspective of Jax, the lead character.

Still, Gladstone’s complex performance Jax is the heart and soul of the movie. Jax is caught between the seedy world of her criminal activities and the straight-laced life that she has to live if she wants to prove that she’s fit to be Roki’s legal guardian, in case Tawi remains missing. Jax has a combination of cockiness and self-loathing that sometimes makes Jax her own worst enemy.

However, there’s a seething, underlying anger to what Jax does, because she’s so frequently misjudged because of her race and social class. Her attitude seems to be, “People already think I’m a criminal. I might as well be who they think I am.” Even when Jax isn’t doing anything wrong, she is still treated as “inferior” or “suspicious” by certain people.

Roki is keenly observant of what goes on around her, and Deroy-Olson portrays Roki with a skillful blend of child-like optimism and adult cynicism. Viewers of “Fancy Dance” will feel some emotional investment or concern about how Roki is growing up, and who she might be when she’s an adult, considering her chaotic life so far. Is Roki better off living with Jax or with Frank and Nancy? The movie doesn’t offer easy answers—just like the lives of the main characters and people in real life who exist in the margins of degradation and turmoil, and they have a hard time getting out.

Review: ‘Little Richard: I Am Everything,’ starring Little Richard

January 24, 2023

by Carla Hay

Little Richard in “Little Richard: I Am Everything” (Photo courtesy of CNN Films)

“Little Richard: I Am Everything”

Directed by Lisa Cortés

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” a group of African Americans and white people discuss the impact of rock and roll pioneer Little Richard, who died in 2020, at the age of 87.

Culture Clash: Little Richard experienced homophobia, racism, cultural appropriation, drug addiction and showbiz ripoffs during his many ups and downs. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the target audience of fans of Little Richard, “Little Richard: I Am Everything” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching documentaries about music legends who influenced countless entertainers.

Little Richard in “Little Richard: I Am Everything” (Photo courtesy of CNN Films)

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” vibrantly captures the spirit of rock music pioneer Little Richard and doesn’t shy away from exploring his many contradictions. The documentary stumbles by adding sparkly visual effects to make him look “magical,” but these corny embellishments don’t ruin the movie. “Little Richard: I Am Everything” can at least be applauded for not sticking to an entirely predictable format, since the movie does a few other things in its effort to not be a typical biographical documentary.

Directed by Lisa Cortés, “Little Richard: I Am Everything” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary unfolds in chronological order and has an expected mixture of archival footage of Little Richard (who died in 2020, at the age of 87) and exclusive documentary interviews with family members, associates, celebrity admirers and various culture experts. People don’t have to be fans of rock music to know that Little Richard was one of the originators of the genre. However, may people who are unfamiliar with him as an artist might be surprised by how his life went from one extreme to the other, often by his own doing.

People knowledgeable about rock history will also know already that Little Richard—just like other African American artists who were pioneers in rock music—was frequently ripped off creatively and financially. He was never fully appreciated by the industry when he was in the prime of his career. It was only after he loudly complained for years about not getting the recognition he deserved that he started to receive many industry accolades.

For example, Little Richard never won a Grammy Award in a competitive category (the Grammys Awards were launched in 1960, after Little Richard’s hitmaking career peaked), but he did receive a non-competitive Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1993, long after he stopped making hit records. He was in the first group of artists inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame in January 1986, but he couldn’t attend the ceremony because he had the bad luck of being seriously injured in a car accident in October 1985. (He fell asleep behind the wheel of the char.)

Born in Macon, Georgia, in 1932, Richard Wayne Penniman (Little Richard’s birth name) knew from an early age that he wanted to be a flamboyant entertainer, starting from when he used to dress up in his mother’s clothes when he was a child. Little Richard, who grew up in a strict Christian household, was the third-youngest of 12 children. His mother Leva Mae Penniman accepted him for who he was, but his Charles “Bud” Penniman would brutally abuse Richard for being effeminate.

Bud Penniman was also a study in contradictions: He was church deacon and a brick mason, but he was also a bootlegger who owned a small nightclub and a house where he sold alcoholic drinks, which were illegal at the time. Ralph Harper, a former neighbor of the Penniman family, has this memory of Little Richard: “He was always banging on the piano, anytime you see him.”

