Rebecca Martin Fagerholm

Words from Managing Editor Rebecca Martin Fagerholm:

When we watch films, we desire a connection that enlightens and represents who we really are as people. This year at Sundance, I was stretched in the best way through watching and engaging with incredible stories that have ignited my excitement about cinema for 2023! I watched 31 films (one was a pilot of a series that I’m counting), and they all had some great aspects to them. My top six films all earned five stars on my letterboxd!

Regarding representation, I saw myself the most in “Is There Anybody Out There?” directed by a woman named Ella Glendining. Ella is dedicated to sharing authentic stories of disabled people onscreen, as she is also disabled. Her body does not let her stand up straight, and in this documentary she is both director and the main subject of the film. Ella is searching for people who share a similar disability, as she has never met anyone who has a disability like hers. During the making of the doc, which spans several years, pre-pandemic through pandemic times, she becomes a mother.

Similar to Ella, I’ve been breaking through the stigmas of what is different about me. She is a hero of mine, and although she cannot physically stand up tall, as a filmmaker and a person, I feel she is much taller than all of us. What she is doing is normalizing what it’s like to be disabled, and I hope through my writing, and the stories onscreen I elevate, I can also normalize what it means to live with bipolar.

Ella Glendining in “Is There Anybody Out There?”

Also, as a person who just turned 40, at the tail end of last year, I couldn’t help but be attracted to the actors who were in their forties or were playing 40 onscreen. Watching these powerhouse women onscreen got me excited about this new decade of my life. The actress who I look up to the most and what she represents onscreen is Virginie Efira. She stars in one of the Sundance Spotlight films, “Other People’s Children,” directed by Rebecca Zlotowski. Her performance was beautiful and heart-wrenching to watch as a woman who cannot have children of her own. Meanwhile she has fallen in love with her boyfriend’s daughter, which gives her hope to have a child of her own in her life. The biological mother of the child is still in the picture and she struggles with the fact that she cannot bear a child of her own, due to the physical challenges of being at an age that makes it difficult to conceive. I’m in that boat now! But the beautiful through line that I pulled from this performance was that even if you don’t have children, you can make an impact on the people you touch and inspire in your life. As a teacher, Virginie’s character made a difference in many children’s lives, which shares the same value. I feel I’m making a difference for emerging filmmakers, and that also shares the same value of being a mother. Virginie Efira as an actress is breaking barriers of what it looks like to be 40 onscreen, as I’ve also seen in “Benedetta” and “Sibyl.” I’m excited to follow her career here on out.

*I have interviewed the director of this film, Rebecca Zlotowski, and the interview will be featured prior to the Music Box Films release in April.

Virginie Efira in “Other People’s Children”

Continuing on, the theme of having a child at a certain age was channeled through the horror film “birth/rebirth” directed by Laura Moss. The film stars Marin Ireland and Judy Reyes, two women in their early 40s who are defying the odds of their circumstances by reanimating life. Though the plot is inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it is definitely an original film, not an adaptation. The inspiration comes from the ability to bring something to life that was dead. I think this film could be difficult for some women to watch who have struggled with pregnancy, but also cathartic through watching two women taking their destinies into their own hands. Laura Moss does a beautiful job at creating a heightened reality of what that looks like.

There were three films that showed strong women and girls surviving the circumstances of their lives, and adapting to those restraints. All three involved the relationship between a young parent and child. “Girl” (review) is about an immigrant mother trying to avoid being deported and having her daughter taken away from her. In “A Thousand and One,” (review) we follow a woman from Harlem who’s recently got out of prison. She abducts her son from the foster care system. We get the whole scope of this relationship with the son as he grows from a young child into his late teens. As he ages, the risks for him being in the world become a bigger risk. And “Scrapper” shows a girl in the UK who’s trying to survive alone after her mother dies. She avoids getting placed by social services in a foster care system by creating a self-sufficient life for herself. Her dad, who she’s never met in all twelve years of her life, unexpectedly comes back into her life. The young actress Lola Campbell who plays the girl, Georgie, delivers a brilliant breakout performance in this film. All of these stories hold an unconventional lens up to what a parent/child relationship looks like, and what it looks like when you’ll do everything in your power to be with that parent or child.

