Queer and Strong Female Stories Dominate at Sundance

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday February 1, 2023

Queer and Strong Female Stories Dominate at Sundance

Sundance is proving to be an embarrassment of riches this year, especially for queer and homoerotic stories as well as strong female-directed/driven films. I don't believe there has ever been as many LGBTQ+-themed offerings, as well as works directed by women. The truly inspiring wonder is that so many of these movies are fabulous.

EDGE has put together a master list of the Best of the Fest (following our previous early picks).

First, a shout out to a few terrific performances, not cited on the list:

Daisy Ridley is smashing in Rachel Lambert's disquieting, "Sometimes I Think About Dying."

Out actor Ben Whishaw who plays a meta guru in Alice Englert's "Bad Behaviour."

Kiti Mánver as a woman of a certain age getting in touch with her sexuality for the first time in Patricia Ortega's "Mamacruz."

Virginie Elfira's tour de force turn as a woman at a crossroads in Rebecca Zlotowski's "Other People's Children."

Gay-fan favorite Harris Dickinson rocking the role of a deadbeat dad who returns to care for his daughter in Charlotte Regan's sweet 'n scrappy indie, "Scrapper."

Hiệp Trần Nghĩa's lovely portrayal of a damaged man caught in a messy situation in Sing J. Lee's moody "The Accidental Getaway Driver."

And Brooke Shields, who lays bare the difficulties of surviving fame in a patriarchal industry in Lana Wilson's doc "Pretty Baby Brooke Shields."

And now, the Sundance Film Class of 2023's Best Films:

'Magazine Dreams'

Every once in a movie moon, a completely transformative and transportive performance scores a cinematic knockout, often taking us by complete surprise. Such is the case with Jonathan Majors as the alienated, ambitious bodybuilder Killian Maddox in Elijah Bynum's brutal, unnerving, astonishing film, "Magazine Dreams." Borrowing from Scorsese ("Taxi Driver," "King of Comedy," "Raging Bull"), as well as Edward Bianchi's "The Fan" (yes, with Lauren Bacall), and masterfully setting the crushed-dreams-in-hostile-world narrative in our current instant-fame milieu, Bynum delivers an incredibly uncomfortable, yet mesmerizing, portrait of how dreams can become delusions. The film also takes a strange, potentially redemptive, homoerotic turn. Majors is astounding showing us Killian's debilitating shyness, which can quickly turn to animal rage. It's an incredibly complex portrayal that commands attention in a film destined to be divisive. It's also bold filmmaking that makes an indelible impression.


A trio of fantastic female performances dominate William Oldroyd's intoxicating film version of Ottessa Moshfegh's acclaimed novel "Eileen," deliciously adapted by Moshfegh and Luke Goebel. The titular character, played with a quiet force by Thomasin McKenzie, is a seemingly dull young woman working in a prison and caring for her verbally abusive father. But when a glamorous Rebecca (a seductive and simply divine Anne Hathaway) joins the staff and begins paying attention to her (and sensually dancing with her), before you can say, "Carol," Eileen becomes infatuated and begins to explore her repressed feelings. Set in 1960's Boston, "Eileen" is a stylish, period-perfect, sizzling sexy film that takes a hum dinger of a dramatic detour. Marin Ireland, amazing in "birth/rebirth," transfixes in a small, but memorable, role.

There are numerous unexpected pleasures in "Eileen," one of the best films of the festival.

'You Hurt My Feelings'

Nicole Holofcener's intelligent and incisive work often feels like '70s-'80s Woody Allen. In her latest film she re-teams with Julia Louis-Dreyfus (2013's "Enough Said"), and the results prove magical once again. Dreyfus, great with serious material when given the opportunity, is married to Tobias Menzies, ("The Crown"), also terrific. They have an insecure writer-wannabe son (Owen Teague, one of our best rising young talents). Dreyfus's character has been working on a book for ages and discovers, through eavesdropping, that her husband hates it. It's bracing to have a relationship dramedy that is not centered on infidelity, but about the way we as humans are so simultaneously fragile and narcissistic. Jeannie Berlin (always amazing), Michaela Watkins, and Arian Moayed round out the superb cast.


