Review: ‘God’s Country’ (2022), starring Thandiwe Newton

March 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Thandiwe Newton in “God’s Country” (Photo courtesy of GC Film, LLC/IFC Films)

“God’s Country” (2022)

Directed by Julian Higgins

Culture Representation: Taking place during one week in an unnamed rural area in the United States, the dramatic film “God’s Country” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one black person and one Native American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A college professor, who lives alone, gets into a feud with two hunters, who get angry when she refuses to give them access to the woods behind her property.

Culture Audience: “God’s Country” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of star Thandiwe Newton and well-acted dramas about personal conflicts that have underlying roots in racism and sexism.

Jeremy Bobb and Thandiwe Newton in “God’s Country”(Photo by Ezra Olson/IFC Films)

The slow-moving “God’s Country” has a very predictable ending. However, this drama about an escalating feud gets a tremendous boost from Thandiwe Newton’s riveting performance, as well as how director Julian Higgins builds tension in the movie. It’s not a movie that does anything spectacularly groundbreaking, but it has enough authentic-looking scenarios to keep viewers interested, if they are looking for a realistic drama. “God’s Country” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Higgins makes his feature-film directorial debut with “God’s Country,” a movie based on James Lee Burke’s short story “Winter Light,” which was published in Burke’s 2007 short-story collection “Jesus Out to Sea.” Higgins directed the 2015 short film “Winter Light” as a faithful adaptation of the story. For “God’s Country,” Higgins co-wrote the screenplay with Shaye Ogbonna, and they made a major change from the original story. In “Winter’s Light,” the college-professor protagonist is a white man in his 60s or 70s. In “God’s Country,” the college-professor protagonist is an African American woman in her 40s. (Newton is British in real life.)

In the production notes for “God’s Country,” Higgins says that changing the protagonist’s race and gender was his and Ogbonna’s direct response to Donald Trump winning the 2016 U.S. president election. “Shaye and I wanted to respond to the deep-rooted racism, sexism and misogyny reflected by the election results,” Higgins comments. “We wanted to explore the interaction between a person’s psychology and the social structures around them, especially when norms, institutions, and belief systems fail—as we felt they were. Shaye and I felt the very simple story framework presented by ‘Winter Light’ would be a perfect conduit to explore these ideas.”

“God’s Country” takes place during one week in a rural area in an unnamed U.S. state that gets snowy weather. (“God’s Country” was actually filmed in Montana.) A college professor named Cassandra “Sandra” Guidry (played by Newton), who lives alone in a remote and wooded area, is grieving over the recent death of her mother, who passed away from a unnamed illness. Sandra’s only companion at home is her dog.

Sandra teaches at a local university, where her closet colleague Arthur (played by Kai Lennox), who is another professor. It’s later shown during faculty meetings that all of the university’s professors are white, except for Sandra. Most of the other professors are men. Sandra also appears to be the only African American person living in this small town. At one point in the movie, Sandra mentions that she’s originally from New Orleans, so living in this small town is almost the complete opposite of living in New Orleans.

One day, Sandra notices that a red pickup truck is parked in the driveway, with the owner or driver nowhere in sight. She mentions to Arthur and wonders if she should call the police. Instead, she leaves a note on the truck asking the driver not to park there, because it’s private property.

The next day, the driver/owner of the truck comes back to retrieve it. His name is Nathan (played by Joris Jarsky), who explains that he’s a hunter who needs to go through her property to get to the woods where he hunts. Sandra later finds out that Nathan’s younger brother Samuel (played by Jefferson White) is Nathan’s frequent hunting companion.

Sandra calmly and firmly tells Nathan that she left a note on the truck, asking him not to park there because her land is private property. She adds, “All I’m saying, before you park on someone’s property, you have to ask.” Nathan seems casually dismissive of this request. Later, Sandra finds that her note has been torn and crumpled up in the snow.

The next day, Sandra sees the red truck parked in her driveaway again. And this time, she isn’t going to play nice. She takes a chain and tows the truck away herself to an area nearby that’s not on her property. It’s close enough so that the truck owner can find the truck without thinking that it’s stolen.

The day after that, she tells a local cop named Gus Wolf (played by Jeremy Bobb), who is the town’s acting sheriff, about this parking problem. Gus seems sympathetic to Nathan and Samuel, whom he calls “gentlemen.” And when Sandra gives Gus the truck’s license plate number so that the truck’s owner can be contacted, Gus asks Sandra in a condescending manner why she had to do that.

It’s a small town, so Gus already knows who the owner is. Gus thinks the matter can be resolved without any arrests or citations. Gus reluctantly goes with Sandra to where Nathan works and tells Nathan to stop bothering Sandra and to stop trespassing on her property, Getting this reprimand in a public place seems to set off Nate, because Sandra then becomes the target of harassment, including finding an arrow stuck in her front door.

The feud between Sandra and the two brothers gets much worse. Although it’s not said out loud, it’s implied at there’s an extra level of hostility directed at Sandra because she’s an African American woman. She lives in area where people who aren’t white are considered “outsiders,” no matter how much politeness they get from people who don’t want to look like racists or sexists. Sandra still gets a lot of people in the community who stare at her with an attitude that she doesn’t belong there, just because she’s an African American woman

The tensions over race also spill over into Sandra’s job. Sandra and Arthur have an argument in the hallway because he didn’t keep his promise to recommend at least one qualified person of color for a job vacated by a retired professor named George (played by George De Vries). The top three job candidates whom Arthur voted for are all white.

Sandra considers having a diverse group of qualified applicants to be the right thing to do, in order to have a more even playing field. However, Arthur keeps calling this diversity a “quota,” and he accuses Sandra of playing “identity politics.” The problem is that Arthur assumes that there won’t be enough qualified people of color to find. This heated conversation is very realistic to how many people view diversity issues very differently.

Observant viewers will notice that Arthur refuses to be held accountable for breaking his promise, and he made no effort to find or recommend any qualified candidates who weren’t white. Arthur tries to turn the argument back on Sandra by saying that the fact that she works there is proof that the university isn’t racist. Sandra should have told Arthur to look up the definition of “tokenism,” since she is the only non-white person in the university’s faculty.

Another issue related to racial and gender identities comes up when a Native American teaching assistant named Gretchen (played by Tanaya Beattya) confides in Sandra about a harassment incident that occurred between her Arthur, her supervising professor. Gretchen says that Arthur asked Gretchen to rub lotion on him. Up until that point, Gretchen and Arthur had a strictly professional relationship.

It’s a “he said/she said” situation where Arthur and Gretchen were the only witnesses. Gretchen is adamant that she won’t report the incident because she’s afraid that Arthur will retaliate against her, and she wants to keep her job. Gretchen also thinks that people will be less likely to believe her because she isn’t white. This #MeToo subplot isn’t handled very well in the movie’s narrative. It just seems like it was put in the screenplay as a way to stretch out the movie’s run time.