Harris Dickinson and Lola Campbell appear in Scrapper by Charlotte Regan, an official selection of the World Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. | Photo by Chris Harris.

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the documentaries empowered me. My top film at Sundance 2023, “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood,”(review) gave me a religious and enlightening experience. The film is about women (who do not all identify as women, but were born into female bodies) who come together as a “sisterhood” in South Estonia at a sacred place called Smoke Sauna. They leave their clothes behind and bare themselves physically and emotionally in these saunas. I was fortunate to speak with the director Anna Hints, who won the Director award for the World Documentary competition, about their film.

Other documentaries that moved me were about empowering people. “Judy Blume Forever” shines a light on the Young-Adult author Judy Blume and the impact she made on children all over the world starting in the 1970s and all the way up to present day. The titular subject of “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” is a feminist who was the first person to really write about female pleasure. In “It’s Only Life After All,” the Indigo Girls showed the impact their music had on the queer community in the 1980s and 1990s, and the legacy and impact their music has had through their activism for the environment and indigenous communities. Another doc, “Invisible Beauty,” is about and directed by Bethann Hardison. She made an impact within the modeling world for inclusivity, and what is defined as beautiful, by elevating Black people in the industry and starting her own modeling agency after she worked for years as a fashion model. I felt connected to Bethann because of her tireless work in supporting underrepresented faces in the industry. I feel I do this through Cinema Femme by supporting underrepresented voices. I also identified with the aspect that it’s good to have people in your life who hold you up, like you hold up others.

Contributor Dawn Borchardt on the scene for Cinema Femme at Sundance Film Festival with Razelle Benally

Two filmmakers I am excited about are Razelle Benally (“Murder in Big Horn”) and Erica Tremblay (“Fancy Dance”). Both of these passionate artists are indigenous, and they are bringing to the screen stories about indigenous women and queer indigenous people. They are doing this by putting a lens on an epidemic of what is happening to indigenous girls in reservations in states like Oklahoma and Montana. Indigenous girls and women are going missing and are often not found or found dead. Both filmmakers are bringing attention to these traumatic realities through personal stories. “Fancy Dance” is about a teenage girl (Isabel Deroy-Olson) and her aunt (Lily Gladstone) looking for the girl’s mother who has gone missing. Both performances by Gladstone and newcomer Isabel Deroy-Olson are heart-throbbing. Razelle in her co-directed docuseries “Murder in Big Horn” is using her lens to follow real stories of indigenous families who’ve been directly impacted by these girls who’ve gone missing. It does a deep dive into the circumstances that have brought us to these traumatic events. I’m so excited to champion stories like these and filmmakers like Benally and Tremblay.

Layla Mohammadi and Niousah Noor in “The Persian Version”

Along with highlighting the films that reached me on a personal level, I also wanted to highlight the breakout performances that I had the honor of witnessing in these films. First, let’s start with a career-making performance by Teyana Taylor in “A Thousand and One.” You feel her character on a very deep level as a mother and a woman trying to survive the circumstances she finds herself in. There is a reveal later in the film that adds another layer to this performance which will stay with you. There were also two breakout performances that I wanted to highlight. In “The Persian Version,” directed by Maryam Keshavarz, actress Layla Mohammadi has become my new favorite comedic actor to follow. She balances every scene with wit and passion. You can’t help but be intoxicated by her energy, and Niousah Noor who plays her mother, plays off of Layla with the same energy and heart. In “Animalia,” directed by Sofia Alaoui, Oumaïma Barid plays the main character, Itto. Her character does a 180 degree turn in the film from more of a thinly developed character to a fully formed woman of strength and inspiration. I spoke with the director about her, and Sofia shared that she wanted to have a Moroccan girl with no acting experience. My jaw dropped since she was so good and transformative through the whole film. That film moved me so deeply, and one of the main reasons it did was because of Oumaïma’s performance.