Muriel Jackson, head of the Middle Georgia Archives, comments on Macon’s culture: “Macon is known for its churches. It’s a conservative, religious town.” Therefore, Little Richard wasn’t just bullied at home for being who he was. He also got a lot of abuse from other people in the community.

Specialty Records historian Billy Vera says, “They called him a sissy, a punk” and much worse. Emmy-winning and Tony-winning entertainer Billy Porter (who is openly gay) adds, “I can only imagine. I’ve lived a version of that. It’s debilitating. It’s soul-crushing. And it can be deadly.”

Little Richard spent the early years of his entertainment career in that vortex of contradictions: He would play the piano or sing in the choir in the stern atmosphere of conservative church gatherings, but he would also perform in the much-less restrictive (and taboo at the time) gay-friendly nightclubs in Macon and later Atlanta. He would often appear in drag at these shows under the stage name Princess LaVonne. In those days, it was illegal for men to go in public in drag, unless they it was part of an entertainment act.

One of his frequent hang-outs was Ann’s Tic Toc in Macon. And as a teenager, Little Richard worked at the Macon City Auditorium, where it made a huge impact on him to see many artists up close and backstage. The documentary mentions that when Little Richard saw his idol Sister Rosetta Tharpe (a guitar-playing vanguard in rock music) do a concert at the Macon City Auditorium in 1945, it changed his life. His piano-playing style was influenced by how Ike Turner played piano on Jackie Brenston’s 1957 song “Rocket 88.”

Little Richard was influential to countless artists, but there were people who influenced him on his artistic image/persona. In addition to Tharpe, another performer who helped shape Little Richard’s entertainment style was an openly gay drag performer named Billy Wright, who met Little Richard at the Gold Peacock nightclub in Atlanta in 1950, and they eventually became close friends. Wright had a pompadour hairstyle, wore heavy makeup, and had a thin moustache, which all eventually became signature looks for Little Richard. Did Little Richard copy Wright? Not really, as scholar Zandria Robinson explains: “They were kind of like mirrors that come into your life and show you who you really are.

In the early 1950s, black artists were limited to performing R&B, blues, jazz and gospel. The documentary mentions that when Little Richard was looking for a record deal, he didn’t quite fit in with any of these music genres, even though he was repeatedly told that he should perform blues, according to his longtime drummer Charles Connor. Instead, Little Richard was part of a small but growing number of black artists pioneering a new form of music that combined blues and R&B and made it more energetic, raucous and sexually frank. At first, this new form of music was called “race music” (to indicate that it was performed by black artists) but eventually became known as rock and roll.

Little Richard signed a deal with Signature Records. And his music as a rock artist eventually became hits not just on the R&B charts, but made their way to crossover into the pop charts. It’s mentioned that cars being made with radios had a big impact on people, especially the young people who tended to be rock fans, being able to listen to rock music away from their parents at home. It was during the 1950s that Little Richard had his biggest and most famous hits, including “Tutti Frutti” (a song that he later admitted was about anal sex, but he changed the lyrics before recording it), “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and “Lucille.”

His stage act became known for his “let it all hang out” style of banging on the piano (often with a leg propped up on the piano) with passionate sexual energy that wasn’t often seen in piano players at the time. Little Richard was sexually ambiguous at a time when it was very dangerous for performers, especially male performers, to be sexually ambiguous. It’s noted in the documentary that Little Richard’s father eventually came to accept him after Richard became a local star in the Georgia music scene. Tragically, Bud Penniman was shot to death in 1952, outside his Tip In Inn nightclub. No suspect was ever charged with this murder, but Little Richard said for years that the culprit was Frank Tanner, who was Little Richard’s best friend at the time.

By 1956, Little Richard had moved to Los Angeles and brought many of his siblings with him. Several people in the documentary talk about how generous he was with family, friends and associates. Throughout it all, Little Richard’s mother was one of his biggest fans. Little Ricard’s longtime drag-queen friend Sir Lady Java (an activist/entrepreneur) says in the documentary about Leva Mae Penniman: “She was such a beautiful person. She knew who he was and what he was. And she loved him in spite of it.”

Tom Jones says in the documentary that out of the five artists who are considered the first megastars of rock and roll—Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis—”Little Richard was the strongest.” By the early 1960s, Little Richard was usually named as one of the biggest influences of a slew of British artists who were making their mark in rock and roll. The Beatles (who hung out with Little Richard in the band’s pre-fame nightclub stint in Liverpool, England, and in Hamburg, Germany) and the Rolling Stones jumped at the chance to perform on the same bill with Little Richard.