The movie’s main conflict, of course, is between Sandra and the obnoxious brothers Samuel and Nathan, who enlist some of their buddies to join in on the harassment of Sandra. These local men, who act very entitled to do what they want, also don’t seem afraid of getting arrested, since law enforcement is almost non-existent in this small town. Gus is the main cop, and he doesn’t have much backup or much of a backbone to stand up to these thugs.

And you know what that means: The people involved in this feud start to act like they can take the law into their own hands and twist it to fit whatever agenda they have. “God’s Country” invites viewers to think about the choices they would make if they were in the same situation. The main takeaway from this stark and bleak film is that when hate becomes the driving force behind how to handle conflicts, there are no real winners.

IFC Films released “God’s Country” in select U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on October 4, 2022.

Review: ‘The Pod Generation,’ starring Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor

February 23, 2023

by Carla Hay

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rosalie Craig and Emilia Clarke in “The Pod Generation” (Photo by Andrij Parekh)

“The Pod Generation”

Directed by Sophie Barthes

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City, in an unspecified future, the sci-fi/comedy/drama film “The Pod Generation” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After some initial disagreements, a married couple decides to have a baby through a technological invention where an unborn child grows in a portable, egg-shaped pod until the child is born. 

Culture Audience: “The Pod Generation” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, sci-fi movies that lampoon technology, and stories about expectant parents, but viewers should not expect anything particularly clever in this movie.

“The Pod Generation” is a futuristic satire about family planning that starts off very promising, but then the movie drags with repetition and fizzles out with an underwhelming ending. The talents of the cast members are squandered in this shallow film. “The Pod Generation” (which had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival) also raises many questions that the movie never bothers to answer.

Written and directed by Sophie Barthes, “The Pod Generation” takes place in an unspecified future in New York City. This future has some technology that already exists in the early 2020s, but this future has other technology that did not exist at the time this movie was made. For example, in this future shown in “The Pod Generation,” people use artificial intelligence (A.I.) programs similar to Alexa (from Amazon) and Siri (from Apple Inc.) for a variety of functions and tasks.

In “The Pod Generation,” the protagonists use a talking A.I. program called Elena for various information and duties that are similar to what a personal assistant would perform. Another talking A.I. program in the movie is called Eliza, which acts as a psychiatric therapist and counselor. Both of these A.I. programs are shown in the form of creepy-looking eyes.

Elena is a single white orb (about the size of a grapefruit) with a black pupil; the orb is attached to a small stand. Elena can also rotate while on this stand. Eliza is a two-dimensional eye that looks like a wall art that is large enough to take up an entire wall space. Eliza has a more psychedelic appearance than Elena, since Eliza’s iris/pupil area is surrounded by a pulsating kaleidoscope design.

As compelling as these A.I. programs are to look at in “The Pod Generation,” they still can’t make up for the weak narrative throughout the movie. The story centers on married couple Rachel Novy (played by Emilia Clarke) and Alvy Novy (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), who are having disagreements about how to conceive their first child together. Rachel works as some kind of office employee at a corporate company called Folio. She has a higher income than Alvy, who is a botanist and a teacher of hologram plant design. Alvy wants them to conceive a child naturally, while Rachel is more open to using the latest technology to have a child.

The movie implies that in vitro fertilization treatments are not out of the question for this couple, but Alvy is adamant that he wants Rachel to carry the unborn child in her own womb, instead of using a surrogate. “The Pod Generation” doesn’t go into details about how long Alvy and Rachel have been trying to have a child together, or even how long they’ve been married. However, the implication is that it’s long enough where it’s reached a point that Rachel (who is in her mid-30s) is growing desperate, because she feels that time is running out for her to conceive and carry a child naturally.

Alvy is about 10 years older than Rachel, although they do not discuss their age difference in the movie. “The Pod Generation” has subtle and not-so-subtle ways of showing how a male perspective and a female perspective can be different from each other, when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth. Because of menopause, women have a “biological clock” where time runs out on when they can conceive and carry a child naturally. Men have no such time pressure and can be involved in natural conception as long as they have the right sperm count for it.

“The Pod Generation” clumsily addresses these gender issues in ways that grow increasingly frustrating, not just for the couple at the center of the story but also for viewers of this movie. “The Pod Generation” does not adequately explain the legal issues involved in the new technology that Rachel and Alvy (after many arguments) decide to use to conceive and carry a child to term. The general feeling that viewers will get is that “The Pod Generation” was a screenplay written with a lot of repetitive dialogue and a “make things up as you go along” approach in crafting this futuristic world.

In the first third of the movie, Rachel and Alvy do a lot of bickering and debating about how they want to conceive a child. A company called Pegazus offers an alternative for people who can’t or don’t want to have an unborn baby growing inside a human body. Instead, Pegazus offers a portable, plastic pod in the shape of a large egg to do all the “in utero” work. It’s technology that’s available to those who can afford it—and it doesn’t come cheap, which is one of the reasons why Alvy is dead-set against this option. He doesn’t want any of his or Rachel’s money to be spent on it.

But what a coincidence: Rachel has recently found out that Folio has added this Pegazus pod program to Folio’s health insurance plan for employees. Rachel is told this information when she has a meeting with a Folio human resources executive (played by Aslin Farrell), who doesn’t have a name in the movie. This HR executive makes a lot of cringeworthy and illegal comments to Rachel during a one-and-one meeting in the HR executive’s office. This nosy HR person says a lot of inappropriate things that she probably wouldn’t say to a man. It’s obvious that “The Pod Generation” filmmakers want viewers to notice this sexism.

Rachel is told that she is being considered for a job promotion at Folio. And then the HR executive asks her what Rachel’s husband does for a living. When Rachel tells her, the unprofessional HR executive then snootily says, “So, you’re the primary source of income.” Instead of Rachel balking at this line of illegal questioning, Rachel meekly says, “Yes.”

The questions and comments get worse. The HR executive asks Rachel: “Any plans on extending the family?” Someone with more common sense and self-respect would put a stop to these illegal questions, or at least point out to this odious HR person that Rachel’s family planning is not the company’s business, and it’s illegal to ask these questions when being considered for a job, raise, or promotion.

But apparently, Rachel is too ignorant or she just doesn’t have the courage to stand up for herself and point out these facts. Instead, she stammers this answer: “I’m sure we will at one point. Not in the near, near future, but not immediately.” The HR executive then makes another heinous comment disguised as a semi-compliment: “You’re having a great, great year. It’d be a pity to lose that momentum.” (In other words, what she’s really saying is: “Forget about the promotion if you’re going on maternity leave.”)

And that’s when the HR director mentions that Folio will now cover Pegazus costs in the Folio health insurance plan: “Should you go down that route, we can even help you with the down payment. It’s our hottest perk. We just want to make sure we maintain the best and brightest women.” (In other words, what she’s really saying is: “We don’t want to be reminded that women who get pregnant and give birth have the right to maternity leave, because we think women who take maternity leave are less productive than women who don’t take maternity leave.”)

