2023 Sundance Film Festival: Best and Worst Films

  • Publish Date: January 28, 2023
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The winners

This year's U.S. dramatic jury prizes were selected by a jury consisting of writer Jeremy O. Harris, director Eliza Hittman, and actress Marlee Matlin. Other prizes were selected by additional juries.

U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic)
A Thousand and One
Drama | USA | Directed by A.V. Rockwell
Focus Features will release the film in theaters on March 31

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Previous Grand Jury Prize winners:
2022: Nanny 72
2021: CODA 75
2020: Minari 87
2019: Clemency 77
2018: The Miseducation of Cameron Post 69

Writer-director A.V. Rockwell’s Sundance-winning debut feature is a decades-spanning look at Inez (Teyana Taylor), who kidnaps her son from foster care and struggles to provide him a better life in a rapidly gentrifying Harlem. Writing for The Playlist, Robert Daniels thinks this “breathtakingly beautiful portrait of Black womanhood” is “thoughtfully political,” but the “fascinating parts rarely add up to a satisfying interpersonal whole. Adrian Horton of The Guardian echoes those sentiments, writing, “There are many things working well in Rockwell’s debut, Taylor’s performance chief among them, but the end result doesn’t match her character’s formidable strength.”

For THR's David Rooney, A Thousand and One is “a tender, often painful portrait of the fractious but loving bond between a mother and son, both spat out of the foster care system. It’s also a rich evocation of New York City in the throes of accelerated gentrification and discriminatory policing.” And in her review for Variety, Jessica Kiang praises the writer-director, "Rockwell uses the full range of cinematic expressivity to turn a small, often tragic story of raw deals and rash decisions into an admiring portrait of survivorship, determination and resourcefulness.”

U.S. Audience Award (Dramatic)
The Persian Version
Drama/Comedy | USA | Directed by Maryam Keshavarz

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Previous Audience Award winners:
2022: Cha Cha Real Smooth 69
2021: CODA 75
2020: Minari 87
2019: Brittany Runs a Marathon 72
2018: Burden 63

Writer-director Maryam Kesharvarz’s third feature, following 2011’s Circumstance and 2018’s Viper Club, is a decade- and country-spanning look at the relationship between the queer, pregnant Leila (Layla Mohammadi) and her mother Shireen (Niousha Noor), who emigrated from Iran and became a successful realtor in America. This winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award uses flashbacks to flesh out Shireen’s story, and for Marya E. Gates of The Playlist, those Iran-set sequences proved to be the “most compelling arc, both narratively and emotionally.” In Paste, Jacob Oller seems to agree, adding, “Whatever cultural specificity The Persian Version has, and there’re some endearing scenes when the film flits back to Iran, is hamstrung by obviousness and self-conscious quirkiness.” More positive overall, Variety critic Lisa Kennedy admires how the film “braids comedy and tragedy, vibrant aplomb and thoughtful soberness.” And THR's Leslie Felperin finds the film’s “infectious, fizzy energy [is] hard to resist.”

U.S. Grand Jury Prize (Documentary)
Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project
Documentary | USA | Directed by Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson

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Previous Grand Jury doc winners:
2022: The Exiles 66
2021: Summer of Soul 96
2020: Boys State 84
2019: One Child Nation 85
2018: Kailash 66

Documentarians Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson (American Promise) use archival footage, present-day interviews, and vérité material to take viewers on an imaginative journey into the mind of the great poet Nikki Giovanni. Michael Frank of The Film Stage appreciates that the film “doesn’t shy from experimentation,” finding “the intimacy within Giovanni’s poetry.” IndieWire's Robert Daniels believes the documentary “lacks the thesis needed to interpret Giovanni,” though he allows that “Brewster and Stephenson, through tender immersion and lyrical invention, inspires viewers who have maybe never read Giovanni to seek out her poems.” In her review for Variety, Lisa Kennedy is thankful the film “doesn’t default to the conventional in its biographical mission,” showing Giovanni’s “still on the adventure of living, taking those willing to do the work along for the ride.” And THR critic Lovia Gyarkye adds, “Where Going to Mars undoubtedly succeeds is in spotlighting the poet’s blazing personality, her unwavering confidence and her commitment to community without ever sacrificing herself.”

U.S. Audience Award (Documentary)
Beyond Utopia
Documentary | USA | Directed by Madeleine Gavin

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Previous Audience Award doc winners:
2022: Navalny 82
2021: Summer of Soul 96
2020: Crip Camp 86
2019: Knock Down the House 80
2018: The Sentence 69

Director Madeleine Gavin (City of Joy) blends together hidden camera video, archival footage, and interviews to chronicle the perilous journey taken by families who want to escape North Korea. Aided by Pastor Seungeun Kim, who has helped 1,000 people escape in the last decade, five members of a family struggle to get to Thailand via China, Vietnam, and Laos in what Lena Wilson describes in The Playlist as a “staggering achievement, the sort of nonfiction project that takes unfathomable guts and skill.” For /Film's Ben Pearson, this “powerful and important look behind the curtain” is “intense, thrilling, heartbreaking, and vital.” And in her review for Screen Daily, Fionnuala Halligan writes, “This is a film you haven’t seen before from a place you’ll never visit, a first-class example of bravery and reportage melding into an filmed testament. It’s not just that it’s nailbiting. The unease lingers long after viewing, though, for every person associated with it.”

