Sundance Film Festival Short Film Program Reviews

By: Amanda Guarragi

These were the 11 short films that caught my eye when looking through the program. Some worked more than others, but more importantly, all of these short films told a powerful story. The short film program is always filled with diverse, emotional, unique stories that will resonate with many. Keep an eye out for these filmmakers as well, as they had a short time to fill the screen with beautiful imagery and make an impact.

Alone
dir. Garrett Bradley

Alone

Review: Alone is a harrowing short film about how the judicial system and mass incarceration break a family apart. The internal dialogue of a young, single mother, who is trying to go on living while her husband is in jail is heartbreaking. Garrett Bradley uses the space within the frame to show how alone she is. There is an emptiness surrounding her when she is just lying in bed. There are some great choices made to highlight voices and arguments instead of showing it on screen, which made it much more powerful.

Appendage
dir. Anna Zlokovic

Appendage
Courtesy of Neon Pig Media

Review: Rachel Sennott stars in this short film about a young fashion designer who must make the best of it when her anxiety and self-doubt physically manifest into something horrific. Director Anna Zlokovic made some great choices when showing anxiety and created an atmosphere that suited that feeling. It was such an interesting watch because of what her anxiety manifested into and what it meant metaphorically for her to cut away the degrading, intrusive thoughts. Really unique and I am excited to see what Zlokovic does next.

Chaperone
dir. Sam Max

Chaperone

Review: Director Sam Max creates a tension-filled evening when an unnamed man with sunglasses picks up a young man in his car. As the two drive together, and settle into a secluded rental house in the countryside, the details of their arrangements become very clear. This concept is a bit dark, but it was still interesting to watch the events unfold. I was surprised to see Zachary Quinto in this but he gave such a strong performance that I couldn’t keep my eyes off of him. There are so many questions and emotions that will run through you while watching this, as the ending is even more interesting than how they got to that point.

Chilly and Milly
dir. William David Caballero

Chilly and Milly

Review: This is the short film that really stuck with me the most. It connected with me on an emotional level because I have personally seen the effects of dialysis and what it does to an entire family. The use of old documentary footage combined with stop-motion animation to show the more emotional aspects of the story was beneficial. You got a sense of the family and who they were through the live-action aspects, only for the animated portions to create more of a visual connectivity to the illness. Really great work from William David Caballero.

Daddy’s Girl
dir. Lena Hudson

Daddy’s Girl

Review: I am a complete sucker for a father/daughter relationship, especially one that is fun, understanding, and loving. In Lena Hudson’s short, we see a young woman’s charming but overbearing father help her move out of her wealthy older boyfriend’s apartment. There are some small moments that build up into a pretty funny and cringe moment between the father and daughter, which hasn’t really been explored before on screen. Really enjoyed this one and how fun it was.

F^¢K ’€M R!GHT B@¢K
dir. Harris Doran

F^¢K ’€M R!GHT B@¢K
Courtesy of Mother Films

Review: Writer-director Harris Doran brought so much flare to this short about a queer Black aspiring Baltimore rapper who must outwit his vengeful day-job boss in order to avoid getting fired after accidentally eating an edible. There is a way to fight the system and explain how to be treated as a worker with factual evidence. We have all had that one boss who is just no fun at all and doesn’t understand how to conduct themselves in a professional matter. So this short touches upon what to do in that situation.

Hallelujah
dir. Victor Gabriel

Hallelujah
Courtesy of BLK MGC Content

Review: Writer-director Victor Gabriel has the best short film at the festival. We meet two brothers in Compton, California, who have to decide if they are willing to take on the responsibility of being guardians of their annoying, bookworm nephew. The script is very well-written and the way the story is structured makes an emotional impact at the end of the film. There are some effective choices made by Gabriel that keeps the emotional weight intact and does so in a tasteful manner to tell this tragic story.

Long Line of Ladies
dir. Rayka Zehtabchi and Shaandiin Tome

Long Line of Ladies
Courtesy of Junk Drawer

Review: Seeing generations of women being able to express themselves through their own traditions was beautiful to see. In this short film, we see a young girl and her community prepare for her Ihuk, the once dormant coming-of-age ceremony of the Karuk tribe of northern California. There are beautiful, natural shots in this film and a wonderful community bond. It was nice to learn something new and watch a young woman come into her own within her tribe.