It’s not spoiler information to say that Rachel eventually convinces Alvy to use the Pegazus way of pregnancy. Alvy and Rachel have the popular option to choose the gender of the child in advance, but they choose not to take that option. Rachel and Alvy also decide not to find out the child’s gender until the child is born. Their unborn baby gestates in a pod that provides all of the fetus’ needs in the same way as if the baby were growing inside a human womb. Just like a human womb, the pod can be part of ultrasound screenings, while the fetus inside can hear any sounds that are nearby. The pod is not supposed to be opened until the time of childbirth.

All of the computer technology connected to each pod is at the Pegazus womb center, which is essentially a pod control center. The pod can be left at the womb center, or the parent(s) of the unborn child can take the pod to pre-approved locations. It’s mentioned that a pod can be autonomous from the womb center for a maximum of 48 hours, in case the person with the pod needs to travel.

Rachel and Alvy attend orientation and counseling sessions with other couples and mothers who are using Pegazus pregnancy pods, but the movie doesn’t present the other people in these sessions as anything but anonymous extras. It’s a huge missed opportunity for more character development. In fact, almost everyone in contact with Rachel and Alvy are anonymous and generic, with a few exceptions.

Rachel has a talkative co-worker friend named Alice (played by Vinette Robinson), who had a Pegazus pod pregnancy with her husband Josh (played by Benedict Landsbert-Noon), who is the passive one in their marriage. Alice had the most influence on Rachel wanting to have a Pegazus pod pregnancy, because Alice is constantly raving about the experience. The Pegazus pre-natal orientation and counseling sessions are led by the Pegazus womb center director Linda Wozcheck (played by Rosalie Craig), who is a perky control freak.

The founder of Pegazus (played by Jean-Marc Barr) is one of many characters in “The Pod Generation” without a name in the movie. He is shown doing a TV or video interview, where he gives off a vibe of being like a combination of a cult leader and a smarmy salesperson. He’s a smooth talker who looks like he’s accustomed to convincing a lot of people to do what he wants them to do.

He says to the interviewer (played by Troy Scully) about Pegazus’ intentions: “At Pegazus, we want fulfilled mothers. We want them to pursue their careers and dreams. Let us do the heavy lifting while you enjoy your babies. We are highly scientific. We use intuition and heart where needed.”

Of course, anyone who’s seen enough of these sci-fi cautionary tale movies will notice that this mysterious Pegazus founder used the phrase “where needed” when talking about intuition and heart. Who gets to make that decision? Rachel and Alvy are supposedly educated professionals, but they never ask a lot of basic questions that people with any common sense would ask before they signed away the pre-natal caregiving rights for their unborn child to Pegazus. And that’s why watching “The Pod Generation” becomes increasingly irritating as it goes along.

This disappointing movie goes into superficial soap opera territory when Rachel doesn’t bond with the fetus in the pod as much as she thought she would, while Alvy bonds with the fetus in the pod more than he thought he would. Rachel starts to get the feeling that the unborn child likes Alvy more than the child likes Rachel. And she’s jealous about it, which leads to more arguments between Rachel and Alvy, as well as more relationship therapy sessions with A.I. program Eliza. (Alvy never completely trusts Eliza, because she is not a human being.)

Meanwhile, Rachel sometimes attaches the pod to her stomach to make it look like a real pregnancy underneath her clothes. It leads to brief moments of her feeling connected to this pregnancy. But then, Rachel gets a harsh lesson in pregnancy body shaming when she brings the pod to her office job. She gets weird looks from co-workers during a conference room meeting when she proudly brings the pod to the meeting.

After the meeting, Alice discreetly advises Rachel (when they’re alone together in an office room) to leave the pod in the employee break room where other expectant parents are keeping their pods. Alice also suggests that from now on, Rachel should leave the pod at the Pegazus womb center until the baby is born. Rachel hates the idea because she wants to spend as much time as possible with the pod. “You don’t want to be labeled ‘the distracted mom,'” Alice warns Rachel about how their co-workers might think of Rachel.

For a movie that has a lot to say about sexism against women (especially when it comes to pregnancy and family planning), none of the characters in “The Pod Generation” gives any pushback or stands up to this sexism. This lack of resistance to sexism from anyone in “The Pod Generation” looks as fake and hollow as one of the movie’s empty pods. Perhaps writer/director Barthes wanted to make some commentary about how this supposedly “progressive” tech-oriented society of “The Pod Generation” is actually socially backwards when it comes to treatment of women and complacent in how technology has taken over their lives.

However, it isn’t the technology that is sexist. The human beings are the ones being sexist, with their cutting remarks and attitudes that aren’t controlled by technology. If “The Pod Generation” is supposed to be a commentary about women losing control of their pregnancies to technology, the movie doesn’t really prove that point either, because Rachel is given access to the pod for most of the movie. “The Pod Generation” never shows the pregnancy journey of any other women except Rachel.

The middle of “The Pod Generation” is a boring rehash of Rachel and Alvy’s marital problems. You don’t need to be a couple’s therapist to see that this pregnancy is not going to solve these problems. And “The Pod Generation” fails to convince viewers why Rachel and Alvy (who aren’t very compatible) fell in love in the first place. Clarke and Ejiofor are perfectly fine in delivering their lines of dialogue, but they don’t have believable chemistry with each other as people who are supposed to be spouses.

Perhaps the biggest letdown of “The Pod Generation” is that it’s a “bait and switch” movie. The movie keeps dropping hints—the sexism, the increasingly controlling ways of Pegazus, the intrusive assumptions of the A.I. technology—that it’s all leading to something very big and very sinister. There is a suspenseful sequence toward the end of the film, but it’s misleading, if you take into consideration how the movie ends. And for a movie that the filmmakers have labeled a “comedy,” there isn’t really anything amusing (not even in a darkly comedic way) about “The Pod Generation.” The movie comes across as technically competent, but soulless—much like the A.I. technology that “The Pod Generation” is aiming to spoof.

Review: ‘When You Finish Saving the World,’ starring Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard

February 17, 2023

by Carla Hay

Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore in “When You Finish Saving the World” (Photo by Karen Kuehn/A24)

“When You Finish Saving the World”

Directed by Jesse Eisenberg

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedy/drama film “When You Finish Saving the World” (based on the Audible podcast of the same name) features a predominantly white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A married mother, who works at a domestic violence shelter, tries to emotionally connect with her self-absorbed teenage son, who is an aspiring rock star, while mother and son try to make an impression on separate people whom they both admire. 

Culture Audience: “When You Finish Saving the World” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard; writer/director Jesse Eisenberg; the Audible podcast on which the movie is based; and rambling movies about people who think their trivial personal problems are bigger than these problems really are.