Robinson says that Little Richard’s upbringing in the South both tormented him and was inherent to who he was: “The South is the home of all things queer, of the different, of the non-normative, of the other side of gothic, of the grotesque. Note that queerness is not just about sexuality but about a presence and a space that is different from what we require or expect.” In other words, it doesn’t mean that queerness is more likely to be found in the South but that during Little Richard’s youth, the issues of race, social class and sexuality were more dangerous for people in certain parts of the South, such as his hometown of Macon, than in other parts of the United States.

After he became famous, Richard would change the descriptions of his sexual identity many times. Sometimes, he identified as gay. Sometimes, he identified as straight, during the periods of time when he became a born-again Christian who renounced any sexual identity that wasn’t heterosexual. Sometimes, he identified as bisexual or queer. Regardless of what his sexual identity was or was perceived to be, Little Richard could not be reasonably confused with any other entertainer because he had such a strong and distinct persona.

Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger, who says Little Richard was one of his biggest influences, comments on Little Richard’s persona: “It was almost like having a split personality.” The Rolling Stones were the opening act for Little Richard at the beginning of the British band’s career in the early 1960s. Jagger said he used that opportunity to study Little Richard’s onstage persona: “I would be at the side of the stage to watch him. Richard would work that audience.” Jagger, who started his career with a performing style of standing still a lot on stage, changed that style and took on some of the same techniques that Little Richard used, and which Jagger still uses today.

Tony Newman, drummer of the British band Sounds Incorporated, has fond memories of working as a backup musician for Little Richard, whom he met in London in 1962. “Nearly every night,” Newman says, “it escalated into a full-blown riot in the theater. I remember coming off of that and thinking, ‘Now this is rock and roll!”

A great deal of the documentary repeats information that music historians already know but other people might not know about how much white artists and music companies owned by white people benefited and often ripped off the work of innovative black artists such as Little Richard. Elvis Presley and Pat Boone were two of the white artists who’ve famously done cover versions of Little Richard songs. The documentary points out that while Presley often acknowledged Little Richard for being an influence that was crucial to Presley’s success (Presley publicly called Little Richard the “real king of rock and roll”), Boone was not as gracious in admitting how much Boone was profiting off of music originally made by black artists such as Little Richard. In most cases, white artists got more money and recognition for performing songs originally performed by black artists.

This documentary didn’t have to do any real investigating to reveal any big secrets about Little Richard when it came to sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, because Little Richard told secrets about himself years ago in numerous interviews. The documentary includes clips of TV and radio interviews where he openly talks about indulging in sex orgies and experiencing drug addiction in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. He also participated in Charles White’s 1984 non-fiction tell-all book “The Life and Times of Little Richard,” which had a lot of details of Little Richard’s decadent lifestyle. The only viewers of this documentary who might be surprised by all this information are people who don’t know much about Little Richard.

As hedonistic as he admittedly was, there were periods of time in his life in the 1950s and the 1970s, when he denounced his “sinful” lifestyle and became a religious fanatic who gave up rock music to perform gospel music. In the late 1950s, he attended Oakwood University, a Seventh-day Adventist school in Huntsville, Alabama. These born-again Christian phases in his life often included Little Richard claiming that he was drug-free and no longer condoning of non-heterosexuality. This self-shame about his sexuality seemed to come and go in Little Richard’s life, which made him someone who was unpredictable and difficult for many people to figure out.

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” includes interviews with Lee Angel, who famously told the world decades ago that Little Richard seduced her in 1955, when she was 16 years old, and he asked her to marry him, but she said no. In the documentary, Angel says she’s not convinced that Little Richard was ever 100% gay. “He slept with me, and I’m all woman,” she declares proudly, although she admits she was initially surprised that he was sexually attracted to her because she thought he was more sexually interested in men. (Angel passed away in 2022.) The documentary does not have interviews with any of Little Richard’s male ex-lovers.

During one of his born-again Christian phases, Little Richard married Ernestine Harvin, (also known as Ernestine Campbell) in 1959. They divorced in 1964. Harvin is interviewed in the documentary (audio only, not on camera) and says of her marriage to Little Richard: “Richard was the kind of husband most women would want: always positive, loving and caring.” Was Little Richard sexually confused? As scholar Jason King sees it: “He was very good at liberating other people through example. He was not good at liberating himself.”

