Sundance Film Festival: ‘AM I OK?’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

We definitely need more films with a female friendship at the forefront that handles the exploration of identity. Luckily for us, Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne’s directorial feature debut, AM I OK? gives us two best friends, Lucy (Dakota Johnson) and Jane (Sonoya Mizuno) go through big life changes together. It has become clearer that so many people haven’t truly discovered themselves and who they are yet. We have been conditioned to think that your identity, or even your life, by the age of 30-years-old needs to be fully formed and established. But that’s just not the case for so many of us now because now, it seems like people value their time on this Earth a bit more, and they want to authentically live life as freely as possible instead of repressing any part of themselves.

If you’re lucky enough to have a best friend who is more like a sibling to you, then definitely hold onto them tight because they will always know what’s best for you. Lucy and Jane are the best of friends. They finish each other’s sentences, predict every detail of each other’s food order, and pretty much know everything about each other. Johnson and Mizuno had such a natural chemistry that just brought so much comfort while watching the film. Their banter back and forth was so much fun, but the emotional moments shared between the two of them is where they both really shined. When Lucy finds out that Jane has been promoted at work and agrees to move to London for her new position, Lucy confesses her deepest, long-held secret: She likes women, she has for a while, and is completely terrified to come to this realization later-in-life.

It’s true when they say that after college, everyone just takes on their own path and life in your late twenties feels like a competition because everyone has taken on a different priority. Some people are already married with a home and a newborn, others are travelling, and some are just focusing on their careers. After watching AM I OK? – which will eventually become a comfort film for so many – there is no right way to live life. What may work for others, won’t necessarily work for you, and that’s okay. Notaro and Allynne made a film that shows how everyone moves at their own pace and that life is filled with so many opportunities to grow. It shows that you can reinvent yourself, that you can question every single thing about yourself, and it’s okay. There’s so much comfort in knowing that others are going through the same thing, especially later in life.

AM I OK? will resonate with so many because life continuously changes and it feels like an endless wave crashing down. When one thing goes right, something else can go wrong, and we learn to roll with the punches, even if some are more difficult to process than others. Even if life can get crazy and you get caught up in it, there will always be those people closest to you, who truly know you, to ground you and help you through those moments. We all have our person and it was just really beautiful to see such a strong and loving female friendship on screen. Even though this pairing worked wonderfully together, Dakota Johnson gives such an endearing performance and it’s just lovely to have Lucy as a character.

Sundance Film Festival: ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Normally coming-of-age films mainly surround teenagers in high school, but as society shifts and generation’s change, the real struggle in identifying who you are comes right after college. It’s the moment where you finish school and the thought of being a fully formed adult is what makes us all spiral. School is a security blanket for so many of us and then once we graduate, it’s like we’re just existing, trying to understand how any of this works. Every single decision we make after we graduate holds so much weight for us because if things don’t go right, our generation doesn’t see it as living, we see it as wasting time. We feel like there is no room for mistakes and that’s where the anxiety kicks in.

In Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth, we meet Andrew (Cooper Raiff) who is fresh out of college and like the rest of us; he has no idea how to even move forward. Higher education failed to provide 22-year-old Andrew with a clear life path going forward, so he’s stuck back at home with his family in New Jersey. The one thing college did teach him is how to party and he uses those skills to be the perfect candidate for a job party-starting as the ‘Jig Conductor’ at the bar and bat mitzvahs of his younger brother’s classmates. When Andrew befriends a local mom, Domino (Dakota Johnson), and her daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), he finally discovers a future he wants, even if it might not be his own.

The reason I connected with Cha Cha Real Smooth is because of how kind and heartfelt the story is. There is just so much genuine love and kindness that radiates off Raiff’s character of Andrew and it’s just very infectious. You connect with Andrew on an emotional level within the first moments of meeting him. At 22-years-old we all find life confusing, but more specifically, we all find love confusing. The connection that Andrew has with Domino is hard to describe unless you’ve felt that deep, comforting connection with someone without even knowing them that well. Johnson and Raiff have great chemistry, which made their soulful connection more believable. As the story unfolds, we see that their relationship will inevitably take a toll on both of them, but the memories will last forever.

Cha Cha Real Smooth is a coming-of-age film that explores life after college and what the definition of a soul mate is. It’s an exploration of love at any age; whether it’s shown through his parents, his younger brother and his first girlfriend, an old high school flame, or a mother with a fiancée, love is most definitely complicated. But from what I’ve learned, it’s better to feel those emotions and say that you’ve loved with every single part of your soul, than to not have experienced it at all. Because even through a possible heartbreak, you did learn something and you will grow from it, but always look back at those special moments as something beautiful.

Sundance Film Festival: ‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

What humans need more than anything, now more than ever is intimacy. What we are all lacking is a genuine connection with another soul. Whether you’re single or in a relationship, there can be a sense of emptiness, or that ten percent of something that could be lacking. Humans are never fully satisfied and especially in today’s generation, everyone is always looking for the next best thing or is even too afraid to become emotionally attached to anyone. It also doesn’t matter what age you are, everyone is going through their own version of what intimacy and connection means to them. What Sophie Hyde does in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is create a very sex positive and honest conversation about what it means to be truly intimate with someone.

At the beginning of this film we meet Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson) who, unfortunately for her, doesn’t know good sex. She is a retired schoolteacher, and is pretty sure she has never had it, but she is determined to finally do something about that. She comes up with a plan, which involves an anonymous hotel room and a young sex worker who calls himself Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack). Leo is confident, dapper, and takes pride in being good at his job. Nancy is incredibly insecure and overthinks every single decision she makes. Due to her age and the social conditioning during her upbringing, sex has never been something that she could openly talk about, let alone engage in. In comes, Leo who is young and incredibly honest when discussing sexual acts with Nancy. As their first meeting unfolds, Nancy and Leo teach each other about different forms of intimacy in order to connect with one another.