Finn Wolfhard and Alisha Boe in “When You Finish Saving the World” (Photo by Karen Kuehn/A24)

How much viewers might like “When You Finish Saving the World” will depend how much they want to watch repetitive and emotionally hollow scenes of a mother and her teenage son who are desperate to impress people who live outside their home while ignoring the problems inside their home. This mother and son feel unsatisfied with their home lives because they really don’t want to pay much attention to each other. It’s a very staged-looking and dull dramedy about privileged and entitled people trying to make themselves look socially conscious. The movie’s tone starts off as cynical and ends in a sentimental way that looks phony and unearned.

“When You Finish Saving the World” is the first feature film written and directed by Jesse Eisenberg, who is known to most movie audiences as an actor who usually plays neurotic characters. (Eisenberg was nominated for a Oscar for his starring role as Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010’s “The Social Network.”) “When You Finish Saving the World” is based on Eisenberg’s Audible podcast of the same name. It’s also the first movie from Fruit Tree, a production company co-founded by spouses Emma Stone and Dave McCary with their producing partner Ali Herting. (Stone and Eisenberg co-starred in 2009’s “Zombieland” and 2019’s “Zombieland: Double Tap.”) “When You Finish Saving the World” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Even though the movie has respected and talented creatives who used their clout to get this project made, “When You Finish Saving the World” still looks and feels lightweight and inconsequential. It’s a film that could have had a lot more to say and a better way to say it. What viewers will get are many scenes where the two central characters snipe at each other and whine a lot (especially when they’re at home), but they put their best selves forward when they become fixated on someone whom they want to impress. They try to come across as enlightened and virtuous to those people.

In “When You Finish Saving the World” (which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city but was filmed in New Mexico), the two main characters are Evelyn Katz (played by Julianne Moore) and her teenage son Ziggy Katz (played by Finn Wolfhard), who are frequently at odds with each other. Evelyn is a politically liberal, longtime activist who currently works as a manager at a domestic violence shelter called Spruce Haven. Ziggy, who’s about 16 or 17 years old, is a wannabe rock star, who plays (according to his description) “classic folk rock with alternative influences.”

Ziggy is the old child of Evelyn and her mild-mannered husband Roger Katz (played by Jay O. Sanders), who stays out of the squabbles that frequently happen between Evelyn and Ziggy. When this family of three have meals together, Roger often has to listen to Ziggy and Evelyn complain about whatever little things that are bothering Ziggy and Evelyn at the moment. When Roger tells Ziggy it’s “cultural appropriation” for white people to play blues music, Ziggy (rude as ever) yells at Roger, “Dad, just shut the fuck up!”

The Roger character had a much bigger role in the podcast, where Roger was a central character. Eisenberg explains why he made Roger a small supporting role this movie version: “Now he is almost a forgotten presence who can’t get anyone to pay attention to him.” Roger’s role in the movie is so small, it has almost no impact on the story. His most memorable line in the movie is when he truthfully says about his household: “Everyone around me is a narcissist.”

Evelyn is disappointed that Ziggy has turned into a self-centered brat who only seems to care about how many more followers he can get on social media. Ziggy currently has 20,000 followers on HiHat, a social media platform that was fabricated for this movie but is obviously supposed to be a lot like YouTube. The irony of Ziggy’s growing popularity on HiHat (where he can reach people virtually around the world) is that Ziggy is a social outcast at his high school where people can interact with him in person. Ziggy is upbeat and cheerful to his followers online, but in real life, he’s often moody and unfriendly.

Evelyn has a personality that can best be described as a combination of being bland and uptight. She had hoped that her only child would want to follow in her footsteps of pursuing a career that involves helping underprivileged and disadvantaged people. She’s asked Ziggy to volunteer at the shelter, but he refuses. Instead, Ziggy does things such as berate Evelyn when she goes in his room and inadvertently interrupts one of his livestream performances, where many of his followers pay to see Ziggy perform his original songs and cover tunes. Ziggy also does video chats directly with his followers.

As an example of how clueless Evelyn is about the Internet and how disconnected she is from Ziggy’s interests, she has no idea what a livestream is. To prevent any more interruptions during his livestreams, Ziggy angrily installs a red studio light outside the top of his bedroom door. He tells his parents that if the light is on, that means he’s doing a livestream—and under no circumstances can anyone go inside the room when the red light is on.

Evelyn thinks Ziggy’s music is a hobby. When Ziggy says that he’s going to be a professional musician, Evelyn asks him: “Have you thought about your end game?” This is Ziggy’s insolent response: “I’m going to be rich, and you’re going to be poor.”

Considering all the real problems in the world, this type of bickering in “When You Finish Saving the World” looks very petty and very much like “privileged people’s problems.” But this is the type of “family turmoil” that the movie is trying to pass off as heavy, when it’s just so trivial. Evelyn should consider herself lucky that she doesn’t have to listen to Ziggy’s off-key singing and tone-deaf guitar playing. (Emile Mosseri composed the music for the movie, including the two forgettable original songs that Wolfhard co-wrote under the alias Ziggy Katz.)

Evelyn and Ziggy clearly aren’t very happy in their lives or with each other. They will each meet someone who becomes a reason for Evelyn and Ziggy to try to project a more socially conscious and caring image in public. Observant viewers will notice that it’s just Evelyn’s and Ziggy’s way of distracting themselves from their problems at home. Evelyn and Ziggy are a lot more similar to each other than they would like to admit.

Evelyn’s “distraction” is a 17-year-old named Kyle (played by Billy Bryk), who arrives at the shelter with his feisty mother Angie (played by Eleonore Hendricks), after leaving their home because Angie’s husband/Kyle’s father has battered Angie. (This abusive man is never seen in the movie.) Kyle is in his last year of high school. Evelyn can’t help but notice that Kyle is everything that she wishes Ziggy could be: kind, respectful to his mother, and compassionate about other people’s problems.

Meanwhile, Ziggy develops a big crush on a classmate named Lila (played by Alisha Boe), who is a full-on stereotype of a progressive social justice warrior who is constantly preaching to other people about the politically correct way to live. The movie downplays the reality that Ziggy is most likely attracted to Lila because of her physical looks, not because he’s attracted to her emotionally or intellectually. At any rate, Ziggy suddenly wants to transform into being willfully ignorant about sociopolitical issues to being the type of sociopolitical activist that he thinks will impress Lila, who correctly suspects that Ziggy isn’t being genuine.

Evelyn’s interest in Kyle becomes an obsession that borders on being very creepy. She wants to treat him almost like a down-and-out family member, even though she barely knows him. One night, Evelyn goes to the shelter, just to give Kyle some leftovers from her family dinner. It’s a thoughtful gesture but also very condescending. Kyle looks uncomfortable with this offer, and he politely tells Evelyn that he’s already eaten dinner.

Evelyn also becomes determined to convince Kyle to go to Oberlin College, a liberal arts school in Oberlin, Ohio. She even goes as far as saying that she will recommend Kyle to someone she knows who is an Oberlin College admissions officer. But does Kyle really want to go to college?