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” also includes some mention of Little Richard’s battles and complaints about being cheated out of royalties, due to signing recording contracts and publishing deals where he received little to no money. Music attorney John Branca says that a lot of these legal issues had to do with Little Richard breaching his contracts during the periods of time when he refused to perform rock music and only wanted to do gospel. However, it’s a common story that many famous music artists, regardless of their race, regret signing deals that they later said were ripoffs where the artists didn’t get paid and sometimes ended up owing money.

Regardless of how much money or how little money Little Richard made from record sales or songwriting royalties, he still managed to be a popular live act and would tour regularly until the later stages in his life. Little Richard also dabbled in acting, usually making guest appearances and cameos in movies and TV shows. His more memorable film roles were in the 1986 comedy “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and the 1993 action film “Last Action Hero.” The documentary does not mention the 2000 NBC TV-movie biopic “Little Richard,” starring Leon, who is not interviewed in the documentary.

One of the ways that “Little Richard: I Am Everything” tries to be different from the usual music documentary is by having artists who aren’t very famous do performances of songs that helped influence or define Little Richard. Valerie June performs Tharpe’s “Strange Things Are Happening Every Day” in the segment that talks about Tharpe. Cory henry recreates Little Richard’s performance of “Tutti Frutti” at the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans. John P. Kee performs “Standing in the Need” during the segment talking about one of Little Richard’s gospel music phases.

During these performances and in some footage of Little Richard, the documentary has visual effects of glowing dust that floats through the air, as if it’s some kind of magical aura from Little Richard that’s being passed though the ether. It’s not as cringeworthy as sparkling vampires in the “Twilight” movies, but it looks very over-the-top and quite unnecessary. Little Richard did not lead a fairytale life. There’s no need to conjure up images that he spread some kind of mystical dust, as if he’s a character some kind of Disney animated movie. The fascinating stories told about Little Richard by himself and other people are more than enough to be intriguing.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include his cousins Newt Collier and Stanley Stewart; Little Richard’s former manager Ramon Hervey; filmmaker John Waters; ethnomusicologist Gredara Hadley; entertainment agent Libby Anthony; singer Nona Hendryx; historian Tavia Nyong’o; former Oakwood University classmate Dewitt Williams; former Little Richard road manager Keith Winslow, whose other was a teacher at Oakwood University; bass player Charles Glenn, who was in Little Richard’s band; booking agent Morris Roberts; and producer/songwriter Nile Rodgers, who says that David Bowie wanted Bowie’s 1983’s smash hit “Let’s Dance” album (which Rodgers produced) to be heavily influenced by Little Richard. The documentary could have used more interviews with female musicians other than Hendryx, but it’s an overall diverse mix of people.

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” keeps the storytelling lively, thanks to some great editing by Nyneve Laura Minnear and Jake Hostetter. There’s a particularly powerful montage near the end of the film that juxtaposes archival footage of Little Richard and all the artists who have been directly or indirectly influenced by him over the years, including Elton John, Bowie, Jagger, Prince, Lady Gaga, Lizzo, former “Pose” star Porter and Harry Styles. “Little Richard: I Am Everything” is a perfect title for this movie, because it shows how Little Richard was at times (often to a fault) all things to many people. However conflicted he might have been in his personal life and career, this documentary eloquently demonstrates how Little Richard represents the glory and pain of expressing yourself freely, no matter what the consequences.

Magnolia Films will release “Little Richard: I Am Everything” in select U.S. cinemas on a date to be announced. CNN and HBO Max will premiere the movie on dates to be announced.

Review: ‘Say Hey, Willie Mays!,’ starring Willie Mays

January 16, 2023

by Carla Hay

Willie Mays in “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Say Hey, Willie Mays!”

Directed by Nelson George

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Say Hey, Willie Mays!,” a group of African American and white people (with some Latinos), who are all connected to the American baseball industry in some way, discuss the impact of former Major League Baseball player Willie Mays, an inductee in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Culture Clash: Mays, who rose from humbe background, broke records and racial barriers in baseball, but he still experienced a lot of racism and other problems. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the target audience of fans of Mays and American baseball, “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching documentaries about sports heroes or people who overcame obstacles to achieve greatness.