World Cinema Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic)
Comedy/Drama | UK | Directed by Charlotte Regan

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Writer-director Charlotte Regan’s debut feature won the international dramatic competition at this year’s festival. Newcomer Lola Campbell plays 12-year-old Georgie, who’s been living at her London flat since her mother’s death, making money by stealing bikes, and pretending to live with a fake uncle. When her long-estranged father Jason (Harris Dickinson) returns, she’s suspect of his motivations. THR's Leslie Felperin believes Regan’s “underdeveloped script” lets the film down because it “can’t quite manage the tonal shifts between grief and comedy hijinks,” and Christopher Schobert of The Film Stage, while liking the film more overall, also dings Regan’s writing: “Scrapper‘s conclusion is sweet, subtle, and predictable. Indeed, it is the predictability of Regan’s screenplay that keeps the film from greatness.” Writing for Screen Daily, Wendy Ide finds Scrapper “stylistically bold and youthful in approach, if sometimes a little uneven, it’s a picture packed full of ideas and fizzing energy." And IndieWire's Adam Solomons admits the film “doesn’t strive for the dramatic highs and lows its actors could probably pull off,” but he still thinks it’s a “smart, sensitive debut and a promising arrival for its talented director.”

Festival Favorite Award
Drama | USA | Directed by Christopher Zalla

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Written and directed by Christopher Zalla, who won the Sundance U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize in 2007 for Sangre De Mi Sangre (aka Padre Nuestro), this Spanish-language feature, based on a true story reported on by Joshua Davis in Wired, took home the Festival Favorite Award, which is voted on by Sundance audiences rather than a jury. Set during 2011 in the dangerous border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, this inspirational drama about a dedicated teacher follows Sergio Juárez Correa (CODA's encouraging teacher Eugenio Derbez) as he tries to connect with his sixth grade class. In his review for IndieWire, Carlos Aguilar admits “Radical can’t escape a formulaic construction,” but the “backdrop of poverty and hopelessness make the light that Derbez’s character brings into the classroom, and in turn into the youths’ lives, earned.” The ensemble of young actors received praise from multiple critics, including Tim Grierson of Screen Daily, who believes the “fairly straightforward drama in which the predictable arc is matched by its heartfelt sincerity” is “boosted by some lovely performances from its young actors.” And NY Post's Johnny Oleksinski agrees, writing, “The well-known story beats are also given renewed vitality by the young actors, whom director Christopher Zalla expertly steers away from being typical overemoting movie kids.”

Other winning films include:

World Cinema Dramatic - Audience Award: Shayda (Australia)

World Cinema Documentary - Grand Jury Prize: The Eternal Memory (Chile)

World Cinema Documentary - Audience Award: 20 Days in Mariupol (Ukraine)

NEXT Audience Award: Kokomo City (USA)

Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize: The Pod Generation (Belgium/France/UK)

Best of the festival

Below are additional titles generating the most positive buzz at this year's festival. That's followed by a list of the remaining notable festival debuts, and then by a recap of this year's Sundance duds. Note that any Sundance films which previously debuted at other festivals (including Other People's Children and Squaring the Circle) are excluded, as are Sundance debuts that have already opened in theaters and have been reviewed outside the festival setting (like Infinity Pool).

20 Days in Mariupol
Documentary | Ukraine | Directed by Mstyslav Chernov

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Ukrainian filmmaker and journalist Mstyslav Chernov gives a “punishingly up-close look at the toll of modern warfare on a population,” according to Variety's Dennis Harvey, making this documentary following Chernov and conflict zone reporters Evgeniy Maloletka and Vasilisa Stepanenko in Mariupol during Russia’s 2022 invasion “bleak but essential viewing.” For TheWrap's Steve Pond, the Audience Award winner in the World Cinema Documentary competition is not “artful. It is urgent and ruthless and horrifying, and it shows the unspeakable.” These sentiments are echoed by Allan Hunter of Screen Daily, who calls it a “feature-length testimony that conveys the individual suffering and tragedy at the heart of this brutal, ongoing war.” The Daily Beast's Nick Schager adds, “There’s little time for poetry in 20 Days in Mariupol, only the appalling, unvarnished reality of a massacre of innocent civilians masquerading as a defensive Russian military endeavor, and of a courageous journalist trying to do his job in the midst of active, lethal combat.”

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt
Drama | USA | Directed by Raven Jackson
A24 will release the film in theaters (date tbd)

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Raven Jackson’s debut feature is decades-spanning portrait of Mack, a Black woman in Mississippi, and her connection to the traditions, people, and spirit of her home. IndieWire's David Ehrlich describes it as a “too-studied slipstream of a movie” and a “pointillistic series of grace notes in search of a greater melody,” and Mae Abdulbaki of Screen Rant finds the character development “a bit thin” in this otherwise “stunning, thought-provoking, and poignant” film. But for THR's Caryn James, “miraculously, all its elements come together. Jackson’s risky, beautifully realized film puts a pure artistic vision on screen.” And in his review for TheWrap, Carlos Aguilar calls All Dirt Roads “one of the best debuts of the year" and sees a “monumental work of elemental soulfulness and ravishing poetry.” Lastly, in is "A" review for The Playlist, Robert Daniels writes, “So few films take such delight in wrapping us, without reservation, in the hopes, desires, and real depths that power the spirits of Black folk. Jackson’s pleasure in those facets is nourishing."

Action/Drama | USA | Directed by Roger Ross Williams
Will stream on Prime Video (date tbd)

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Oscar winning documentarian Roger Ross Williams (Life, Animated, The Apollo) makes his narrative feature debut with this exuberant biopic about Saúl Armendáriz (Gael García Bernal), known to fans of his powerful and flamboyant wrestling as Cassandro, the “Liberace of lucha libre.” For THR's David Rooney it’s a film with “enormous heart,” in which “Gael García Bernal nails his best role in years.” Nick Schager of The Daily Beast also believes García Bernal is “phenomenal” in this “wild and entertaining story.” And in his review for IndieWire, Carlos Aguilar praises Garcia Bernal for “one of his most layered performances to date,” and also highlights Ross Williams’ “ impressive transition” and ability to avoid “making a film with a marked outsider’s point of view."

