Clockwise from top left: The Pod Generation, Fair Play, Fairyland (courtesy of Sundance)Graphic: The AV Club
Snow falls gently on Park City, Utah, on the opening days of the Sundance Film Festival. The 2023 iteration of the ever-popular indie fest is a very special one after the online-only versions in 2021 and 2022. AV Club writers are among the attendees in person and virtually, relieved the festival is back on track and chatting with fellow cinephiles to catch as many screenings as possible – always a no-brainer with so much exciting, innovative, stimulating filmmaking .
The first day of the festival featured an exciting live performance by Amy Ray and Emily Sailers of the Indigo Girls, whose documentary ‘It’s Only Life After All’ was a premiere that helped get the audience going again. Another musical document, Little Richard: I Am Everything, is wowing fans of the legendary singer. And artists like Emilia Clarke, Daisy Ridley, Jonathan Majors, Gael García Bernal, and Dakota Johnson performed in theaters across Park City to promote their premieres. Below are capsule reviews for three films screened during the first days of the festival. And stay tuned for more news from the winter front.
FairylandImage: Courtesy of Sundance
Directed by Andrew Durham
Cast: Scoot McNairy, Nessa Dougherty, Emilia Jones, Geena Davis, Maria Bakalova
For his feature film debut, Andrew Durham adapts Alysia Abbott’s memoir about growing up motherless with her queer father Steve in San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s. After the tragic death of her mother, Steve (Scoot McNairy) begins life as an open and proud gay man. Alysia (played by Nessa Dougherty as a child) gets a crash course in anti-establishment culture. Steve lets his open life educate his daughter about the world, sex, and queer identity. There is a seriousness to the early scenes of Fairyland. Alysia is literally called precocious, and the script takes that a bit too literally.
G/O Media may receive a commission
Up to $100 credit
Reserve the next generation Samsung device
All you have to do is sign up with your email address and boom: credit your pre-order on a new Samsung device.
The film shifts into higher gear as Emilia Jones stars as teenage Alysia, fulfilling the promise she made in last year’s Academy Award-winning Best Picture, CODA, which premiered at Sundance. Alysia is growing up on screen and so is Jones’ confidence as an actor. Both Steve and Alysia have a witty and scathing sense of humor that sometimes borders on Sardinian. But the film doesn’t always follow them there, resorting to the obvious. But McNairy in particular treats this complex character with poignancy. There is a moment when Steve realizes that Alysia is grown and no longer a child, and with a wink, McNairy rises above the film’s sometimes choppy script to fully tell the story of that relationship. Ultimately, Fairyland is absolutely heartbreaking for its performance. [Murtada Elfadl]
The Pod Generation
The Pod GenerationImage: Courtesy of Sundance
Directed by Sophie Barthes
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rosalie Craig
Surrealism, science fiction and satire are the main ingredients of Sophie Barthes’ The Pod Generation, a story set in an awkwardly not-too-distant future. Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor star a couple who are embracing the latest trend in parenting: artificial wombs or pods that allow expectant mothers to get on with their lives with less inconvenience. While Ejiofor’s Alvy, a botanist who clings to the ancient methods of real plants and trees, believes pregnancy should be “natural,” Clarke’s Rachel is an ambitious career woman who values her marriage, but perhaps not as much as promotion , which includes a coveted spot at the gorgeously futuristic Womb Center.
Cinematographer Andrij Parekh is one of the true stars of The Pod Generation, which plunges us into a decidedly feminine future, with soft edges and pastel tones. Living in this progressive New York City feels so comforting and full of ease that you almost overlook the disturbing claims that AI is considered a better provider of therapy and a better creator of art than humans could ever be. It’s clear what Barthes thinks about our so-called technological evolution: she would call it devolution. If that message is hit a little hard, there are at least moments of offbeat humor to delight and beautifully lit futuristic decor at the entrance. Another key element here is the comedy, which reaches its climax when Clarke and Ejiofor’s characters, excited but confused, watch on video in real-time as his sperm fertilizes their egg. It’s a wild piece of sci-fi speculation, but ironically one that portrays the most natural plot. [Jack Smart]
Fair PlayImage: Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival
Directed by Chloe Domont
Cast: Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich, Rich Sommer, Sebastian De Souza
Chloe Domont makes a confident feature-length debut with Fair Play, a heart-pounding romantic thriller that explores the intersection of love, ambition and gender in the workplace. It cleverly introduces us to a newly engaged couple who become obsessed with each other only to reveal what really defines them: climbing the financial ladder. They have a playful dynamic at home and a very different one in the toxic and overwhelmingly masculine workplace to which they devote most of their waking hours.
When a coveted promotion — all those promotions are coveted with hawkish intensity in a company like this — doesn’t go the way Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) expect, psychological minefield Domont has meticulously crafted sets of explosive payoffs. She tips the scales in favor of one half of this couple, and while one could pick apart the talking points of the third act – or rather shouting points – there’s no denying the satisfaction of a deliciously feminist justification. Dynevor is a revelation as a cunning cutthroat, yet extremely humane and ambitious woman. On the other hand, it shows that an actress rising in the Hollywood industry would click with navigating the dangers of a male-dominated, female-objectified space where the stakes always seem to be at an all-time high. [Jack Smart]