Willie Mays and Nelson George in “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Say Hey, Willie Mays!” is a laudatory, traditionally made documentary that doesn’t reveal anything new. However, this well-edited movie has a notable lineup of interviewees, including the great Willie Mays himself, who tell very engaging stories. “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” had its world premiere at the 2022 Urbanworld Film Festival in New York City.

Directed by Nelson George, “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” covers many of the same topics that were already covered in the 1988 book “Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays,” which Mays co-authored with Lou Sahadi. However, the documentary has updates up until the 2020s and has the benefit of being able to tell the story in cinematic form. It’s one thing to read about some of Mays’ iconic baseball games. It’s another thing to see the actual footage.

From the beginning, viewers know that the documentary is going to be a praise fest for Mays. The movie opens with a montage of gushing commentary from star players and experts of American baseball who are interviewed. Baseball star Barry Bonds says, “Willie is always going to be the godfather.” (And, as Bonds describes in detail in teh documentary, Mays literally is his godfather.) Baseball star Reggie Jackson (Mays’ former Oakland A’s rival) comments on Mays: “He is the most spectacular basebally player that ever played.”

Cultural historian Dr. Todd Boyd adds, “He dominated every entirety of the game.” As many baseball fans already know, most star baseball players excel or are known for one or two positions or talents in the game. Mays was extraordinary for excelling at everything in various game positions.

Longtime sports broadcaster Bob Costas credits former New York Giants manager Leo Durocher (who recruited Mays to the New York Giants in 1950, the year thay Mays graduated from high school) with coming up with a term that’s frequently used to describe Mays: “I think he [Durocher] might have been the guy who coined [the phrase] ‘five-tool power.'” The “five-tool player” in baseball refers to a player mastering five key skills in baseball playing: (1) hitting per average; (2) power hitting; (3) running; (4) fielding; and (5) throwing.

Born in 1931 in Westfield, Alabama, May came from humble beginnings and found his baseball calling early in life. He began playing for Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League while still in high school.” In the documentary, May reiterates how much Jackie Robinson (the first African American to play in Major League Baseball) had an influence on May: “I was impressed. He could do everything.”

Robinson’s pivotal breaking down of color barriers in Major League Baseball led to the league recruiting of players from the Negro American League, a league that eventually became obsolete as baseball in the United States became racially integrated. Mays was one of those recruited players in the early years of racially integrated Major league Baseball. He endured a lot of racist abuse and discrimination from some people, but most people who were New York Giants fans were thrilled at how Robinson quickly stood out as a player who helped the team win games.

During his early years with the New York Giants, Mays lived in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where he said he spent a lot of time at the Red Rooster restaurant/bar. His signature phrase “say hey” came about when he moved to New York, and he would tell people to stop by and “say hey.” Mays shares fond memories of holding court at the Red Rooster as a young man, but viewers will get the sense that he didn’t let all the attention of being a local hero go to his head.

In fact, several times throughout the documentary, it’s mentioned and shown how Mays spent much of his life using his fame and fortune to help others, especially underprivileged young people, including launching the Say Hey Foundation in 2000. “Say Hey, Willie Mays” also addresses the criticism that Mays got (including from his idol Robinson) for not publicly taking more of a political stand during the U.S. civil rights movement and the Black Power movement during the 1960s and 1970s. Mays says that it was never his style to publicly talk about politics, and his way of helping fellow African Americans was through his charitable work that he often did not publicize. Boyd comments, “Willie did things for people behind the scenes.”

After winning the 1954 World Series with the New York Giants (who were the underdogs against the Cleveland Indians), Mays moved to San Francisco when the Giants relocated to San Francisco in 1958. The documentary mentions that at the time, retired baseball star Joe DiMaggio (a San Francisco native) was the biggest baseball star in San Francisco. Mays, who was a big deal in New York, was somewhat overshadowed at first by the celebrity legend of DiMaggio in San Francisco, and had to work hard to win over skeptical fans in the San Francisco area.

But even with all the accolades, fame and money that Mays had because of his baseball career, Mays still experienced harsh racial discrimination. He and his first wife Marghuerite, whom he married in 1952, were not allowed to buy a house in an upscale San Francisco neighborhood populated by white people, not because the couple didn’t have the money but because of their race. The racism involved in Mays not being able to buy this house got a lot of media attention.

