Misfits Win At Sundance

Underdog films–not the horror-rock band–hit it big at festival

Befitting a festival devoted to independent voices, Sundance wrapped up last weekend by giving its 2023 awards to films that celebrated the misfits, the outcasts, and the marginalized. Grand Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic Competition went to A Thousand and One, A.V. Rockwell’s heart-wrenching look at a black ex-con single mother in Harlem and her struggle to raise a son she secretly stole back from foster care. The beautifully wrought drama paints a vivid portrait of New York from the ’90s into the early ’00s, a Dinkins-to-Giuliani-to-Bloomberg sociopolitical shift where stop-and-frisk harassment and slowly gentrifying neighborhoods squeeze out lower-income people aching to maintain their sense of family and community. Focus Features is celebrating the win, since it already had plans to release the movie theatrically at the end of March.

Grand Jury Prize for U.S Documentary went to another story of a strong black woman. Joe Brewster and and Michèle Stephenson’s Going to Mars: the Nikki Giovanni Project is an affectionate tribute to the fierce, no-bullshit poet who came to prominence during the Black Power era of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Vivid film collages of archival material bring to life her revelatory writings about the African-American experience, which the documentary presents alongside recordings of her incantatory cadences. But the most arresting character is Giovanni herself, captured not only in voiceover recitations but in candid private moments as well as public speaking engagements—from college campuses to churches—bravely sharing unapologetic truths about black life. A standout leitmotif is her interview with James Baldwin, which first appeared in the TV show Soul! and threads throughout this film.

Giovanni’s lesbianism is just a facet of her sparkling life, but it dovetailed well at Sundance with other LGBTQ+ stories of here-and-queer defiance and self-acceptance. Two documentaries about black transgender women—directed by black transgender women themselves—complemented each other in frank, fascinating ways, deservedly sashaying away with their own prizes. Winning the Special Jury Award for Clarity of Vision was The Stroll, HBO Documentary Films’ colorful chronicle of New York’s drag-saturated Meatpacking District back in its ’80s-’90s heyday of blue-collar butchers and blue-balled horndogs.

Kristen Lovell, a former sex worker whose first-hand knowledge of the scene allows for intimate confessionals during safe-space interviews, co-directed the film. And D. Smith’s raucous, raunchy Kokomo City nabbed The NEXT Audience Award and the NEXT Innovator Award with its hilariously unflinching look at four black trans sex workers who by their very nature—and their outwardly straight clientele—completely upend traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. Look for Magnolia Pictures to release the film later this year.

A still from Kokomo City, Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Trans stories weren’t just in the documentaries; one of them was even responsible for Sundance’s best performance this year. Lio Mehiel deservedly got the Special Jury Award for Acting in Mutt, a tender drama about the emotional turmoil of someone navigating the world as a trans person—from the heartache of encountering old lovers to the mundanity of trying to cash a check with ID that no longer represents the new you. Mehiel’s work is so intense and completely vulnerable that it’s hard to shake. And Mehiel makes Sundance history as the first transgender actor to win the prize.

Sundance wasn’t all hard knocks and raw deals. Winning the Festival Favorite Award was Radical, Christopher Zalla’s charming, fictionalized version of a real-life sixth grade teacher in Mexico and his eccentric methods that inspired a classroom of restless kids to excel as students. And the Special Jury Prize: Ensemble went to Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s slyly funny mockumentary Theater Camp. Silly but big-hearted, this loving send-up of the actual summer sleepaway programs in upstate New York full of aspiring Broadway babies plays like a teen version of Waiting for Guffman. And its game cast—headed by a hilariously petulant Ben Platt—cleverly mixes improvised dialogue with original songs that are so much tighter, sharper, and wittier than you might expect. It impressed Searchlight enough that they bought distribution rights for $8 million.

Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Alexander Bello, Kyndra Sanchez, Bailee Bonick, Quinn Titcomb, Madisen Marie Lora, Donovan Colan and Luke Islam appear in a still from Theater Camp by Molly Goron and Nick Lieberman, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

But the film that really got the most buzz at Sundance had no stars, no sensational plot twists, no salacious material, and wasn’t even eligible for any prizes. It was also a last-minute addition to the festival’s line-up. Playwright-turned-filmmaker Celine Song’s Past Lives debuted in the Premieres section. It’s a quiet and absolutely transcendent story of two South Koreans who first meet and fall in love when they’re 12, and then—after one of them immigrates to the United States—reconnect again at age 24 and 36. Headstrong Nora (Greta Lee) is too focused on her American life and her career to commit to him; wistful Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) never really stops caring about her, even after she marries a nice Jewish boy (John Magaro).

It’s an all-too-relatable tale of forced separations, missed opportunities, emotional regrets, romantic longing, and the possibility of second chances in all its forms. It’s also a beautifully rendered parable of what it means for all of us to grow up and deepen our connections to people—not only rediscovering love but recommitting to it. A24 brought the film to Sundance and hopefully will make it this year’s sleeper hit.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

One thought on “Misfits Win At Sundance

  • January 31, 2023 at 12:53 pm

    It lifts my heart to see in-person events like this doing great after the years of shutdown.


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