I saw a lot of films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s a week where you don’t expect to get much sleep. Among the countless hours of filming, there were two movies that I just couldn’t stop thinking about afterward: A Thousand and One and Scrapper, both of which understandably won big awards at the event. The common thread between the two of them was that they were steeped in realism that felt authentic while thoroughly entertaining.
A Thousand and One represents storytelling at its best
A Thousand and One walked away with the jury prize in this year’s U.S. Dramatic Competition. It was a complete revelation. Not only for Teyana Taylor’s breakout performance but for the entire cast that exemplified Harlem in the 1990s. I lived in New York at that time and this film absolutely got it: the changing landscape, the political ramifications through the Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg tenures, and the gentrification of Harlem. A. V. Rockwell’s directorial debut paint a picture of Harlem in that slice of time. Not only does Teyana Taylor’s Inez embody all that evolution itself; she is Harlem. This is no mere trick, it’s Rockwell’s mastery of storytelling that encapsulates all that symbolism and atmosphere subtly weaved into the incredibly moving story of a Black mother impulsively rescuing her son from the foster system that has failed him thus far.
Seeing her son suffer, the previous convict realizes that she is the only answer for this bright boy, Terry, to live a fulfilling life. She may not understand it at first, but after seeing him hospitalized after jumping out of a window of his foster mother’s apartment, she takes off with him instead, unsure of her next steps. But the compassionate love she feels for this lost boy inspires her to piece together a stable life that perhaps she didn’t think she would be capable of before. Terry is smart and deserves to thrive, which Inez recognizes, seeing a chance that alluded her and where she can break the cycle of lost opportunity for an earnest, gifted kid.
What sets A Thousand and One apart from so many feel-good movies is the visceral honesty with which it threads the tale. Terry’s earnestness is never overtly emphasized, Inez is a fully realized character with plenty of flaws—her abrasiveness, for one, which threaten to derail her noble efforts many times—and the layers that William Catlett brings to her on-again-off-again boyfriend/husband, Lucky, infuse the film with character richness that makes it feel almost like watching a documentary. There’s one scene when Inez tells Terry to make a plate for Lucky’s other family (a daughter and the daughter’s mother) that packs a punch without even breaking a sweat.
The focus on Inez’s viewpoint is something I haven’t seen a lot of films of this caliber do. So many have told Harlem stories through the eyes of the men, or in anyone else’s hands, this might have been Terry’s narrative. But it is a real coup that Rockwell—a Sundance Episodic Lab prodigy—makes the distinct decision to make this Inez’s story and give us the impact from her point of view.
A. V. Rockwell is the kind of directorial talent who should be on the radar like Spike Lee and the perfect antidote to the outdated notion that awards shows can’t find female directors to nominate, with the occasional exception. Rockwell proves that there are female director stars just waiting in the wings. Of all the titles I saw at Sundance, A Thousand and One was the film that stood out above everything else.
The unexpected heart of Scrapper
Scrapper absolutely charmed me, with its tale of a hardnosed 12-year-old girl who is living on her own since her mother’s death while carefully outsmarting the system without bringing any scrutiny upon her. To get by, she steals bikes and outstrips them for parts so she can pay the rent of her threadbare flat in London. As Georgie, spunky Lola Campbell’s winsome performance brings a delightful vitality as we witness her navigate dealing with social workers and taking care of the laundry, at the same time grappling with the devastating loss of her mother’s battle with cancer.
Just when Georgie seems to be juggling all the messy aspects that now make up her new, chaotic life, her biological father, Jason (Harris Dickinson) turns up to disrupt the flow of things. Attired with a bleach-blonde crew cut and immature attire, Jason is still a walking example of the lack of maturity that had him bail in the first place. But from the outset, Jason makes it clear that although he still may not have his sh*t together, there’s a desire to reach his daughter this time around, even if she wants nothing to do with him.
Scrapper may not have shocking twists and turns, but it’s an engaging tale whose soul sneaks up on you before you know it, with a heartfelt script that surprised with its poignancy, most especially when you get to the revelation that inspired Jason to connect with his daughter in the first place. It was that emotionally impactful moment when I realized I was watching the best of Sundance.
Scrapper won the World Cinema Dramatic Competition prize at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Honorable mention: Theater Camp
Directed by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, and set in the Adirondacks, Theater Camp, while not revelatory, was a fun romp through an over-the-top summer theater camp that is—unbeknownst to the campers—on the brink of bankruptcy. After the camp director, Joan—the always fabulous Amy Sedaris—ends ups hospitalized after a heart attack during a performance, her inept, DJ/influencer son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) takes over.
It’s a joy to watch Troy out of his comfort zone, along with a winning cast that includes Amos (Ben Platt), Rebecca-Diane (Gordon), the surprisingly talented crew worker Glenn (an excellent Noah Galvin), choreographer Clive (Nathan Lee Graham), BS artist Janet (a hilarious Ayo Edebiri), camp competitor Caroline (Patti Harrison). While no Spinal Tap, the entertaining cast results in enough hilarious moments to make it a winning parody.
Theater Camp also won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance.
Don’t bother: Pod Generation and Infinity Pool
I’ve waxed aplenty on how overrated Infinity Pool was. A gimmicky, much-talked-about spectacle, Brandon Cronenberg focused on distracting and shocking tactics just for shock value by itself, rather than letting a fascinating premise shine. The mystery and thrill of the story could have been served so much better, similar to the review The Washington Post gave it.
Another disappointment for me was Pod Generation, which opened the festival. The first night films are usually among the marquee titles so imagine my surprised boredom when watching the vehicle which starred Emilia Clarke as Rachel and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Alvy, a New York couple who opt for the synthetic pod technology to have a baby. Set in a slightly futuristic setting where AI helps monitor our moods and is integrated into our daily management, even more so than say an Alexa is now, let’s call it an ever-present, advanced Alexa environment.
The concept for the film had a lot of potential. I’ve been reading up on Hashem Al-Ghaili’s developments on just this type of technology and many swear that this day is coming sooner rather than later when babies will develop in synthetic environments rather than naturally. Unfortunately, this film just never lives up to its potential. Whether it’s the complete lack of chemistry between its two leads—who usually have fantastic chemistry with other co-stars—or the attempts at a light touch, or just an infusion of humor that doesn’t suit the material, I honestly mostly found myself bored throughout. Additionally, watching Clarke and Ejiofor cart the synthetic pod around like a sack of potatoes was the last straw (that’s a growing baby!). I just found the experience of Pod Generation to be a surprisingly lackluster affair.
What were your favorite films from Sundance 2023? Let us know in the comments.