The situation is complicated by the fact that Kyle worked in the auto body shop of his abusive father, who is apologetic about the domestic violence attack on Angie, and he wants Kyle to come back to work for him at the auto body shop. Angie, like many domestic violence victims, is conflicted about whether or not she should go back to her attacker. Evelyn thinks it’s a bad idea for Angie and Kyle to go back to live with their abuser.

However, the shelter only has limited time and space for those it helps. Evelyn isn’t exactly coming up with any real solutions for the issue of where Angie and Kyle can live after their time at the shelter expires. It’s a common problem for temporary residents of domestic violence shelters, but “When You Finish Saving the World” essentially ignores this problem.

One of the biggest issues that viewers will have with the way the movie portrays Evelyn is how she treats very serious and complicated issues with surface-level platitudes. The movie goes overboard in making Evelyn look out-of-touch and borderline incompetent in her job where she’s supposed to help victims and survivors of domestic violence. Sending Kyle to a college that Evelyn wants him to go to doesn’t directly address problems this teenager might have from being emotionally scarred or influenced by the domestic violence experienced in the home. Evelyn is the type of “activist” who is more about “talking” than “doing,” when it comes to real solutions for the people she wants to help.

The biggest problem with “When You Finish Saving the World” is that most viewers just won’t care much about any of the characters in this monotonous film. There’s nothing wrong with the acting in the movie, but all of the principal cast members have been better in other films. “When You Finish Saving the World” is the equivalent of forcing people to watch car wheels spin in the same place until the car starts moving too late. This 88-minute movie only starts to pick up steam in the last 15 minutes. But by then, viewer interest might have waned or disappeared altogether.

A24 released “When You Finish Saving the World” in select U.S. cinemas on January 20, 2023.

Review: ‘Scrapper’ (2023), starring Lola Campbell and Harris Dickinson

February 12, 2023

by Carla Hay

Harris Dickinson and Lola Campbell in “Scrapper” (Photo by Chris Harris)

“Scrapper” (2023)

Directed by Charlotte Regan

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, the comedy/drama film “Scrapper” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After her single mother dies of a terminal illness, a 12-year-old girl secretly lives by herself and finds her life upended again when her absentee father unexpectedly shows up to take care of her.

Culture Audience: “Scrapper” will primarily appeal to people interested in well-acted movies about estranged family members who must learn to live with each other.

Lola Campbell in “Scrapper” (Photo by Chris Harris)

There’s not much of a plot, and it’s easy to predict how the story is going to end, but “Scrapper” is charming because of the central performances by Lola Campbell and Harris Dickinson as a feisty 12-year-old girl and her wayward father. It’s one of those movies where the main characters are a mixture of tough and tender. Ultimately, the movie’s message is about making the most of whatever family that you have.

Written and directed by Charlotte Regan, “Scrapper” has its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the grand jury prize for U.S. World Dramatic. The movie pokes fun at institutions—such as government-run schools and social welfare programs—as frequently inept in addressing the real needs of children. Mostly, “Scrapper” shows the main characters going on a personal and often uncomfortable journey to define what “family” means to them and having resiliency during difficult times.

In the beginning of “Scrapper” (which takes place in an unnamed city in England), these words are seen on screen: “It takes a village to raise a child.” The words are then crossed out and these words are written underneath: “I can raise myself, thanks.” The latter statement is the attitude of 12-year-old Georgie (played by Campbell), who has been secretly living by herself in a council flat, ever since her single mother Vicky (played by Olivia Brady, shown in flashbacks) died of a terminal illness. Georgie’s father has not been involved in raising her, and he can’t be located. The movie doesn’t specify how long Georgie has been living by herself, but it looks like it’s been a few months.

Georgie still goes to school, but she’s been able to deceive school officials and child welfare services by pretending to live with an uncle (who doesn’t exist) named Winston Churchill after her mother’s death. It’s a knock at adult authorities that they don’t think it’s unusual for Georgie to have an uncle named after a former U.K. prime minister. How has Georgie been able to fool all of these adults?

Georgie is acquainted with a young man named Josh (played by Joshua Frater-Loughlin), who is a cashier at a local convenience store. She asks Josh to record different statements on her phone that could be answers in response to questions asked by any adults who call to check in on Georgie. The statements include “Georgie is doing great at school, thanks” and “We are doing fine, thank you.” Georgie pretends that Josh’s voice is the voice of her non-existent Uncle Winston, and she plays these recorded statements whenever any of these adults call. So far, this scheme has worked.

The adult authorities in “Scrapper” are depicted as soulless bureaucrats who don’t really care about the children they are supposed to be looking after in a responsible way. At Georgie’s school, a teacher named Mr. Barrowclough (played by Cary Crankson) tells Georgie how he thinks she should cope with her mother’s death, by saying that Georgie should only take a morning off from school, not an entire day. The two child welfare officials—Sian (played by Jessica Fostekew) and Youseff (played by Asheq Akhtar)—who are in charge of checking in on Georgie only do so by phone and don’t care about visiting Georgie in her home.

Georgie, who is tomboyish and sassy, likes to think of herself as being strong and independent. She makes money by stealing bikes and selling them to a young woman named Zeph (played by Ambreen Razia), whose “bike shop” is really the back of Zeph’s truck. In the beginning of the movie, the only person who knows Georgie’s secret is her best friend Ali (played by Alin Uzun), who is about the same age as Georgie. He is skeptical about how long Georgie can keep up her charade, but he keeps her secret.

Throughout the movie, various local kids who are around Georgie’s age are shown making comments to the camera to give their thoughts on Georgie. These children do not have a good opinion of Georgie, whom they think of as weird and a troublemaker. A group of “mean girls,” led by a brat named Layla (played by Freya Bell), say derogatory things about Georgie. Triplet brothers Kunle (played by Ayokunle Oyesanwo), Bami (played by Ayobami Oyesabwo) and Luwa (played by Ayooluwa Oyesanwo) are mostly in the movie as comic relief, since they often bicker and disagree with each other.

One day, Georgie is at home and is startled to see a young man with bleach blonde hair climbing over the fence in the backyard. His name is Jason (played by Dickinson), and he’s no ordinary intruder. Jason, as he tells a shocked Georgie, is Georgie’s father. It’s the first time that Jason and Georgie have met. Jason, who is also English, explains that he had been living in Spain with some male friends, but he came back to England after he heard that Vicky died.

Georgie is hostile and rude to Jason, whom she sees as an interloper who has no business being in her life. Georgie grew up thinking that Jason had abandoned her and Vicky. Jason tells his side of the story, which is very different from the story that Vicky told Georgie. “Your mum never wanted me around,” Jason tells Georgie.

With nowhere else to live, Jason tells Georgie that he will be living with her at this flat, whether she likes it or not. He says if she doesn’t let him live there, he will report her to the child welfare authorities. And so begins the uneasy and sometimes volatile way that Georgie and Jason get to know each other.

