Sundance Film Festival 2023: ‘The Starling Girl’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

In rural Kentucky, a seventeen-year-old girl struggles to define herself within her Christian community. Many don’t realize how repressed these young women are because of their religious conditioning and social conformity. There is no freedom to experiment or to speak freely because of the deep connectivity to God and the community. For young Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlan), life is getting difficult because she is beginning to see the truth. There will always be grey areas and mistakes that people can learn from and grow. Jem discovers that life can be messy and everyone has secrets of their own. Writer-director Laurel Parmet explores spirituality through relationships and how love can be skewed. 

Parmet’s direction is tender as she carefully peels back the layers of Jem Starling. A teenage girl has urges that she can’t quite describe, and it’s even harder when she has no idea what those urges are. Jem is intrigued by her sexuality and naturally wants to become her own woman. This coming-of-age story expands on the notion that the more uneducated women are about their sexuality, the more impulsive they are to make the wrong decision. When Jem meets Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman), a young pastor who has returned from his travels, the idea of relationships for Jem changes. Owen is this older man whom Jem does fall for, but she has trouble understanding if it’s lust (from the devil himself) or a loving connection everyone keeps telling her about.

The tension builds between Owen and Jem because of the subtle moments shared. Parmet doesn’t have the two of them rush into anything and has Jem take the reigns of her sexuality. Jem slowly gains confidence in her body and how to present herself to Owen. On top of that, it feels forbidden, and Owen is unattainable because he’s married. That doesn’t stop Jem because she finally feels free to do as she pleases. Owen connects with her on a spiritual level, which gives her comfort and relief. When Jem experiences pleasure unknown to her, she doesn’t feel shame, which is important to show in this environment. Scanlan gives a nuanced emotional performance as Jem, and it is one of her best roles to date. 

The Starling Girl informs audiences about pockets of the United States that are blinded by faith with no balance in educating their children. Parmet shows what families keep hidden to keep the perfect facade within the community but ultimately damages the children. Not only did Jem have to deal with her issues in becoming a woman, but she also had to handle her father’s addiction which her mother refused to see. In many cases, the younger generation is more in tune with how family life should be because that is what they have been taught. So when they feel like something is broken, they react to what they thought they knew. Once young adults get a taste of freedom and make decisions they will do whatever it takes to get out of the hold their family has them in. 

Sundance Film Festival 2023: ‘Pretty Baby: Brook Shields’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Throughout the decades, there have been celebrities that rise above the rest. It’s almost impossible for some people to understand the phenomenon of certain starlets. Realistically, they’re just people at the end of the day. However, the media can manufacture one’s persona and dictate the narrative surrounding their star power. We’ve all seen how tabloids can break women down, and Brooke Shields was a victim of an entire takeover. She did not have agency because she was in the spotlight at such a young age, and everyone around her thought they knew what was best for her. Shields was overly sexualized at a young age, and it seemed that men did not know how to act around a young girl as a rising talent. 

Shields got into modelling at a very young age. And her mother became her manager. Her mother had so much faith in her daughter because she truly felt that God had blessed her with the most special child. Shields worked her way up and took all sorts of jobs to get into the spotlight. It was heartbreaking to see how everyone dictated this narrative that she was the most beautiful girl in the world at the age of 12 with no other interests other than beauty. Shields had to compartmentalize when she was young because of the comments made to her about the way she looked. She also did not have a mother to guide her through this misogynistic journey in an industry that exploits young women. 

To watch filmmakers, hosts and tabloids use her as this sex symbol at a young age should have concerned everyone. When Shields came up in the ‘70s, the sexual liberation of women was at an all-time high, and women were not conforming to societal standards. Men were outraged by this feminist movement and turned their eyes to younger women who aren’t fully developed intellectually, so they can easily be manipulated. What hurt the most throughout this two-part documentary was that Shields was not the person the media crafted for her. She was studious, intelligent, dorky, and fun. To hide that side of yourself because it’s not what the media wants can take a mental toll on anyone. Shields had a very rough childhood and adolescence because she had to take care of her mother (who was an alcoholic) and had to mature faster than others. 

Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields is a devastating documentary about how trusted people in the industry do not look after child stars. More importantly, this shows how damaging the entertainment industry can be toward women when they are put into inappropriate positions without being fully informed about situations. Shields is one of the strongest women in the industry to continue performing despite everything that has happened to her. It’s a disturbing look at how men perceive women. And how pedophilic comments were just accepted on national television by everyone. Director Lana Wilson also shows how times have changed and how widely unacceptable the mistreatment of Brooke Shields was then compared to now. 

Sundance Film Festival 2023: ‘Infinity Pool’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Some writers can see different versions of other people but have difficulty understanding their identities. Writers write stories about other people because they don’t find their lives as interesting. They want things to happen for inspirational purposes, not because they want the actual experience. In Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool, James (Alexander Skarsgård) and Em Foster (Cleopatra Coleman) enjoy an all-inclusive beach vacation on the fictional island of La Tolqa. They meet another couple one evening, and things take a turn for the worst. After James gets into an accident, killing one of the locals, the secrets of the resort are uncovered. This twisted, sadistic, and quite bloody horror uniquely showcases Cronenberg’s talent. 

The concept is highlighted in the title and further explored as James meets Gabi (Mia Goth). By now, Goth has made a name for herself as an actor who takes on very eccentric female characters. James is an author whom Gabi loves, and she wants his attention. Not only does she want it, but she also holds his attention even though his wife is present. Goth and Skarsgård have a weird chemistry in this, but it’s intriguing. The more time Gabi and her husband spend with James and Em, they start to form a bond. Cronenberg also shows how tourists often neglect certain cultural traditions on their vacations because it’s strictly leisure. He uses the comfort of a “getaway” feeling to take his characters on a downward spiral of reckless violence and surreal horror.

Through some unique framing choices and beautiful cinematography by Karim Hussain, the technical aspects make the film worth watching. Cronenberg creates such uneasiness in a gorgeous resort from the beginning. From rotating the camera upside down to the sinister score creeping during conversations, the odd camera work places the viewer in a different mindset. The visuals suck you into the world he has created more than the narrative itself. It’s experimental and flashy in moments that are meant to confuse the viewer through the character of James, but the idea falls apart in the third act as it gets a bit repetitive. Cronenberg explores the infinite possibilities of someone’s character in this imaginary pool on this fictional island. In this case, Gabi does show James how to live a lavish, privileged life, but it ultimately comes with a price. 

Infinity Pool by David Cronenberg is a dark and twisted couples’ retreat that shows how tourists can be oblivious to their surroundings. It takes the notion of the wealthy and privileged selling themselves to an elite lifestyle. The relationship between Gabi and James slowly developed, but their peak came too late in the film to explore the meaning of the infinity pool. Goth and Skarsgård give solid performances, but it’s more style over substance when exploring the themes Cronenberg wanted to dive into. The technical aspects, strong visuals, and sexual encounters in the film are the components that make this experience intriguing because of how different it feels through the lens of Cronenberg. 

Sundance Film Festival 2023: ‘Fair Play’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

Men and women have different perceptions of each other. Women are often seen as inferior, and men think of themselves as this higher power. Misogyny is embedded in everyone’s psyche because of patriarchal standards. It comes down to social conditioning at a very young age; as you get older, it can be difficult to rewire your brain. The contrast is seen in the workplace among all industries, as women still need to work twice as hard to prove themselves. In Fair Play, written and directed by Chloe Domont, a newly engaged couple is put to the test when one gets promoted at their shared workplace. It is a sleek, erotic thriller that explores gender roles and their reversal in the modern world. 

A New York couple, Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are in love. They met while working in the same office and haven’t told anyone about their relationship. The company they work for is one of the largest investors in the city, and Human Resources would get involved if anyone found out. Dynevor and Ehrenreich have incredible chemistry during the more loving moments of Emily and Luke’s relationship, but they shine once the claws come out because of a promotion at work. Luke attempts to undercut Emily at every turn and feels emasculated after the shocking turn of events in the office. What started as a “power couple” supporting each other to rise to the top turned into a vicious game of dominance in the workplace and the relationship. 