Earth Mama
Drama | USA | Directed by Savanah Leaf

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Savanah Leaf’s feature directorial debut follows 24-year-old Gia (Oakland rapper Tia Nomore), a Black single mother pregnant with her third child and struggling to regain custody of her first two children who are currently in foster care. According to Jordan Raup of The Film Stage, “Olympian-turned-director Leaf finds both the humanity and beauty of every frame, bringing empathy to an impossible situation and delivering an abundance of grace notes.” For IndieWire's Ryan Lattanzio, it’s a “tremendously moving film,” whose “director and star are obviously poised for greatness.” And in her review for TheWrap, Ronda Racha Penrice agrees that “Tia Nomore stuns in her feature film debut,” while Leaf succeeds in showing “us how society is failing young Black women.” THR's Lovia Gyarkye adds, “Earth Mama is a melancholic story transformed into a precious portrait by the director’s generous and nurturing eye.”

Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by William Oldroyd

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Director William Oldroyd’s follow-up to Lady Macbeth is an adaptation of Otessa Moshfegh’s novel about the complicated relationship between two women in 1964 Massachusetts. Thomasin McKenzie plays Eileen, a secretary who becomes infatuated with Anne Hathaway’s Rebecca, the new counselor at the prison where they work. For critics Richard Lawson (Vanity Fair) and Tomris Laffly (The Playlist), it’s the rare film they wish were longer, with Lawson adding, “Its fertile territory is woefully underdeveloped—so much of the film’s innate potential goes unutilized.” But for a majority of critics, it’s an enthralling ride. TheWrap's Steve Pond writes, “Eileen isn’t concerned with delivering lessons about female empowerment. Oldroyd rather glories in dark, troubled and magnificently contradictory characters acting in gloriously twisted ways.” THR critic David Rooney describes it as “both malevolent and playful, morbidly funny and disturbing,” and in her review for Variety, Jessica Kiang praises the “career-high performances” of Hathaway and McKenzie, and the film’s divisive nature: “It might prove an off-putting cocktail in some quarters, but the weirdos among us will find Eileen’s sheer chutzpah, couched as it is in classy, clever filmmaking, curiously exhilarating and addictive.”

Fancy Dance
Drama | USA | Directed by Erica Tremblay

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Erica Tremblay’s narrative feature debut, co-written with Miciana Alise, is set on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in Oklahoma and follows Jax (Certain Women's Lily Gladstone) as she cares for her niece, Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson), after the disappearance of her sister. THR's Justin Lowe thinks it’s an “exceptional directorial debut” with “two standout turns” from Gladstone and Deroy-Olson, and in her review for The Playlist, Marya E. Gates praises their “easy chemistry” in a film with an ending that “comes together a little too neatly,” but still makes an undeniable impact. For Collider's Chase Hutchinson, “Tremblay builds a rich world of complicated characters that continues to grow until arriving at a conclusion that is so fitting and unexpected at the same time that it lays you completely flat.” And Sarah Milner of /Film believes this “empowering feature film that celebrates femininity in all its forms” is a “must-see film from Sundance 2023.”

Fair Play
Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Chloe Domont
Acquired at Sundance by Netflix for a reported $20 million (streaming date tbd)

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Acquired by Netflix after the biggest bidding war of this year's festival, writer-director Chloe Domont’s feature directing debut stars Phoebe Dynevor (Bridgerton) and Alden Ehrenrich (Solo: A Star Wars Story) as a newly engaged New York couple who work at the same cutthroat financial firm. When one of them gets promoted, their relationship is thrown into turmoil. “Both Dynevor and Ehrenreich are compelling, even when Fair Play enters shaky narrative terrain,” according to Tim Grierson of Screen Daily, who also finds this psychological drama “wilfully provocative — and going to extremes to make its points.” LA Times critic Justin Chang believes it’s a “wicked-sharp psychological thriller that marks the scarily assured feature debut of the writer-director Chloe Domont.” Mae Abdulbaki of Screen Rant agrees that Fair Play is “intoxicating and thrilling” and an “exceptionally strong feature debut,” and Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson adds, “Despite all the histrionics swallowing up the film, a great deal of restraint remains. Domont eschews obvious developments and applies careful details that keep Fair Play sinewy and intriguing.”

Flora and Son
Drama/Comedy/Music | USA/Ireland | Directed by John Carney
Acquired by Apple at Sundance for an estimated $15-$20 million; streaming date tbd

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The latest from writer-director John Carney (Once, Sing Street) follows Flora (Eve Hewson), a young mother living in Dublin with a 14-year-old son (Orén Kinlan) and an ex (Jack Reynor) she can’t rely on. When she picks up a used guitar as a gift for her son, he rejects it, leading Flora to seek online guitar lessons from Los Angeles-based Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). In his review for TheWrap, Nicolas Barber finds the film “more like a scrappy demo tape than a polished album,” and The Playlist's Jason Bailey admits this “tiny lil’ wisp of a movie” has “nothing particularly new to say or an especially fresh way to say it. But damned if it doesn’t sock you right in the ticker anyway.” Caryn James of THR is impressed by Hewson’s ability to take a “flawed but good-hearted mess of a character” and make her “sympathetic, likable and fully human,” and Variety’s Owen Gleiberman believes Hewson “has star quality spilling right out of her,” so much so that one could swear her “ tears are giving a performance” in one scene. Vanity Fair critic Richard Lawson sums his feelings up this way, “Flora and Son played more charming than cloying to me. It’s a nice movie about people who are mostly nice—deep down, anyway.”