What I enjoyed the most about this film was the connection between Nancy and Leo. Many tend to think that being intimate with someone strictly means being sexual with your partner, but it can also hold meaning within deeper conversations. The vulnerability peaks out when getting to know someone through asking those tough questions and creating a level of trust in order to connect with them. The choice to not show the sexual acts at the beginning created a different path for Leo and Nancy, which I appreciated. The screenplay written by Katy Brand touched upon so many things that men and women overthink about, and in Nancy’s case, use humour to explain how ashamed she is of her sexual history.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is such an honest, beautiful film about love, relationships, and intimacy. It’s all about connecting with another person and simply enjoying life. What Hyde teaches all of us is that pleasure is a good thing and is needed in order to live a fulfilling life. You can find pleasure in absolutely anything that brings you some sort of peace or even joy. There’s so much honesty in each conversation Leo and Nancy share that it felt like a therapy session from two different generational perspectives. It’s so well-written and the structure of the film allows each conversation to breathe and make an impact. Thompson and McCormack were delightful and wonderful chemistry that carried the film.

Sundance Film Festival: ‘Master’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

In writer-director Mariama Diallo’s debut feature Master, she explores the flawed education system in the United States at an elite New England University. As she touches upon the racial inequality and white elitism prevalent at Ancaster, the university is also built on the site of a Salem-era gallows hill. Diallo combines the supernatural elements of the witch trials with the racial history within the school’s system. There are three women who attempt to navigate through the system at Ancaster in order to find their place at this school, while repressing the legend of the witch trials that deeply connects with Black students who have attended the school in the past.

We first meet, Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) who is a first-year student and she tries to find comfort in her new home that is cold and unwelcoming. Then we meet Gail Bishop (Regina Hall), just instated as “Master,” a dean of students, who slowly uncovers what lies behind the school’s immaculate facade. Lastly, we are introduced to literature professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) who collides with colleagues who question her right to belong. Diallo constructs a script that explores politics and privilege, while her characters face the increasingly terrifying manifestations of the school’s haunted past… and present.

As we get to know these characters and the lore that is tied to the history of the school, there is a running social commentary that is racially driven to show the predominately white students and faculty at the school. Stylistically, Diallo along with her director of photography Charlotte Hornsby, combine the supernatural elements with reality, through the use of red lighting and framing certain characters. Once the spirit of the witch latches onto young Jasmine, the line between her reality and the dreamlike state the witch places her in start to bleed into each other. The genre mixing makes this film unique, but the story lacks clarity in what the focus is. The intriguing aspects of the supernatural elements overpower the social critique until the third act.

Master is an incredibly strong feature debut from Mariama Diallo. The visual aesthetic of this film enhances the story and connects you to the characters. This is a psychological horror that places heavy emphasis on the supernatural elements but doesn’t really do much with them. The first half of this film sets up the witch/Jasmine pairing and at the same time the storyline with Gail, who is being taunted in her own home. It then shifts focus to show deeply flawed the education system is in the third act with Liv Beckman, which was the most interesting aspect instead of the supernatural angle that was emphasized in the beginning.

Sundance Film Festival: ‘892’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

There have been moments in everyone’s life where they have reached their breaking point. This one defining break usually happens when there is a string of smaller moments that everyone leaves to build up. Exactly how much injustice can people take until they snap? In the case of Brian Easley (John Boyega) a former U.S. Marine, who has been on disability for a while has not been receiving payments from Veteran Affairs. He has reached his breaking point because no one has been able to fix this issue, thus resulting in a broken system that does not care for the people who fought for their country. Director Abi Damaris Corbin constructs a thriller that has a powerful true story at its centre and it is what keeps you engaged throughout.

892 opens with director Abi Damaris Corbin setting the focus on Easley and the way he goes about his everyday life. There is an instant connection to him once he speaks to his little girl Kiah (London Covington) over the phone. We see that he can’t even stay on the phone with her for too long because he is running out of minutes. As he walks back to the motel that he is currently living in, we understand that he has been struggling for some time. There is a subtlety within Corbin’s direction that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Even the placement of the number 892 on the pavement as Easley walks by gave this story an even more grounded feeling. There were many moving parts in this film; from the bank tellers, to the cops, to the media, they were all incorporated to build the tension.

What is explored through Easley’s character is the PTSD of a marine living in a society that is barely treating him as a human. He gave his life for his country; there was the importance attached to his name in the military, yet when he returned, it’s like the system that he fought for doesn’t even care. So after three attempts to get his money, the soft-spoken and kind Brian Easley decides to rob a bank and hold hostages, Rosa Diaz (Selenis Leyva) and Estel Valerie (Nicole Beharie) with a bomb. Easley’s training as a marine came through at times and his assertiveness when trying to explain his situation to them, the cops and the media was misconstrued and they thought he was crazy. All Easley wanted to do was tell his story, so other veterans wouldn’t have to go through the same thing.

892 has great pacing and a thrilling score composed by Michael Abels. There are some interesting choices in regards to the placement of conversations and the framing for those scenes. This cast all had their time to shine on screen, but John Boyega completely blew me away. He controlled each scene and showed a range of emotions in each conversation he had. Whether it was with Beharie, Levya, Michael K. Williams, or Connie Britton, he was able to build and de-escalate each situation and continuously do that, to show the level of intensity at the right moments. This has Boyega’s best performance to date and it is a thriller worth watching for the story alone.