Returning to its snowy Utah milieu after spending two years online, the 2023 Sundance Film Festival amplified an array of stories from underrepresented voices. In a world inching toward post-pandemic clarity, the question of how people relate to each other pervaded many of the films, each bringing a new valence to the conversation. The Daily Californian tapped into this dialogue, sending arts reporters Asha Pruitt, Sarah Runyan and Maya Thompson to chat with the filmmakers and stars on the premiere and award ceremony press lines.
At the world premiere of his newest film “Drift,” director Anthony Chen described his use of water imagery and the symbolic importance of the ocean. Adapted from Alexander Maksik’s 2013 novel “A Marker to Measure Drift,” the film marks the award-winning Singaporean director’s English-language debut.
“The landscape really becomes a character in the film, ” Chen said. “We are on a Greek island and it’s set during summer. It’s surrounded by the sea, and it’s got some of the most beautiful beaches, of course.”
Oscar-nominated actress Cynthia Erivo stars as Jacqueline, a Liberian refugee struggling to survive. Alia Shawkat — known for her roles in “Arrested Development” and “Search Party” — plays Callie, a lonely American tour guide. The two expats find themselves in an unlikely friendship sprung from a common well of grief as they navigate a minefield of fears together.
“I’d skinny dip every morning before work,” Shawkat laughed. “My character swims naked in the film, so it was actually research. But I found that really grounding. I mean, if you get to hop in the Mediterranean Sea every morning, you’re gonna do great at work.”
“This was not an easy journey,” Erivo added. “I really wanted to get the story right. And I hope that people come along and maybe learn something about themselves.”
She remarked audiences might be surprised at how quiet the film is, explaining it’s not a “typical” refugee story.
“It’s different from anything you’ve seen, but most things are. I don’t really ever do anything more than once. I don’t think anyone’s seen me this way before. It’s very raw,” Erivo said.
Chen encapsulated the heart of the story in a sentence: “You know, the film is called ‘Drift,’ and eventually it’s about staying afloat and staying alive.”
— Asha Pruitt
In the U.S. Documentary Competition, the Special Jury Award for Freedom of Expression was aptly awarded to a film that challenges government authority and fights for independent media against attempts at censorship.
“Bad Press,” directed by Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler, follows Angel Ellis, a reporter for Mvskoke Media, and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s efforts to seek transparency, accountability and equal access to information in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.
“There’s 576 tribes in the United States. Not all have free press protections or free speech,” Ellis explained. “These are a lot of citizens who have no other way to find out information about their own governments. And if you don’t have those protections, then how do you stay connected to your tribe?”
Ellis hopes that “Bad Press” will inspire young people to question government officials.
“In the Indigenous community, respect is such a big deal that it’s hard to question authority,” she said. “I think we did it in a way that demonstrates that you can be powerful and you can be respectful.”
— Asha Pruitt
“Flora and Son”
“I just grew up thinking that all films are musicals,” John Carney said. The Irish director, known for “Once” and “Sing Street,” is an expert in the realm of heartfelt musical movies. Growing up, Carney was astounded by old films such as “Casablanca” — it wasn’t the dialogue that sparked his interest in filmmaking, but, rather, the role of music.
“When I started making films, I just wrote the music myself, or got friends to write the music,” Carney said. “When I got bored of writing dialogue, I’d just go over to the piano. And then I thought, ‘Why don’t I just put that piano song in the film?’ I don’t know if I could write a film that would be like 95 pages of wall-to-wall dialogue. You gotta break for a song in life.”
His latest project, “Flora and Son,” left audiences feeling exultant with its catchy music and feel-good narrative. Lively and laudable, the film follows Flora, a young mother in Dublin who has rejected her long term ambitions. Co-parenting her teenage son Max (Orén Kinlan) with her ex-boyfriend (Jack Reynor), she decides to pursue guitar lessons and unexpectedly finds herself along the way.
“It’s about her really going on a journey to accept her circumstances, to accept her son, accept a relationship and how that then helps her find herself,” Hewson said.