Kokomo City
Documentary | USA | Directed by D. Smith
Acquired at Sundance by Magnolia Pictures for an undisclosed amount; will release in theaters (tbd)

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D. Smith, a two-time Grammy-nominated songwriter and the director of this documentary on four Black transgender sex workers in New York and Georgia, took home two awards: the NEXT Innovator Award and the NEXT Audience Award. Smith’s black-and-white debut, which she shot, edited and scored, has a “a handmade underdog feel, loose and close and raw, but every DIY frame is fierce,” writes Paste's Jacob Oller, who also finds this “gripping and accessible dissection of modern life” to be “hilarious, scary, tragic and sometimes flat-out jaw-dropping.” Variety critic Peter Debruge exclaims “this doc rocks,” and commends Smith and her subjects for their candor, “The questions may not be pre-approved by GLAAD, but they’re coming from a trans woman actively working against the usual feel-good talking points; the responses she gets are frank, funny and frequently shocking.” Jude Dry of IndieWire has only praise for this “luminous documentary portrait,” and the “visionary artist” who directed it, “Smith’s music and photography instincts carry the film cinematically, but the real stars of Kokomo City are its honest and dynamic subjects.”

A Little Prayer
Drama | USA | Directed by Angus MacLachlan
Acquired at Sundance by Sony Pictures Classics for an undisclosed amount (release date tbd)

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Angus MacLachlan’s third feature, following Goodbye to All That and Abundant Acreage Available, stars David Strathairn as a father who feels a need to protect his daughter-in-law (Jane Levy) when he discovers his son (Will Pullen) is having an affair. In his review for TheWrap, Robert Abele praises “Straithairn’s portrait of well-intentioned, flummoxed patriarchal intervention” and MacLachalan’s ability to weave “a tale of human frailty and strained connection rare in its avoidance of judgmental histrionics and embrace of what makes all of us unknowable yet worthy of forgiveness.” THR's Sheri Linden believes the “emotional impact of A Little Prayer doesn’t so much detonate as unfold, a series of quiet epiphanies, well-observed and elegant in their awkward yearning.” Writing for The Playlist, Marya E. Gates calls it a “little miracle of a film” with a “strong ensemble cast, mordant Southern humor, and sharp insights into the perils and comforts of loving with your whole heart.”

Drama | France | Directed by Ira Sachs
Acquired at Sundance by Mubi for an undisclosed amouunt (release tbd)

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After the rare misstep of 2019’s Frankie, Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On, Love is Strange, Litlte Men) is back in fine form with this story of Tomas (Franz Rogowski), a German filmmaker who is married to a man (Ben Whishaw) but begins a passionate affair with a woman (Adèle Exarchopoulos). It’s a “transfixing watch,” according to Jordan Raup of The Film Stage, one that “triumphantly refutes the recent foolish 'unnecessary sex scenes’ discourse,” and captures “love in all its messiness.” IndieWire's David Ehrlich believes Passages “is the kind of fuck around and find out love triangle that rings true because we aspire to its sexier moments but see ourselves in its most selfish ones.” In his review for THR, Jon Frosch asserts that Passages is “so universal the movie might as well come with a trigger warning,” and although it “may not be Sachs’ best, but it’s his boldest — a work of skill and confidence that finds the filmmaker unwilling to grant his characters easy absolution and unafraid to alienate the audience.”

Past Lives
Drama | USA | Directed by Celine Song
A24 will release the film in theaters (date tbd)

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The best-reviewed film of the festival (and of the year so far) is the feature debut for playwright Celine Song. Taking place at three distinct periods separated by 12 years, this “delicate yet crushingly beautiful film”, in the words of IndieWire's David Ehrlich, follows the evolving relationship of Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) as the childhood friends are separated when Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea to Canada. For Vanity Fair critic Richard Lawson, “Past Lives is understated and yet vast in its consideration of the slow changes of life, of the past’s constant whispering to the present. The film is as auspicious a debut as one can hope to see at Sundance, the announcement of a filmmaker confident in her craft and abundantly generous with her heart.” Mae Abdulbaki of Screen Rant agrees, “It’s soulful, tender — an understated triumph. Song’s directing and writing is confident, bringing so much heart and nuance to a simple story that is inspiring, delicate, and evocative.” THR's David Rooney believes it “has interludes of soaring romance that will make you catch your breath but is rigorous in its avoidance of melodrama,” and its “reflections will likely keep haunting you for days.” Writing for TheWrap, Carlos Aguilar adds, “Past Lives is an exquisitely wistful drama that speaks with an honesty so affectingly crisp it will turn your conceptions of love, identity and fate on their head.”

Polite Society
Action/Comedy/Horror/Music | UK | Directed by Nida Manzoor
Focus Features will release the film in theaters on April 28

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It may only be January, but we may already have a worthy successor to Everything Everthing All at Once. In this kitchen-sink coming-of-age comedy from We Are Lady Parts creator Nida Manzoor, martial artist-in-training Ria (Priya Kansara) takes it upon herself to save her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) from marrying doctor Salim (Akshay Khanna), the only son of the devious Raheela (Ms. Marvel’s Nimra Bucha). “Heartfelt and humorous with plenty of charm to spare,” is how Chase Hutchinson describes it for Collider, and IndieWire's Kate Erbland finds Society “as inspirational as it is entertaining,” and a “nutty joy from start to finish,” an action-comedy that “throws everything from Sixteen Candles and The Matrix to Ocean’s Twelve and Everything Everywhere All at Once into a blender and spins them up for totally original ends.” Screen Daily critic Tim Grierson also believes it’s an “amusing genre mashup that celebrates sisterhood and individuality.” And, writing for The Playlist, Poulomi Das gives an "A–" to this “pulpy, irresistible heist movie replete with visual wit, impressive martial arts, gripping social horror, and undiluted female rage.”

