Sundance 2023 Day 3 Recap
We're now three days into Sundance 2023, so let's keep the reviews coming! Yesterday I was able to see three films and all happened to be quite good. Here are my quick reviews on Fair Play, Birth/Rebirth and Radical.
A young couple's relationship is pushed to its limits in Fair Play. Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) have a bright future in front them--they just got engaged, and a promotion for Luke seems to be in the cards at the company where the two of them work. Despite the engagement, the two have never gone public with their relationship at work for fear of losing their jobs. The two work at an aggressive hedge fund, where everyone is always fighting their way to the top and neither of them ever want to risk being on the chopping block. When Emily unexpectedly receives the promotion over Luke, tensions start to rise. Jealousy gives way to resentment and soon everything the two of them have worked for, both professionally and personally, are at stake.
Fair Play takes a simple premise and executes it beautifully. What starts as an understandable disappointment in feeling slighted, slowly begins to drive a wedge further and further into the relationship. Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor both give excellent performances here playing two sides of an impossible situation. Ehrenreich's Luke struggles to balance being the supportive partner while managing his sadness over losing out on his dream job, while Dynevor's Emily is fighting against corporate sexism to prove she deserves a spot at the table and that her merits to the role are not just based on her looks. The deeper the hurt and envy go, the more the relationship starts to come apart at the seams.
I am blown away that this is a debut feature from writer-director Chloe Dumont. It's so self assured in its narrative from beginning to end--Dumont makes it look easy. While the characters go on a huge journey from where they start from the beginning, she makes the character progressions seem natural and believable; we understand why both see things the way they do--and how their relationship self-destructs. Fair Play is very very good, and its ending is pitch perfect.
Fate brings two very different women together in Birth/Rebirth. One, a grieving mother who must deal with the sudden and tragic death of her daughter, and the other--a woman determined to push the limits of medicine and science to once again make the dead come back to life. Though this setup has all the makings of a great horror film, Birth/Rebirth is not traditional horror. Writer-director Laura Moss isn't concerned with terrifying her audience with jump scares--this horror is far more psychological. Instead she presents us with a modern day Frankenstein--this time a cautionary tale about the lengths a mother will go to for the sake of her child.
Birth/Rebirth is very deliberately paced though I was invested in the story all throughout. At first the women's gambit to re-animate the child seems self-sustained, but when the two women realize they'll have to get their hands dirty to keep her alive, the moral quandary over what they're doing gets increasingly difficult. Judy Reyes and Marin Ireland are both very good here and each completely sell their roles; Reyes as desperate mother Celie and Ireland as the mad scientist Rose, respectively.
It's easy to get frustrated during the runtime that more isn't happening, especially when one expects a certain level of Pet Sematary mayhem that just never occurs. From a horror perspective you want certain things to be explored, but the film isn't interested in that. Once you get to the film's ending, everything all makes sense. For me, the finale brings adds a much needed punctuation to the film and truly makes it complete.
It would be easy to dismiss Radical as a run of the mill, "inspirational" teacher story. In fact, I almost did. But Radical has a beautiful earnestness that sets it apart from other films that tell similar stories. Radical tells the story of Sergio (Eugenio Derbez), a teacher determined help the kids in his class achieve a future that no one, not even themselves, believe is possible. Sergio's methods are unorthodox, and everyone around him--from the principal to fellow teachers, and the students--have no idea what to make of them. Sergio isn't concerned with tests, but rather preparing the kids to create the future they want and to be successful in obtaining it.
Sergio is the type of figure every child needs in their life. A person who not only sees potential, but does everything in their power to make everyone else see that potential too. The time spent with Sergio in his class is optimistic and full of joy. But when the students go home to their realities, in the contrast between his world and theirs becomes more stark. Each of their individual circumstances make it hard to picture a future for them. The cards are stacked against these kids and Sergio's dreams for these kids become too painful to even hope for.
Eugenio Derbez shows his wide range here in a role that requires a certain depth and strength. He really shines and it truly feels like the part was made for him. The final act of the film brings the emotional weight and the film is all the stronger for it.