After a lot of public uproar, he and Marghuerite eventually bought the house, but many of the neighbors still objected to the couple living there. Mays says in the documentary that the stress of this ordeal contributed to the eventual breakdown of the couple’s marriage. He and Marghuerite separated in 1962 and officially divorced in 1963. Mays wed his second wife Mae (who was a social worker) in 1971, and they were married until her death in 2013, at the age of 74.

While a member of the San Francisco Giants, Mays became the team’s unofficial leader, say several people in the documentary. He also defended the Spanish-speaking Latino players against racism they experienced from people who didn’t want Spanish to be spoken in the team clubhouse. Mays’ former Giants teammates Orlando Cepeda, Ozzie Virgil Sr., Juan Marichal and Tito Fuentes all praise Mays for his leadership skills and for how well he treated people. Cepeda, who was a bat boy for May when Mays visited Puerto Rico, says in the documentary: “The reason why I came to play baseball was because of Willie.”

Even though Mays was eventually traded to the New York Mets in 1972 and made it to the World Series with the Mets in 1973 (the Mets lost, and he retired that year), he will be mostly remembered for his association with the Giants. Former San Francisco Giants star Bonds, who is perhaps the most famous protégé of Mays, speaks at length and sometimes gets emotional when talking about how Mays was more than a mentor to Bonds. Mays was also a second father figure to Bonds, especially after Barry’s father Bobby Bonds (who was a former San Francisco Giants teammate of Mays) passed away in 2003. Barry says, “My dad loved Willie more than anything. Willie took all the black athletes and the time and put them on his shoulders.”

It’s fairly common knowledge among baseball fans that Mays (who received a lifetime contract to work for the San Francisco Giants in 1992) was instrumental in getting the San Francisco Giants to recruit Barry. Barry also says that Mays encouraged Barry to break Mays’ record of having the most home runs in a single season for a National League player. Barry says that Mays told him about breaking Mays’ record: ‘You better pass me, and you better keep going.'” Barry eventually did that and more: In 2001, he broke the Major League Baseball record for having the most home runs (73) in a single season.

However, “Say Hey, Willie Mays” completely ignores that Barry’s career and reputation were tarnished by his “doping” scandal, when it was revealed that he used steroids during his baseball career. If Barry and/or Mays were asked about this scandal for the documentary, it’s not in the movie. It’s also possible that Barry wouldn’t agree to be interviewed if he had been asked about the scandal in this documentary, but that isn’t mentioned in the film either. Viewers can only speculate why such a big “elephant in the room” was not addressed at all in this documentary.

The closes that the documentary that alludes to Barry’s baseball career ending in some kind of disgrace is the documentary’s use of an archival footage clip during a 2018 ceremony of Barry’s number 25 being retired by the Giants. During the ceremony, Willie gives a speech and makes an emotional plea his for Barry to get voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Although Barry is eligible, he hasn’t received enough votes to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, presumably because of the doping scandal.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include historian/activist Dr. Harry Edwards; Faye Davis, daughter of “godfather of black baseball” Piper Davis; Rickwood Field president Gerald Watkins former baseball player Rev. William “Bill” Greason, Willie’s friend/mentor; sports broadcaster Vin Scully; former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown; Dusty Baker, a Major League Baseball player-turned manager; San Francisco Giants president/CEO Larry Baer; and former San Francisco Giants clubhouse senior advisor Miguel “Mike” Murphy, who retired in 2023.

“Say Hey, Willie Mays!” does a credible job of putting into context the racism obstacles that Willie and some of his other non-white teammates experienced and how he used those experiences to help others. Willie Mays’ son Michael Mays, who is interviewed in he documentary, says that any racism that Willie experienced was something he left behind when he played on the field, but off the field it was something he tried to turn from a negative to a positive. Michael adds, “He comes from a family where everybody helps everybody.” Boyd adds of Willie: “He had the power to open the doors for other people.”

However, the documentary doesn’t dig any deeper to find out how Willie’s close faher/son-type relationship with Barry affected Michael or other members of the Mays family. “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” is certainly inspirational, but it doesn’t provide much new insight into Willie except to praise all of his glories without a full exploration of any of his failings and what he might have learned from any mistakes he made in his life. Overall, “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” is not a completely well-rounded or grounbreaking documentary, but it’s a treat to watch for baseball fans or anyone who likes to see biographies of people who have lived their lives with dignity and respect.