Rye Lane Watch trailer
Rom-com | UK | Directed by Raine Allen-Miller
Streams on Hulu beginning March 31

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Likened by many reviewers to a lighter version of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, the amiable feature debut for British director Raine Allen-Miller spends a day in South London with Dom and Yas (David Jonsson of HBO's Industry, Vivian Oparah from Class), each coming off of messy breakups, as they impulsively head out on the town for a first date. Most reviewers find the film easy to like, but while The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw enjoys the two leads and the film's "amiable, upbeat energy," he also thinks the "cartoony" and "unsubtle" rom-com suffers from "a bit too much of a kids-TV feel." But THR critic Jordan Mintzer thinks the aesthetic is more Wes Anderson than kids' TV (a fine distinction, to be sure), and has lots of praise for an "additictive" debut that is "colorfully clever and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny" and only let down, slightly, by a "too cute" ending. And IndieWire's Esther Zuckerman, who calls Rye Lane "delightful," feels that Allen-MIller's "energetic approach" more than makes up for the overall slightness of the story. But no critic offers more praise than The Playlist's Robert Daniels, who calls Rye Lane not only "the best, most delightful rom-com of the year" but also "Allen-Miller’s first great film."

The Starling Girl
Drama | USA | Directed by Laurel Parmet

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Writer-director Laurel Parmet’s debut feature follows 17-year-old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) as she enters a relationship with her married youth pastor, played by Lewis Pullman (Top Gun: Maverick). Set at a fundamentalist Christian community in Kentucky, this “assured debut signals Parmet as a filmmaker daring enough to tackle challenging subjects with nuance, empathy, and an unflinching discernment,” according to TheWrap's Katie Walsh. For IndieWire critic David Ehrlich the “power of this sensitive and devilishly detailed coming-of-age drama is rooted in the friction that it finds between biblical paternalism and modern personhood.” And Patrice Witherspoon of Screen Rant believes “Parmet finds a way to delicately balance morally complex issues,” resulting in a “triumphant effort about finding love within.”

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie
Documentary | USA | Directed by Davis Guggenheim

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Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman) directs this documentary about Michael J. Fox, covering his acting career and his life-altering diagnosis of Parkinson's disease at the age of 29. Featuring a new interview with Fox, plenty of scenes from his work, and recreations of specific moments in is life, Still is an “insightful, creatively edited documentary,” according to Jake Kring-Schreifels of The Film Stage. The Daily Beast's Nick Schager believes the doc's “poignancy and humor is amplified by its canny decision to let Fox tell his own tale.” And Screen Daily critic Tim Grierson finds Still to be “tearjerking and intimate,” and interesting in how it “both adheres to and sidesteps the rise-then-fall-then-rise-again narrative arc that’s typical of biopics.”

You Hurt My Feelings
Comedy/Drama | USA | Directed by Nicole Holofcener
A24 will release the film in theaters (date tbd)

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Writer-director Nicole Holofcener reunites with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the star of her critically-acclaimed 2013 film Enough Said, for this dramedy about Beth, a novelist whose life unravels when she overhears her therapist husband (Tobias Menzies) admit that he doesn’t like her new book. With supporting turns by Michaela Watkins, Owen Teague, Arian Moayed, David Cross, and Amber Tamblyn, Feelings is “as perceptive, insightful, and funny as [Holofcener's] best work,” according to Jordan Raup of The Film Stage. While IndieWire's Kate Erbland is less positive, noting, “It all feels very real, very relatable, and very familiar. That’s not always a good thing,” The Guardian critic Benjamin Lee believes “Holofcener and Louis-Dreyfus again make for perfectly pitched partners.” And, writing for the AV Club, Tomris Laffly praises Holofcener’s “sharp observations on marriage, professional success, and insecurities that sometimes become self-fulfilling prophecies, doing so with both an earnest (sometimes laugh out loud) sense of humor and a keenly observant eye.”

Other notable debuts (good but unexceptional)

Bad Behaviour
Action/Comedy/Drama/Thriller | New Zealand | Directed by Alice Englert

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Actor Alice Englert, the daughter of Oscar-winning filmmaker Jane Campion (who has a brief cameo), makes her feature directing debut with this darkly comedic mother-daughter story starring Jennifer Connelly as Lucy, a former child actress seeking enlightenment from guru Elon Bello (Ben Whishaw), and Englert herself as Dylan, Lucy’s daughter and a stunt performer attempting to train for a difficult fight scene when her mother interrupts her. Writing for the AV Club, Tomris Laffly finds the film “as formless and searching as the individuals who drive it,” and in her review for TheWrap, Lena Wilson agrees, calling Behaviour “aimless” like its characters and a “stumbling first feature” that “hints at promising pathos and vision without delivering anything truly substantial.” Supporters of the film include Caryn James of THR, who believes Englert “expertly finds the line between satire and sincerity,” and The Playlist's Jason Bailey, who writes “Bad Behaviour is strange, savage, and oddly beautiful, and it announces Alice Englert as one to watch.”

The Deepest Breath
Documentary | UK/Ireland | Directed by Laura McGann
Will stream on Netflix (date tbd) and may also play in theaters (also tbd)

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Irish filmmaker Laura McGann dives into the world of freediving, a dangerous extreme sport (where blackouts are frequent and death is a possibility) that finds competitors striving to reach remarkable undersea depths with only the last breath of air held in their lungs (and no SCUBA gear). Her film, a collaboration between A24 and Netflix, focuses on two divers in particular: Italian champion Alessia Zecchini and her Irish safety diver (and romantic partner) Stephen Keenan as Zecchini prepares for an attempt at navigating an 85-foot-long tunnel located over 180 feet below the Red Sea. Is there stunning underwater photography on display in The Deepest Breath? The answer is an easy yes: "The best scenes," says The Wrap's Simon Abrams in an otherwise mixed review, "present freediving as a haunting and impressionistic collage of hand-held diving footage," while Slashfilm's Ben Pearson calls the footage "truly hypnotic to watch." But the rest of the movie, perhaps, suffers in comparison—especially when, as many critics feel, information on the two subjects is lacking and McGann manipulates the narrative to tell the story she wants to tell. IndieWire's David Ehrlich warns that Breath "keeps us at a distance by teasing out its ultimate tragedy, contriving shallow intrigue at the expense of its potential depth." But while THR critic Dan Fienberg agrees that the narrative is "manipulated"—in fact, so much so that "it's right on the edge of gross"—he eventually concludes that "the craftsmanship that drives The Deepest Breath is so effective that I was ultimately left with a well-rendered catharsis instead of ickiness."