Marin Ireland and Judy Reyes in “birth/rebirth”

Then there are the veteran actors who showed off their acting talent in roles that gave them the opportunity to shine. Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Nicole Holfcener’s “You Hurt My Feelings” carries the film with her sharp repartee and honest portrayal of an artist desperate for approval from her loved ones. Marin Ireland was dynamic and showed her range in Moss’ “birth/rebirth” and in William Oldroyd’s “Elaine”. In “birth/rebirth,” she played well off of Judy Reyes performance. I couldn’t help but compare Ireland to the mad scientist Frankenstein and Judy Reyes as the assistant to the scientist. Both of them are bad-ass women who come together in their drive toward bringing life into the world, and without Ireland balancing out Reyes, the movie wouldn’t have had the same effect. In “Elaine”, Ireland’s screen time is much less than Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway, but for me, she steals the film with her epic monologue as a mother who is misunderstood. Jennifer Connelly in Alice Englert’s “Bad Behaviour” (review) really nails her character as a woman whose ego is unbelievably hard to deflate, and she infuses her character with such awkward humor. And finally, David Strathairn gives one of his best performances in “A Little Prayer,” written and directed by Angus MacLachlan, the writer of the film, “Junebug,” which gave Amy Adams the platform for her breakout role as Ashley. Strathairn is no different in conveying the vulnerability of his character, a man who must come to terms with the relationship he’s forged with his adult children. A shout-out to Ashley Shelton who plays the BFF to Dascha Polonco’s character (she has an amazing monologue in this film), as the character who brings levity through her vibrant eccentricities. Love.

I’d be remiss not to mention Jonathan Majors in “Magazine Dreams”, who gave a five-star performance in the Travis Bickle-esque role of Killian Maddox, a character he makes terrifying and tragic. Like Travis Bickle, Killian Maddox will be a character who goes down in history. And Daisy Ridley plays the best understated performance I’ve ever seen in “Sometimes I Think About Dying” as an office mouse who spends her days thinking of suicide. This dark comedy is a winner because of Ridley’s understated performance, and she hardly says a word in the film.

Wendy McColm in “Fuzzy Head”

In addition to my Sundance viewing, I had the honor of seeing two Slamdance films, “Fuzzy Head” directed by LA writer/actor Wendy McColm and “Waiting for the Light to Change,” directed by Chicago-based newcomer Lihn Tran. Both films have vivid color palettes and share heart piercingly intimate stories that will stay with you. The films showcase groundbreaking performances with unique style and tone. An additional note on Wendy: she is the filmmaker I’m most excited about as an auteur director. I feel she is going to bring disturbing (in the best way) and captivating dreamscape worlds to the screen. The imagination and artistry of McColm’s work has a depth that goes so far beyond sight, and that is exciting.

Linh Tran and her film “Waiting for the Light to Change” won The Narrative Feature Grand Jury prize at Slamdance!

Peyton Robinson

Words from contributor Peyton Robinson:

I was thrilled at the amount of underrepresented voices at this year’s Sundance. Of the 23 films I watched, 17 were directed by women. The feminine stories on the docket ranged from addressing sexuality, motherhood, power, and more. “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood,” “A Thousand and One” and “The Starling Girl” were among my favorite portrayals about the varying definitions of womanhood. “MAMACRUZ”(review) was also a unique perspective into the same topic, but with a more narrow focus on the overlooked demographic of elder women. 

There were also a number of Black stories that made it to my personal list of most impactful films. “A Thousand and One”, my favorite of the whole fest, is one of the most detailed, delicate portrayals of Black life I’ve seen in recent years. “Magazine Dreams” was another, which delivered an excellent and nuanced story where Black rage and masculine traditionalism were a powerful through-line. Sundance 2023 is one of the best festivals I’ve attended since I started film criticism in 2019. The diversity in filmmakers, actors, and narrative focus were in the vanguard, as well as an impressive amount of debut films that stole the show. 

Cinema Femme Sundance and Slamdance coverage is sponsored by Noisefloor Sound Solutions and the Siskel Film Center.

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  1. Pingback: Cinema Femme’s 10 most anticipated films for ChiFilmFest 2023! – Cinema Femme

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