Love Stories On the Move
dir. Carina Gabriela Dașoveanu

Love Stories on the Move
Courtesy of UNATC I.L.CARAGIALE BUCHAREST

Review: Writer-director Carina Gabriela Dașoveanu shows the daily life of Lili, a taxi driver, who is trying to save her marriage with Dani, an amateur fisherman. Her fares expose Lili to several love stories really different from her own. With each story that she heard, she would wonder where the romance or genuine love went within her relationship. She began to question why she was even staying. Hearing these stories affected Lili because she is missing something from her relationship that she is so desperately craving. The structure really worked, as the start of a new day, came a new story and then an interaction with her husband that changed her perception.

Maidenhood
dir. Xóchitl Enríquez Mendoza

Maidenhood
Courtesy of IMCINE

Review: How do we define virginity? More importantly, why have we been socially conditioned to think that virginity is something so sacred to a woman? In this short film, Catalina submits to the tradition of her people to demonstrate her purity and worth as a woman to her beloved, but her body betrays her and she fails to demonstrate her chastity.

Night Bus
dir. Joe Hsieh
Night Bus

Review: Writer-director Joe Hsieh really surprised me with this one. On a late-night bus, a panic scream shatters the night’s calm, a necklace is stolen, followed by a tragic and fatal road accident. The series of intriguing events that follow reveal love, hatred, and vengeance. The way the events unfold continues to shock you because of how well-paced this short film is. It does have a great story that instantly connects you to the characters. The animation is great and the use of the animals throughout the film gave you a sense that something wasn’t quite right. As the film went on, these characters got worse and it definitely became darker than expected.

Sundance Film Festival: ‘God’s Country’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

What many don’t realize is the stress that comes with ageing parents. For the later half of their lives, their mind changes and they grow weaker by the second. After a long life with your parents, it’s only right to look after them in their time of need. But, there are plenty of strained relationships and in the end; it’s out of moral obligation to help them and not genuine love. In God’s Country, we see Sandra (Thandiwe Newton) who has just lost her mother. She has always tried to please her mother and she was never satisfied. Her mother drained her and made her feel inadequate, which then translated into every aspect of her life. So, she’s tired. On top of that she has had to navigate the challenging politics and power dynamics at the college where she teaches. And then there is the racism, sexism, and toxic masculinity she encounters wherever she goes.

God’s Country examines one woman’s grieving process and determination to be taken seriously amid her refusal to surrender to the confines of society. This film would not have worked without Thandiwe Newton as Sandra. The emotional depth and brewing anger that she was able to bring to this role definitely worked with the pacing of the film. At first, once we get to know Sandra and her current environment, it moved a bit slow. While she processes her grief and the sense that she can finally live for herself without scrutiny, she begins to change. She’s more forthright and she speaks her mind on issues that are affecting her daily life in her community and the future of the education system. It’s simply about a woman reaching her breaking point because she doesn’t know how to express herself while grieving.

The structure of the story was interesting as well. The choice of bookmarking Sandra’s days after her mother’s passing is similar to the Bible story of how God created Earth. Each passing day was a lesson, and each day had a moment of dealing with her grief. The situation with her community members was a distraction from her mother and as the story goes on it became more evident that she just wanted to let her anger out on someone. Those two men, just so happened to be in her crossfire and they ended up being exactly what Sandra needed to get some justice in her own world. After going through so much, she finally rested on the seventh day and was at peace with her decisions.

God’s Country directed by Julian Higgins is a slow burn that has a great character piece at its centre for Thandiwe Newton. She made you connect with Sandra on many levels because of everything she was going through all at once. The film also did not feel preachy in regards to the issues being presented at the school or even when she approached the two men who were giving her trouble. It is a well-written script that wraps these themes together to show that one woman can take on so much while going through her own personal issues. This is also an example of not fully knowing what someone else could be going through and to always be kind to everyone.

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.