Drama | USA | Directed by Andrew Durham

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Writer-director Andrew Durham’s debut feature is an adaptation of Alysia Abbott’s memoir about growing up in San Francisco in the 1970s and 80s with her queer father Steve after the sudden death of her mother. The performance of Scoot McNairy as Steve makes the film “ultimately, utterly heartbreaking,” according to Murtada Elfadl of the AV Club. That sentiment is echoed by many critics including Katie Walsh in her review for The Wrap: “The emotion and intention behind the story, as well as McNairy’s career-best performance, make Fairyland an astonishingly moving film and touching remembrance.” When CODA’s Emilia Jones enters the film as the teenage Alysia, her scenes with McNairy are where the film “really finds the beauty of this story,” according to Collider's Ross Bonaime.

In My Mother's Skin
Horror/Thriller/Fantasy | Philippines/Singapore/Taiwan | Directed by Kenneth Dagatan
Acquired at Sundance by Amazon for an undisclosed amount (will likely stream in late 2023)

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Filipino writer-director Kenneth Dagatan follows up his 2018 debut Ma (never released in the U.S., and not to be confused with the Tate Taylor horror film that came out at about the same time) with a gory, folkloric horror tale set mostly in a forest in the Japan-occupied Philippines near the end of WWII. There, a teenage girl "mistakenly places her trust in a beguiling, flesh-eating fairy" in the hopes of saving her parents after her father steals gold from the Japanese invaders while her mother suffers from a terrible illness. (Don't worry: You do get to see the flesh eating.) Screen's Fionnuala Halligan sees the influence of Guillermo del Toro on In My Mother's Skin, which she admires for its atmosphere and impressive performance from young lead Felicity Kyle Napuli, even if "there’s a circularity to the narrative that can feel strained." Variety's Michael Nordine echoes the del Toro reference and concludes, "In My Mother’s Skin finds a rare sweet spot between story-book nightmare and historical allegory." He also praises the cinematography, as does Collider's Chase Hutchinson, who admires "visuals that will echo through your mind." But Slashfilm's Barry Levitt cautions, "While the atmosphere, visual effects, and camerawork keep tensions high, the plot begins to wear thin."

Kim's Video
Documentary | USA | Directed by Ashley Sabin and David Redmon

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In what John Fink of The Film Stage calls an “endlessly entertaining” documentary, filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin (Girl Model, Downeast) search for Yongman Kim’s missing movie collection which he sold in 2008 to the small Italian village of Salemi, Sicily when he closed his beloved New York City rental shop, Kim’s Video. Evoking various film forms—heist movies, investigative documentaries, experimental and essay films—Redmon and Sabin produce a “rollicking tale of the inextricable bonds between life and art, and the value of ensuring that the latter remains preserved for future generations,” according to Nick Schager of The Daily Beast. For Paste's Jacob Oller, Kim’s Video is an unfortunate example that “being on the right side of history, in the right place and with the right story isn’t enough to make satisfying non-fiction." But Wendy Ide of Screen Daily believes the “unexpected humour and sheer ballsiness of Redmon and Sabin’s quest make for an entertaining ride which is only slightly undermined by the overuse of clumsily crowbarred movie references.”

Magazine Dreams
Drama | USA | Directed by Elijah Bynum

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Winner of a special jury award for "Creative Vision," writer-director Elijah Bynum’s follow-up to 2018’s Hot Summer Nights stars Jonathan Majors as Killian Maddox, an aspiring bodybuilder living a troubled, isolated life dedicated to pushing his body beyond its limits. LA Times critic Justin Chang believes it’s a “furious, darkly funny and agonizingly bleak vision” with an “entirely astonishing lead performance from Jonathan Majors.” Even for reviewers less enthusiastic about the film, like The Film Stage's Jordan Raup, who claims a “promising first half gives way to a muddled second with the film journeying down multiple unwieldy paths,” Majors is still a “powerhouse.” In his review for TheWrap, Carlos Aguilar describes the star's performance as “the kind of earth-shattering showcase that turns an actor into a legend.” And EW's Leah Greenblatt gives the film an "A–," admitting, “Even as the pacing falters, Majors is impossible to look away from.” Writing for The Playlist, Robert Daniels adds that this “audaciously ambitious feature” is “uncomfortable and conflicting and may even prove divisive. And it’s unquestionably unforgettable.”

The Pod Generation
Comedy/Drama/Sci-fi | Belgium/France/UK | Directed by Sophie Barthes

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Writer-director Sophie Barthes (Cold Souls, Madame Bovary) took home the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Sundance Institute Science-in-Film prize for this sci-fi romantic comedy starring Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who play a couple who decide to have a baby through the Womb Center, which offers pregnancy via a pod. But the honors for the film didn't exactly signify uniformly glowing reviews, and the film's Metascore has been alternating between yellow and green all week. For THR's David Rooney “the humor gets dulled once the setup is in motion and a nagging flatness creeps in just as the central couple’s quandary should be gathering steam.” But Jason Bailey of The Playlist believes it’s a film “full of compelling ideas,” and IndieWire's Kate Erbland calls Pod Generation a “cleverly constructed vision of a tech-mad utopia” with “strong performances” by Clarke and Ejiofor.

Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields
TV/Documentary | USA | Directed by Lana Wilson
Will stream on Hulu as a two-part series (date tbd)

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Lana Wilson (Miss Americana) directs a two-part (but feature-length) profile of child model turned actress Brooke Shields, tracing the star's life in the public eye—and the frequent exploitation of her sexuality, even as a minor—through a wealth of archival footage and media interviews from throughout her life (as well as a new interview with present-day Shields which includes the bombshell revelation of an alleged rape by someone in the film industry). At The Daily Beast, Kevin Fallon sees a "moving" and "compelling" documentary, while Variety's Owen Gleiberman deems the film "a supremely well-crafted piece of conventional documentary portraiture," concluding, "by the end of 'Pretty Baby,' you do know who the real Brooke is." In a less enthusiastic but still positive review in The Wrap, Fran Hoepfner also sees a "conventional" documentary and cautions, "What emerges is often repetitive and Wikipedia-esque," but adds, "Shields is a strong enough star to withstand that." But IndieWire's Kate Erbland feels the film is incomplete despite all the biographical detail, warning, "[N]ecessary context is often an afterthought. Wilson throws in brief ruminations on the rise of women’s lib and the commodification of beauty, but these notes are (ironically) only surface-level."

Comedy | USA | Directed by Randall Park

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Actor Randall Park makes his feature directorial debut with this adaptation of Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel. With a screenplay by Tomine, Shortcomings follows Ben (After Yang’s Justin H. Min), a struggling filmmaker, Miko (Ally Maki), his well-off and more ambitious girlfriend, and his best friend Alice (Sherry Cola) as they fall in and out of love with various partners, first in Berkley, California and then in New York City. Despite its “charming cast and some sharp bits of commentary on race, identity and gender,” its “familiar premise” heads in “familiar directions,” according to Jordan Mintzer of THR. But Variety critic Jessica Kiang has more appreciation for this “fresh-faced, funny directorial debut from the ever-engaging Park,” and Erin Brady of /Film finds it “charming” with plenty of fast-cracking jokes.” In her "A–" review for The Playlist, Poulomi Das adds, “Park proves to be a director with style and wit to spare, staging revelatory sequences that walk the narrow line between comedy and provocation.”

Sometimes I Think About Dying
Drama/Comedy | USA | Directed by Rachel Lambert

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Set on the Oregon coast, the new film by director Rachel Lambert (In the Radiant City) follows Fran (Daisy Ridley) on her isolated, dreary days of office work, as she daydreams about how she might die. When Robert (Dave Merheje), a naturally friendly new employee, joins the company, he tries to connect with Fran, who hesitantly opens up to him. Bolstered by “strong performances” from Ridley and Merheje, Dying is “emotionally resonant, humorous, and relatable,” according to Mae Abdulbaki of Screen Rant. And THR's Lovia Gyarkye believes it’s a “graceful treatise on how challenging — but liberating — it can be to make connections.” Ross Bonaime of Collider thinks “Ridley gives what might be her best performance, and Lambert knows exactly how to balance the delicate mood of the film.” And IndieWire critic Kate Erbland agrees, admitting the “end result might be expected, but Ridley and Lambert do winning work to get us there.”

Talk to Me
Horror/Thriller | Australia | Directed by Danny Philippou and Michael Philippou
Acquired at Sundance by A24 for an undisclosed amount; will release in theaters this summer

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The debut feature of Australian twins Danny and Michael Philippou (known on YouTube as RackaRacka) follows Mia (Sophie Wilde), a seventeen-year-old girl dealing with the loss of her mother, as she and her friends reach out to the spirit world via a mysterious embalmed hand. With a script by Bill Hinzman and Danny Philippou, the brothers have created “the type of horror film whose effectiveness arises from its barebones simplicity,” according to IndieWire's Robert Daniels, who describes the film as a “bundle of taut nerves stretched to their vomit-inducing breaking point.” Writing for The Playlist, Mike DeAngelo also praises the “tension and unease throughout the film,” as well as the “particularly intense and haunting” climax that “feels inevitable and leaves the door open for the world to expand.” Screen Daily's Nikki Baughan praises the blend of “practical and in-camera effects (and deft editing from Geoff Lamb)” the result in “some genuinely disturbing sequences,” and Chase Hutchinson of Collider admires how Talk to Me “grabs hold of you in a couple of standout sequences,” and promises it will “capture the souls of horror sickos looking for a sinister spectacle.”

Theater Camp
Comedy | USA | Directed by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman
Acquired at Sundance by Searchlight Pictures for approx. $8 million; will play in theaters (date tbd)

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Making their feature directing debut with this mockumentary, Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman celebrate and send up the teachers and kids at a summer performing arts camp in upstate New York called AdirondACTS. When the camp's founder (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma, instructors Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) and Amos (Ben Platt) joins forces to pull off an original musical in hopes of saving the camp. Theater Camp should be "catnip for its target audience while feeling more than a tad indulgent to everyone else,” according to Screen Daily's Tim Grierson, who finds the original songs a success, but thinks the film overall “suffers from the inevitable hit-or-miss ratio of its improv-heavy script.” Vanity Fair critic Esther Zuckerman believes the film is “delicately calibrated to celebrate overly dramatic weirdos while playfully ribbing them at the same time.” And in his review for TheWrap, Carlos Aguilar praises the “extraordinary group of young actors who propel Theater Camp forward.” The Sundance jury also singled out that ensemble of actors for a Special Jury Award.