One of the first things that Georgie does when she meets Jason is scold him for not sending any child support money. “We’re not exactly rolling in it,” Georgie says. Jason replies that he’s not exactly “rolling in it” either. Georgie tries to get rid of Jason in various ways, but these tactics don’t work. During one of their frequent arguments, Jason tells Georgie: “Remember, I can tell the socials [social workers] whenever I want, so drop the attitude.”

Over time, Georgie finds out that she and Jason are a lot more alike than she would care to admit. They are both stubborn and rebellious. Georgie also gets a different perspective of why Jason was not in her life up until this point. It’s her first experience in understanding how complicated adult relationships can be. She also has to rethink her lifelong perception of Jason as being the “deadbeat dad” who didn’t care about her.

“Scrapper” would not work as well as it does if it weren’t for the stellar performances of Campbell and Dickinson, who make this father-daughter duo entirely believable. “Scrapper” has a tone of being sarcastic and sweet, which is a combination that would have made this movie look very uneven, but Regan’s sharp writing and direction keep this combination on a steady track that never feels overly contrived or forced. “Scrapper” is by no means a profound or groundbreaking film, but it entertains in all of the intended ways and is a movie that most viewers won’t forget.

Picturehouse Entertainment will release “Scrapper” in the United Kingdom and Ireland on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘The Persian Version,’ starring Layla Mohammadi, Niousha Noor, Kamand Shafieisabet, Bella Warda, Chiara Stella, Bijan Daneshmand and Shervin Alenabi

February 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

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

“The Persian Version”

Directed by Maryam Keshavars

Some language in Persian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and in Iran, from the 1960s to the 2000s, the comedy/drama film “The Persian Version” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A free-spirited queer woman, who feels like a misfit in her mostly male family that’s headed by conservative Iranian-immigrant parents, comes to terms with her identity and how her parents’ past had an effect on the family.

Culture Audience: “The Persian Version” will primarily appeal to people interested in movies about immigrant experiences and intergenerational relationships of family members.

Most of “The Persian Version” is a sharp and witty tale of an Iranian American woman navigating two ethnicities and her family issues. The movie’s last 20 minutes resemble a formulaic TV sitcom. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it lowers the movie’s quality. Even with its flaws, “The Persian Version” is a unique and vibrant story that shows perspectives that are rarely seen in American-made feature films.

Written and directed by Maryam Keshavars, “The Persian Version” is a comedy/drama inspired by Keshavars’ real-life experiences as the lesbian child of Iranian parents who immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s. “The Persian Version” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won two prizes: the Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic Feature and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. The movie features frequent voiceover narration from the movie’s fast-talking and sarcastic protagonist named Leila Jamshidpour (played by Layla Mohammadi), who is in her 30s when the movie begins in New York City in the 2000s.

“The Persian Version” also has several flashbacks throughout the story, going all the way back to the early 1960s, when Leila’s parents were living in Iran. The family moved to the United States in 1967, three years before the Iranian Revolution (also known as Islamic Revolution) ended the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979. It ushered in a new era of Iran being a republic but also increased Iran’s political tensions with the U.S., especially when 52 Americans were held as hostages for two months, beginning in November 1979.

The opening scene of “The Persian Version” takes place shortly after Leila has won the prize for Best Costume at a Halloween party, for wearing a burka-bikini combination costume dressed as a fictional character named Miss Burkatini. While still in costume, Leila is hooking up on in a bedroom with a British man dressed as transgender female singer Hedwig from the award-winning musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” The name of Leila’s sex partner is Maximillian Balthazar (played by Tom Byrne), who identifies as a cisgender heterosexual male, is dressed in this costume because he’s an actor, and this is the costume he wears as the star of the Broadway production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

Viewers soon learn that Leila identifies as a queer woman who is mainly attracted to other cisgender women. What is she doing hooking up with Maximillian? She says that men who look like drag queens “turn her on.” She’s also very drunk and horny at the moment. Leila expects that this sexual encounter with Maximilian will be a one-night stand and that they probably won’t see each other again. She’ll find out later that she was wrong about this assumption.

During this hookup, Leila looks up and speaks directly to the camera, as she frequently does throughout the movie. She then gives a monologue which is a quick summary of her life so far, accompanied by a montage of flashbacks. This intriguing monologue will hook viewers right away to find out more about Leila.

In this opening monologue, Leila says: “Obviously, I have some issues with culture. But can you blame me? I come from two countries [Iran and the United States] that used to be madly in love with each other. And like every great romance, it ended in a bitter divorce.”

Leila continues, “Like a child of divorce, I was right in the middle, being pulled at it from both sides. Being a girl, I couldn’t be drafted into the Iranian military. So, I was the only child in my family who could travel between the two countries—these two parents who wanted each other dead: Iran and America.”

Leila adds, “I never fit in anywhere. Unresolved childhood trauma: Clearly this neurosis led me to become a writer. Free therapy. Writers and neurosis: What’s more New York than that?” It’s mentioned shortly thereafter that Leila is also an independent filmmaker.

The movie then shows Leila describing her immediate family members. Her retired obstetrician/gynecologist father Ali Reza (played by Bijan Daneshmand) and her mother Shirin (played by Niousha Noor), who is a powerhouse real-estate agent, are strict Muslims who have conservative views of how people should conduct their personal lives. Leila has a particularly rocky relationship with Shirin, who seems to think that Leila is a wayward child who always manages to cause problems for herself.

Leila, who calls herself the “outsider of the family,” has eight brothers. She describes each of them in a few words. Shivaz (played by Samuel Tehrani), the eldest child, is the “disco king.” Vahid (played by Parsa Kaffash) is the “troublemaker.” Majid (played by Arty Froushan), who is a medical doctor, is like “JFK Jr., minus the plane crash.” Hamid (played by Reza Diako) is the “brainiac.” Eman Zaman (played by Andrew Malik) is the “Goth.” Rostam (played by Kamyab Falahati) is the “hippie.” Zal (played by Mahdi Tahmasebi) is the “greaser.” Abbas (played by Jerry Habibi) is the “metrosexual.”

Leila is one of the people in her family who has dual citizenship with Iran and the United States and was educated in both countries as a child in the 1980s. (Chiara Stella portrays Leila at about 10 or 11 years old.) “In America, I learned to put my faith in science. In Iran, I learned to put my faith in politics,” says the child Leila. As an adult, Leila is shown saying, “The only way to survive was to not put my faith in any of the rules—not science, not politics.”

The child Leila then says, “The only thing I could put my faith in was art,” as she holds a Cyndi Lauper cassette tape. Leila then explains that because Western music was banned in Iran, she would smuggle in music by artists such as Cyndi Lauper and Prince. Leila, previously an outcast at her Iranian school, became popular with her classmates when she let them listen to the smuggled music. Lauper’s 1983 breakthrough hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” is used in pivotal parts of the movie.