Flora’s relationship with her son carries the emotional weight of the film; as the two come to understand their own identities, they simultaneously connect with one another through music. The poignancy of the narrative influenced the cast and the crew, particularly Kinlan, who embodied Max’s angst while navigating his own teenage introspection.
“Everyone in the film is trying to find their identity and their place in the world,” Kinlan said. “That’s really related to me because I’m still a teenager trying to find his place in the world. I think that really holds a special place in my heart.”
“Flora and Son” celebrates the power of music and creativity in restoring taut relationships. Flora and Max don’t reject their flaws; instead, they collectively work to accept the parts of themselves that they deplore — merely with a synthesizer and a guitar.
“The characters in this movie are very flawed, very human characters,” Reynor said. “It’s not about them turning into somebody else, and somebody better, it’s about them accepting who they are, and being able to connect with one another through acceptance, through music.”
— Sarah Runyan
“Smoke Sauna Sisterhood”
At the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, director Anna Hints took home the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award for her film “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood.” Following a group of women in southern Estonia, the documentary captures the atmosphere of a smoke sauna — a place where women gather to discuss their fear, regrets and deepest secrets. It’s personal and intimate; the film’s premiere at Sundance had a remarkable response that left viewers feeling that they, too, could be vulnerable with Hints.
“(People) have come to me and they have shared their stories,” Anna Hints said. “There was one woman who came and said ‘After the film, I called my mom. I hadn’t spoken to her for years.’ There was a guy who was like, ‘Can I hug?’ We hugged and he cried for 10 minutes. He was thanking me and I was telling him ‘Thank yourself for letting yourself be vulnerable.’… I take them all to my heart.”
Though the representation of this community has spurred reactions ranging in emotional scale, each has echoed gratitude for Hints’ documentation of healing and mourning within a supportive community.
“I understand that there is a need in society for this kind of safe space that you can find in a sisterhood to be totally vulnerable — to be okay with all kinds of emotions that we have,” Hints said. “When we have community … experiences can be shared and they can be listened to. There is a way ahead and I hope that this film inspires you to create some spaces.”
— Sarah Runyan
Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s debut film “Theater Camp” wears its heart on its sleeve. Starring Gordon, Ben Platt, Jimmy Tatro and Noah Galvin, the hilarious mockumentary-style film is an affectionate, hammed up ode to sleep-away summers spent on stage and the quirky instructors who shape these experiences.
For most involved in the project, the setting is familiar terrain. “I went to a theater program at home that was kind of like a theater camp,” Platt recalled, “and then I went to a Jewish sleepaway summer camp. So it was sort of a combo.”
As a site where kids are figuring themselves out, growing pains are inevitable. Gordon admits she did not receive a good role in any of the productions. Recalling her most embarrassing memory at theater camp, she deadpanned: “I shit my pants.”
Leiberman shared a similar story, “I peed on stage during ‘Oliver,’ so that was pretty nice.”
The film was honored with the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for best ensemble at Sundance and has been picked up by Searchlight.
Will Ferrell, who produced the film, exalted the young ensemble, “They’re so funny and quirky, but yet real, in a weird way … This is just a really really fun, silly movie that also shows how vulnerable you have to be to want to be an actor.”
Regardless of whether or not the experience rings familiar, “Theater Camp” is delightfully scrappy and impossibly charming.
— Maya Thompson
“20 Days in Mariupol”
A remarkable entrant in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, “20 Days in Mariupol” follows a team of Ukranian journalists in the city of Mariupol. Beginning on the day before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, director Mstyslav Chernov delivers a devastating, unflinching yet powerful piece of filmmaking.
The film won the Audience Award in the category World Cinema Documentary. The appreciation is reciprocated. Chernov shared that his favorite memories at the festival are related to the responses from the people who watch the film.
“At one of the screenings — actually, almost all the screenings — Ukrainians came to see the film,” he said. “We have met incredible people who are residents of Mariupol. It has been such a privilege, such a heartbreaking and also important experience to see them crying and telling us how important this work is. How important it is to tell the story of their city.”
— Maya Thompson