The disappointments

AUM: The Cult at the End of the World
Documentary | USA | Directed by Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto

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Loosely based on David. E Kaplan and Andrew Marshall’s book The Cult at the End of the World: The Cult at the End of the World: The Terrifying Story of the Aum Doomsday Cult, from the Subways of Tokyo to the Nuclear Arsenals of Russia, this documentary from directors Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto recounts the formation and actions of Aum Shinrikyo, the cult behind the deadly 1995 sarin nerve-gas attacks in Tokyo. Daniel Fienberg of THR believes the “generally compelling” story “deserves a better recounting,” and IndieWire's David Ehrlich similarly finds it “well-sourced” but “frustratingly shortsighted about the societal conditions that allowed Aum to thrive in public for so long.” But Chris Barsanti of The Playlist admires the “cool, methodical, and unsettling documentary,” and in her review for TheWrap, Lena Wilson praises how the filmmakers balance “perspective and tone with aplomb,” resulting in a “polished, straightforward account of harrowing events, told with empathy and relative objectivity.”

Cat Person
Action/Drama/Thriller | France/USA | Directed by Susanna Fogel

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Director Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me) and writer Michelle Ashford (creator of Showtime's Masters of Sex) expand on Kristen Roupenian’s 2017 viral short story to mixed effect with this adaptation starring CODA’s Emilia Jones as Margot, a college student who enters a brief, fraught relationship with 33-year-old Robert (Succession’s Nicholas Braun). Time critic Stephanie Zacharek writes, “No one needs a confused movie about dating confusion, and Cat Person’s ideas are so blurry it’s impossible to know what its goals are.” In the LA Times, Justin Chang adds, “There is nothing better about this Cat Person, which coarsens, flattens and torturously over-elaborates a story whose elegant concision was precisely what made it such rich and elastic interpretive fodder.” In her review for TheWrap. Katie Walsh is slightly more positive: “It is a bold, stylish and dynamic adaptation that makes big choices that may have one puzzling through both the characters’ and filmmakers’ intentions — or maybe not. It is a mirror after all, and the moral of the story is left up to us, which is perhaps the most daring move of all.” Lastly, Variety's Peter Debruge suggests, “It’s a squirmy, uncomfortable movie no teenager wants to watch with their mom, but maybe everyone should — required viewing for freshman year.”

Documentary | USA | Directed by Doug Liman

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A surprise last-minute addition to the Sundance lineup, the first feature documentary from Edge of Tomorrow and The Bourne Identity director Doug Liman explores the evidence presented (and not presented) during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. In her review for Variety, Jessica Kiang admits the “streamlined narrative” helps sort through the “blizzard of detail” at the time, but “actionable new evidence — the kind that might spur another, less compromised and less rushed investigation — is in short supply.” THR's David Rooney agrees “it’s difficult to imagine anything here moving the needle.” More appreciative, Nick Schager of The Daily Beast writes, “Justice is more of a stinging, straightforward recap than a formally daring non-fiction work, but its direct approach allows its speakers to make their case with precision and passion.”

Landscape With Invisible Hand
Sci-fi/Comedy/Drama | USA | Directed by Cory Finley
Will be released in theaters by United Artists (date tbd)

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The third feature from Cory Finley, following his impressive debut Thoroughbreds and Emmy-winning HBO film Bad Education, finds the writer-director venturing into new territory, and not successfully. Adapted from an award-winning novel by M.T. Anderson, Landscape is a comedic sci-fi tale set in 2036 after Earth has been occupied by a hyperintelligent alien race that has provided advanced technology to the wealthy, leaving the rest of humanity struggling to get by. Teenage couple Adam (Asante Black, the film's main highlight for most critics) and Chloe (Kylie Rogers) attempt to make a living by livestreaming their relationship for the pleasure of the aliens. The Guardian's Benjamin Lee dismisses the film as "a bafflingly botched misfire [and] a frustratingly off-key adaptation," with odd choices (including "poorly designed" sci-fi elements) resulting in "a film that gets harder to defend with every scene." Other reviewers like a few components of the film but not the entire package; The Film Stage's Jordan Raup appears to speak for many reviewers when he notest that Landscape "initially intrigues with its lo-fi sci-fi ambition but has too much on its mind without saying anything interesting at all." Raup finds Finley "out of his element," and so does The Playlist critic Jason Bailey, who thinks the director "seems lost" working with special effects, and also bemoans "a curious shortage of honest-to-goodness laughs in Finley’s script."

Run Rabbit Run
Horror/Thriller | Australia | Directed by Daina Reid
Acquired by Netflix at Sundance for an undisclosed amount (streaming date tbd)

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Sarah Snook plays a fertility doctor struggling to deal with her 7-year-old daughter’s (Lily LaTorre) strange behavior and her own dark history, including her estranged mother (Greta Scacchi), in this debut feature from director Daina Reid and screenwriter Hannah Kent. “While Snook does all she can to give the experience some heft, Run Rabbit Run is a horror film in search of something greater others have already achieved that it is never able to find,” writes Chase Hutchinson of Collider. In her review for The Playlist, Marya E, Gates claims it “remains more of a premise than a fully fleshed-out feature, with thinly sketched characters and a heavy reliance on visual and sound clichés to make up for what it’s missing in actual chills.” /Film's Erin Brady seems to agree, writing, “Despite being buoyed by two great performances, the lingering feeling audiences will experience after Run Rabbit Run is disappointment.” But Variety's Jessica Kiang is more positive: “What it lacks in thematic newness, “Run Rabbit Run” makes up for in the sophistication of its moment-to-moment scarifying and its performances from Sarah Snook and outstanding newcomer Lily LaTorre.”


All photos above courtesy of Sundance Institute.



Comments (1)

  • UncleWillard  

    Slim pickins. Not a lot of compelling films on this list, imo.

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