When the Jamshidpour family first moved to the United States, they lived in Brooklyn, New York. Ali Reza and Shirin currently live in New Jersey, while all of their children still live in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area. Shirin’s kind and patient mother Mamanjoon (played by Bella Warda) lives with Ali Reza and Shirin. Although this tight-knit clan has had its ups and downs, Leila says she always felt she was treated differently because she is her parents’ only daughter.

Leila’s sexuality has also led to feelings of alienation from her parents (especially her mother), who do not approve of Leila being gay. Leila is still recovering from a divorce from her ex-wife Elena (played by Mia Foo), who happens to be in a Brooklyn drugstore at the same time as Leila, several months after their divorce. Elena and Leila exchange awkward hellos.

Leila has been holding on to a glimmer of hope that she and Elena will get back together. However, those hopes are crushed when Elena tactfully tells Leila to pick up the belongings that she left behind at the home they used to share. Elena also asks Leila to stop calling her and to move on with her life. The reason for their divorce is explained later in the story, (Leila frequently put her work above the marriage), but the details are still left purposely vague about other aspects of this relationship.

In addition to feeling heartbroken, Leila will also be dealing with a health crisis in the family. Her father Ali Reza needs a heart transplant, and he doesn’t have enough health insurance to cover all the costs. Because he isn’t a U.S. citizen, Ali Reza is not eligible for full Medicare benefits. (And remember, this is in the 2000s, before the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare existed.) Ali Reza’s most recent hospital bill is $200,000. Shirin is feeling a lot of stress and pressure over how to pay this bill. She’s too proud to ask her children for any financial help.

In the midst of all this family turmoil, Leila is feeling like a failure and a lost soul. Leila always felt closer to her father than to her mother. And the possibility of losing him is overwhelming to her. But then, one day, Leila has a conversation with her beloved grandmother Mamanjoon that will change Leila’s perspectives of her parents, herself and their family history.

“The Persian Version” gets its title from the fact that the Jamshidpour family has two versions of their family history: the American version and the Persian version. The movie skillfully and often candidly shows how immigrant families often have to present two different versions of themselves, in order to survive and assimilate in a new country. Most immigrants move to a new country for a chance at a new life, which often means reinvention. But that doesn’t mean that the past can be completely forgotten, because the past often shapes who people are and how they look at life.

What starts off looking like a movie about a sassy but admittedly flaky divorced filmmaker trying to get her life back on track turns into an emotionally moving story about developing a deeper understanding of family members and what they might have gone through in the past that affects how they interact with family members in the present. Mamanjoon tells stories that are shown in flashbacks, back to the early years of Ali Reza and Shirin’s marriage. Shervin Alenabi has the role of young Ali Reza. Kamand Shafieisabet has the role of young Shirin. Sachli Gholamalizad portrays young Mamanjoon.

A big change unexpectedly happens in Leila’s life, but the movie somewhat mishandles this big change by bringing some wacky sitcom elements to the story that don’t quite fit with the more realistic aspects of the movie. Fortunately, “The Persian Version” has very good acting from all of the cast members, with Mohammadi and Noor as the obvious standouts in portraying Leila and Shirin, who have a tension-filled love/hate relationship.

“The Persian Version” also beautifully shows how three generations of women in a family can connect despite their differences. Leila is on mostly good terms with her brothers (she is especially close to “metrosexual” Abbas), but viewers of this movie will most remember the relationships that Leila has with Shirin and Mamanjoon. “The Persian Version” is the type of charming movie that not only celebrates the multicultural heritages of immigrant families but also has universal relatability that can resonate with people of many different backgrounds and generations.

Sony Pictures Classics will release “The Persian Version” on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘The Eternal Memory,’ starring Paulina Urrutia and Augusto Góngora

February 4, 2023

by Carla Hay

Augusto Góngora and Paulina Urrutia in “The Eternal Memory” (Photo courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

“The Eternal Memory”

Directed by Maite Alberdi

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chile, the documentary film “The Eternal Memory” features an all-Chilean group of people representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: The documentary chronicles several months in the lives of former actress/politician Paulina Urrutia and her husband Augusto Góngora, a former TV journalist who covered Chile’s civil unrest in the 1970s and 1980s, and who now has Alzheimer’s disease.

Culture Audience: “The Eternal Memory” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in non-fiction stories about couples who have a partner living with Alzheimer’s disease and an upper-middle-class perspective of Chilean history.

Paulina Urrutia and Augusto Góngora in “The Eternal Memory” (Photo courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

“The Eternal Memory” is a beautiful but slow-paced love story between two Chilean spouses who are living with the husband’s dementia. This intimate documentary shows paralells of the couple remembering their romance while not wanting to forget the sins and suffering of Chile under the rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet. Viewers of “The Eternal Memory” who are expecting a lot of drama in this movie will be disappointed or will have their patience tested. But for viewers willing to immerse themselves in this couple’s world, “The Eternal Memory” can be a thoughtful and emotionally moving experience.

Directed by Maite Alberdi, “The Eternal Memory” was filmed for an unspecified period of time in the early 2020s. The movie is a combination of home-video footage filmed for the documentary and archival footage from other sources. “The Eternal Memory” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the grand jury prize in the World Cinema Documentary Competition.

Alberdi previously directed the Oscar-nominated 2020 documentary “The Mole Agent,” which was about a Chilean senior citizen who was hired to check himself into a group retirement home, in order to find out more about the residents’ emotional well-being. “The Mole Agent” has themes of old age and the loneliness that elderly people can experience when they lose their memories or feel neglected. These themes are also in “The Eternal Memory,” but there’s a broader and more political context to the documentary that “The Mole Agent” did not have.

The two spouses at the center of “The Eternal Memory” are former actress-turned-politician Paulina “Pauli” Urrutia and former TV news journalist Augusto Góngora. The documentary shows repeatedly how devoted they are to each other, and they still have a romantic spark between them after being together for many years. Urrutia and Góngora became a couple in 1997, and they got married in 2016. Urrutia and Góngora have no children together, but some of the couple’s archival home videos in the documentary show them spending time with Góngora’s children Javiera and Cristóbal, from his previous marriage to Patricia Naut.

Born in 1969, Urrutia pursued an acting career since she was a child, eventually landing roles in Chilean movies and TV shows in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 21st century, she segued into politics. She was elected general secretary and president of the Chilean Actors Union (Sidarte) in 2001. And in 2006, she was appointed president of the National Council of Culture and the Arts.

Góngora also spent most of his life in the public eye. Born in 1952, Góngora is best known for his work as a TV news journalist in Chile, where he was a leader of the underground “Teleanálisis” newscast in the 1980s. He was a director and executive producer at Televisión Nacional de Chile (TVN) from 1980 to 2010. He also became a documentary filmmaker, with credits that include “The Weapons of Peace,” “Forbidden Children” and “The Seed of the Wind.”