HBO premiered “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” on November 8, 2022.

Review: ‘Wyrm,’ starring Theo Taplitz, Lulu Wilson, Sosie Bacon, Natasha Rothwell, Paula Pell, Azure Brandi and Tommy Dewey

January 15, 2023

by Carla Hay

Lulu Wilson and Theo Taplitz in “Wyrm” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Wyrm”

Directed by Christopher Winterbauer

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city in the mid-1990s, the comedy film “Wyrm” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: In an alternate reality where people have to wear electronic collars until they get their first romantic kiss, a nerdy freshman in high school tries to get rid of the stigma of being the only person in his school who’s still wearing this collar.

Culture Audience: “Wyrm” will appeal primarily to people are interested in watching quirky coming-of-age comedies.

Azure Brandi, Dan Bakkedahl, Theo Taplitz, Natalia Abelleyra and Tommy Dewey in “Wyrm” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Amid the overabundance of comedies about nerdy teenage guys who want to be more sexually experienced, “Wyrm” is memorable for its unique story and quirky characters. This movie doesn’t try to have broad appeal because it’s for people who are interested in low-budget, independent films about eccentrics. The comedy in “Wyrm” is also mixed with a touching story about grief and how people choose to remember the deceased.

“Wyrm” (pronounced “worm”) is the feature-film debut of writer/director Christopher Winterbauer, who based the movie on his 2017 short film “Wyrm.” The feature film “Wyrm” (which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city) had its world premiere at the 2019 edition of Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, but the movie wasn’t released until 2022. Most of the comedy is deadpan and almost satirical, so don’t expect the typical formula of teen comedies where a geeky male outcast is trying to date his “dream girl.”

According to the “Wyrm” production notes, the movie is set in an “alternate reality” in the mid-1990s. It’s a reality where people’s sexuality is monitored in terms of levels. To reach Level One sexuality, someone must experience a romantic kiss. People have to wear an electronic collar that can’t come off until they reach Level One sexuality.

Wyrm Whitner (played by Theo Taplitz), who’s about 14 years old, is a freshman in high school with his twin sister Myrcella (played by Azure Brandi), who has a prickly relationship with Wyrm. Wyrm and Myrcella had an older brother named Dylan (played by Lukas Gage, shown briefly in flashbacks), who died in a car accident when Dylan was about 16 or 17. Dylan has been dead for less than a year.

Wyrm and Myrcella’s parents are emotionally absent. Their father Allen (played by Dan Bakkedahl) spends most of his time either at work or in the parents’ bedroom. Wyrm’s mother Margie (played by Rosemarie DeWitt) is on a trail hiking trip for an undetermined period of time. (Paula Pell has a cameo as a park ranger named Tanya.) Although there isn’t much information about the Whitner family dynamics before Dylan died, it’s implied that these parents are avoiding spending time with Wyrm and Myrcella because it’s the parents’ way of grieving.

For now, Myrcella and Wyrm are essentially being raised by their bachelor uncle Chet (played by Tommy Dewey), who met his current girlfriend Flor (played by Natalia Abelleyra) in an Internet chat room. In an early scene in the movie, Chet tells Wyrm: “I just think with the right girlfriend, you’d really be happy.” Chet also paints a portrait of Wyrm.

Wyrm has become preoccupied with interviewing people on his portable tape recorder about their memories of Dylan and about their thoughts on romantic relationships. Experiencing his first romantic kiss (preferably from his first girlfriend) soon becomes another preoccupation for Wyrm. He’s getting pressure to have his collar “popped” (unlocked) for various reasons.

When Wyrm and Myrcella entered high school, they both had Level One sexuality collars. However, Myrcella has recently had her collar “popped” because she’s been dating a Norwegian immigrant student at the school named Mads Nillson (played by Ky Baldwin), who was Myrcella’s first romantic kiss. Wyrm is now the only person at the school who has a Level One sexuality collar.

An early scene in “Wyrm” shows what type of comedy that the movie has about teen sexuality. Wyrm’s friend/classmate Charley (played by Samuel Faraci) tells Wyrm: “Mads Nillson fingered your sister at the cinema yesterday.” Charley then asks Wyrm if Wyrm feels the same things at the same time as Marcella does because they’re twins. Wyrm says about twin telepathy, “I think that’s only [with] identical twins.”