Domont’s script is so fresh because of how sophisticated the dialogue was between Emily and Luke. In the beginning, they’re playful with each other as they crave each other’s touch at every moment. The words exchanged are thoughtful, sweet and supportive. The innocent conversations about the office and their relationship came from a healthy place of concern. Everything that is said in the first half is completely twisted in the second half as Luke and Emily use previous harmless conversations as weapons against each other. Dynevor exudes this fierceness with plenty of emotion for Emily, while Ehrenreich turns into himself and bottles the mania Luke’s feeling as he slips away from the company. When things become difficult, your partner’s true colours will always show, and Domont shows how bad it can get. 

Fair Play shows how women in power can still make a man feel uncomfortable and degraded. Domont’s script is electric and engaging, as her characters never miss a beat when arguing with each other. The flip of the power dynamics within the household before and after the promotion is unsettling to watch. Dynevor and Ehrenreich are powerhouses in this, as the beast inside their characters is revealed for different reasons. As you watch the film, you feel that Luke can’t treat Emily worse than he already is. Ultimately, Luke’s self-esteem is so low by the end of this film that he tries his utmost to turn it only to cause more destruction. It is such an important film to watch because of how unfairly women can be treated in their relationships by men who project their insecurities on their partners. 

Sundance Film Festival 2023: ‘Magazine Dreams’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

As we grow, we understand where our character stems from. What our insecurities are and what we strive for can become an obsession. It can be rooted in deep trauma and slowly manifest into something else. It can be personal issues, relationships or a career. Whatever happens in childhood is considered baggage because everyone has gone through something. Even minor mishaps can stay in your mind and have long-term effects on future situations are handled. Magazine Dreams, written and directed by Elijah Bynum, is a dark, chilling look into the mind of Killian Maddox, a bodybuilder obsessed with appearing on the front cover of a magazine. We see how far Maddox (Jonathan Majors) is willing to push himself and uncover many repressed thoughts and feelings. 

Bynum masterfully crafts a psychological drama deeply rooted in familial trauma and profoundly affects the trajectory of Maddox’s life. Maddox is a complex character whom people can sympathize with until they can’t. Bynum creates a balance between the highs of Maddox’s mental illness and the lows to gain sympathy but also address serious issues that plague our society. A major one is eating disorders which can lead to an obsessive and unhealthy connection with food. After losing a father figure, Maddox turned to a bodybuilder as his source of inspiration. He became the main figure in his life, someone to aspire to be and get out of the reality he was living in. This caused many issues for Maddox as the commentary from judges would consume him and push him to improve.

The obsession with his career as a bodybuilder took over his life and changed him. He did not socially interact with people the same way others would. He tried hard to be loved and accepted by others. Bynum also shows toxic masculinity through the old-fashioned ideology that you keep pushing even when you’re down and hide when you’re feeling low. And it’s heartbreaking to watch Maddox pass out from the pressure of being the perfect specimen. This is an acting showcase for Jonathan Majors and how talented he is. There are moments of sincerity and hopefulness in between the unhinged obsessive side of Maddox. It’s a blend of emotions and feelings that boil to the surface that Maddox has no explanation for. And Majors gives his most powerful and rather perfect performances to date. 

Magazine Dreams is unhinged, anxiety-inducing, and unpredictable. Bynum creates a chilling atmosphere with an incredible score and camera work to make you feel as impulsive as Maddox. He explores toxic masculinity, mental illness, trauma, and body image in a story filled with horrible circumstances. Jonathan Majors is at his best as Killian Maddox, and his performance will not leave anyone’s mind after they watch it. Maddox is a character that people can learn from, and it does end on a hopeful note. Bynum has created something that will help others understand that you are enough, and to always take care of yourself first. It is one of the most haunting films about body image and how to prioritize your mental health and self-esteem over trying to achieve perfection through societal norms.