In addition, Góngora dabbled in acting. A scene in the documentary shows Urrutia and Góngora reminiscing about the late filmmaker/actor Raúl Ruiz, who acted with Góngora in the 1997 miniseries “La Recta Provincia,” the only on-screen acting role that Góngora ever had. In “The Eternal Memory” scene, Urrutia asks Góngora if he remembers if Ruiz is alive or dead. Góngora says that he knows Ruiz is dead, and he remembers that Ruiz did not want to die.

Góngora was known for delivering hard-hitting investigations of the country’s civil unrest during the 1973 to 1990 reign of right-wing military dictator Augusto Pinochet. During this turbulent era in Chilean history, more than 3,000 people went missing or were found murdered. Thousands of children were orphaned. A scene in the “The Eternal Memory” shows Góngora and Urrutia morosely remembering a mutual friend named Jose Manuel Parada, who was kidnapped during the Pinochet regime.

Having to report these atrocities and other tragedies left a deep impact on Góngora, who seems to still be haunted by some of these memories. In addition to archival news footage of Góngora on the job as a TV news journalist, there’s footage of Góngora speaking about social injustice while promoting the non-fiction book “Chile: La Memoria Prohibida,” which he co-authored with other journalists. (“Chile: La Memoria Prohibida” means “Chile: The Forbidden Memory” in Spanish.)

Archival footage of Góngora shows that he was one of the first TV news journalists in Chile who advocated for citizen video journalism, where everyday citizens who are not professional journalists filmed their own footage that mainstream TV news would later used and give credit to these non-journalists who filmed the footage. Long before social media and viral videos ever existed, citizen video journalism was a form of journalism that started to increase in 1980s, when portable video cameras became more affordable to the average person.

Góngora is seen commenting in some 1980s footage, where she shares his thoughts about citizen video journalism: “We had the wonderful task of displaying the images of a country that was invisible in Chile, but a country that existed. We started giving an everyday version that did not appear on any Chilean TV station.”

There’s some archival footage of Urrutia when she was a politician, but the tone of “The Forgotten Memory” seems to be that the work that Góngora did was much more important than Urrutia’s work. Góngora’s career gets most of the screen time in the segments that show Góngora’s and Urrutia’s work lives before they retired. Urrutia is now Góngora’s full-time caretaker. If she has any help inside the home, it’s not shown in the documentary.

“The Forgotten Memory” has an abundance of everyday footage of Urrutia and Góngora at home talking about their lives. The movie opens with Góngora waking up in bed and remembering his name but not remembering who Urrutia is. She has to remind him that she is his wife, and she used to be an actress. She also tells him that he has two siblings and that his children’s names are Cristóbal and Javiera.

Urrutia and Góngora are shown doing couple activities, such as going for walks together and having meals together. She sometimes has to feed him because he can’t feed himself. During their walks outside, Góngora occasionally expresses mild frustration that he can’t walk as fast and as nimbly as he could when he was younger. They are physically affectionate with each other, such as when Urrutia lovingly dries Góngora with a towel after he gets out of a shower, or when they hold each other and kiss like partners who are best friends and in love.

Some of the most emotionally tender moments in the documentary are when Góngora is fully aware of who Urrutia is and expresses love and gratitude for her being in his life. In a scene where the spouses are having dinner together, he tells Urrutia in an appreciative manner, “You have given me so many things.” He also calls her “beautiful” while she silently sheds tears and smiles. In another scene, Góngora supportively watches in the audience when Urrutia performs on stage for a local theater group.

Through it all, Urrutia is extraordinarily patient, kind and emotionally strong. The documentary never shows her having any tearful meltdowns, expressing fear, or admitting that things can be sad and overwhelming when living with someone who has dementia. In that respect, “The Forgotten Memory” unfortunately gives the impression that it’s glossing over any emotional stress that Urrutia is no doubt having from being a caretaker of spouse with dementia.

When “The Forgotten Memory” tries to make Urrutia look so saint-like, it actually becomes a flaw in the documentary, which seems to leave out uncomfortable truths about the emotional toll and sometimes resentment that can build up when someone has the entire responsibility of taking care of a loved one with dementia. No one is realistically that saint-like all the time. Because the original footage in “The Forgotten Memory” is filmed cinéma vérité-style, there are no “talking head” interviews to provide outside analysis of what is going on with this couple.

Perhaps in an effort to give the image that she’s a “superwoman” spouse, Urrutia doesn’t really open up about any inner turmoil she is feeling, or her thoughts on preparing for the inevitable end of Góngora’s life. In front of the camera, she is upbeat but very emotionally guarded in other ways. The documentary would have been better and perhaps more helpful to people going through similar situations if Urrutia had been candid about her vulnerabilities of feeling emotional pain, doubt and hopelessness.

“The Eternal Memory” looks more honest in the uncensored moments when Góngora starts rambling about his frustrations. There’s a scene where Góngora gets very distraught because he knows he’s losing his memory, and he laments the loss of friends. He also says he doesn’t want to go on like this any more and that he feels alone. Urrutia’s response is to hug him and assure him that he’s not alone.

What remains unspoken but is seen in the documentary is that Urrutia and Góngora are very much alone during most of their time at home. The documentary doesn’t really show them having any visitors on a regular basis. It’s never fully explored how the couple feels about being “abandoned” by the friends who faded away from the couple’s lives.

One can imagine that the couple had plenty of friends when Urrutia and Góngora had elite positions that gave Urrutia and Góngora a certain amount of fame. Where are those friends now? Observant viewers will notice that this is the type of loss that is perhaps too painful for Urrutia and Góngora to talk about at length on camera.

It’s implied but not said out loud that these former friends were too uncomfortable with seeing Góngora living with Alzheimer’s disease. In one of the movie’s emotionally touching scenes, Góngora mournfully says out loud to himself, “No one asks me, ‘Remember when’ anymore.” As for Góngora’s adult children, they are not in the documentary’s new footage, and there is no explanation for their absence.

Urrutia and Góngora might feel a certain sense of isolation and abandonment from people who used to be close to them, but “The Eternal Memory” wonderfully shows how these two spouses have each other in a loving and emotionally healthy relationship. In the documentary, Góngora tells Urrutia that he doesn’t want to live for many more years. Whatever happens to this husband and wife, they both have had lives well-lived, with “The Eternal Documentary” being an impressive testament to their enduring love. The movie doesn’t tell the whole story of their relationship, but what is shown is meaningful and inspiring.

MTV Documentary Films will release “The Eternal Memory” in select U.S. cinemas on a date to be announced.

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, Dylan 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 nurturing 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, Lucy 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 to Beverly: “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: ‘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.

Aaron Kingsley Adetola and Will Catlett in “A Thousand and One” (Photo by Aaron Ricketts/Focus Features)

“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:


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.


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.


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.


“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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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