Wyrm and Myrcella, who share the same room, soon clash over how her level of sexual experience will now affect their living situation. Myrcella reads to Wyrm a formal declaration of why she wants to move into Dylan’s former room so that she can have more privacy. Wyrm thinks it’s disrespectful and too soon for anyone else to have Dylan’s former room.

However, Wyrm tells Myrcella that if Mads comes over to visit: “I don’t want Mads Nillson fingering anyone in my room.” Myrcella replies, “I don’t want to be related to the only freak in ninth grade who can’t get his collar popped.”

Wyrm’s level of sexual experience will also affect whether or not he can graduate from ninth grade. He’s called into a meeting with his school’s child development specialist Reginald “Reggie” Corona (played by Davey Johnson), who tells Wyrm: “You are literally the last incoming freshman to complete their Level One sexuality requirement. We’re collecting collars on Picture Day.”

Wyrm asks for an extension on when he can get his collar popped. Reggie agrees to the extension but cautions that time will soon run out for Wyrm. Reggie advises Wyrm to play on people’s sympathy to find a girlfriend: “A death in the family should work in your favor.” Wyrm gets even more pressure from the school’s vice-principal Cynthia Lister (played by Natasha Rothwell), who has a separate meeting with Wyrm in her office and ominously says to him: “Lonely people are dangerous, especially lonely boys.”

Wyrm doesn’t get any sex education from his parents, who avoid talking to him about it. There’s an intentionally amusing scene were Wyrm asks his parents: “How do kiss a person? And how do you finger them?” Each parent tells Wyrm to ask the other parent. Myrcella, now feeling sexually superior to Wyrm, wants to distance herself from him and treats him like an outcast at school.

Teen movie cliché alert: A student has recently transferred to the school from Florida. Her name is Izzy (played by Lulu Wilson), who is a sassy non-conformist. Wyrm is immediately attracted to Izzy, and wants to date her, but there’s a problem: Izzy has a boyfriend named Kyle, who’s in Florida, and Izzy wants to stay loyal to Kyle. Izzy doesn’t care about Wyrm being an unpopular student and school, because she’s not part of the popular crowd either, not does she want to be part of the crowd.

Thus begins the “will they or won’t they get together” part of the Wyrm/Izzy relationship. Along the way, Wyrm spends time with two other teenage girls who give him more insight into male/female relationships. Lindsey (played by Sosie Bacon) is a 17-year-old sarcastic student, who uses a wheelchair and who knew Dylan very well. Wyrm’s friend Charley introduces Wyrm to his sister Becky (played by Cece Abbey), who’s about 15 or 16, and is kind-hearted and appreciates Wyrm’s quirkiness.

“Wyrm” has some familiar story arcs found in many teen comedies, but they’re slightly off-center enough to avoid being completely predictable. The Level One sexuality collar is a symbol of the pressure that is put on teens to have certain sexual experiences by they time they’re a certain age. Whether or not people agree with this pressure, it exists, and those who are deemed sexually inexperienced are often unfairly labeled as social failures.

“Wyrm” doesn’t pass judgment on its title character, nor does it assign blame to any particular person for why Wyrm desperately tries to get his first romantic kiss, or risk getting the stigma of “being left behind.” Instead, the movie’s “alternate reality” is used as a mirror to show people how much it reflects what many teens experience in real life to a different degree.

The movie also has a meaningful depiction of how people cope with death and how their memories of someone who’s deceased can be altered for various reasons. The interviews that Wyrm conducts about Dylan are ostensibly so that Wyrm can make a tribute to Dylan. But as time goes on, viewers can see that these Wyrm is using these interviews to deal with his grief and to get to know Dylan better, since Wyrm and Dylan weren’t very close to each other.

As social misfit Wyrm, Taplitz gives a commendable performance that solidly carries most of the emotional wright in the movie. The rest of the cast members are perfectly fine, but the movie lives or dies on whether or not viewers will be interested in Wyrm. Some of the movie tries too hard to be offbeat, but there are enough moments of genuine humanity that can make “Wyrm” resonate with viewers who might not have much in common with the characters.

Vertical Entertainment released “Wyrm” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 10, 2022.

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