I knew an actor who would walk into a room and attention was immediately paid. He wasn't much to look at, nor was he very nice, but he had a charisma that enraptured people. Film director Tomas (Franz Rogowski), the unapologetic egotist who basks in his own self-created drama (much like Rainer Werner Fassbinder) in Ira Sach's "Passages," reminded me of this fucked-up dude. "I had sex with a woman," Tomas brags to his husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw) the morning after Martin dares to leave him alone at a party. The woman is Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a schoolteacher who falls under Tomas's spell. So begins a searing, penetrating look at three lonely and damaged/damaging people. Sachs is a master at filmic framing, as well as at creating tension, and he's crafted one of the most realistic and intense gay sex scenes in recent years.

As with all his character creations, Rogowski dives headfirst into the mind, body, and spirit of Tomas, never courting audience sympathy but winning over our empathy with his honest fragility. He's truly mesmerizing. Whishaw vacillates perfectly between his love/lust for Tomas and his anger/self-protective snippiness towards him. The relationship between Tomas and Martin is somewhat sketchily written (by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias), but both actors do wonders in filling in the gaps. Exarchopoulos is stunning in the difficult role of the interloper.


Scoot McNairy has been doing great supporting work for quite a while. In Andrew Durham's feature debut, "Fairyland," based on Alysia Abbott's 2013 memoir, he takes center stage and knocks it out of the park as a recently widowed father who discovers his desire for men in 1970s San Francisco, only to eventually succumb to AIDS. The first half of the film has wannabe writer Steve (McNairy) and his young daughter, Alysia (Nessa Dougherty), living a bohemian lifestyle (think: "Tales of the City") where Steve sluts around and Alysia observes. Then she grows up into "CODA's" Emilia Jones, and is embarrassed by dad's behavior. "Fairyland" is a sweet, intimate relationship story told from Alisia's POV. The terrific supporting cast includes Geena Davis, Cody Fern, and Adam Lambert. The film is also a testament to the legacy of the far too many people lost to a disease for which there is still no cure.

'The Eight Mountains'

Belgian filmmakers Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch have crafted an exquisite, gorgeously photographed (by Ruben Impens in Academy ratio) epic, "The Eight Mountains," set mostly in the Grana mountains in the Piedmont region of Italy. Two very different 11-year-old boys become instant friends, but are torn apart. Years later, they reunite and build a home together up high on the mountain. Rest assured this is a love story between two males, even though both are portrayed as heterosexual. This heartbreaking, richly rewarding, yet frustrating film, based on the novel by Paolo Cognetti, begins with several playful scenes between the boys and, later in the narrative, so much feels unspoken between the two. It could have been the Italian "Brokeback Mountain," if the filmmakers (and novelist?) truly took the leap. And there is a moment near the end where it appears that something quite intimate is finally about to happen. It doesn't, but that palpable bond is there and should have been explored. Alessandro Borghi and the soulful Luca Marinelli are both terrific, as are their younger counterparts, Cristiano Sassella and Lupo Barbiero.

'Infinity Pool'

Bravo to Sundance for daring to screen the NC-17 version of Brandon Cronenberg's original, insanely trippy "Infinity Pool," especially since Neon is releasing the R-rated cut this month. The fearless, visually intoxicating film centers on James Foster (an intrepid Alexander Skarsgård), a blocked author vacationing at a luxury beachfront getaway in some fictional place called Li Tolqa (could be Europe, Asia, the Caribbean?) with his wife, Em (Cleopatra Coleman). One night, a fan of James's, Gabby (a devilishly seductive Mia Goth), talks him into a day trip outside the resort, which ends in a horrible accident. That leads to an ingeniously satiric narrative creation that comments on entitlement, hedonism, and horrific third-world country laws. "Infinity Pool" is a nasty dark comedy that provokes, but also entertains and attempts to enlighten. It also basks in its own depravity.


A new teacher comes to a poorly performing school in a town bubbling over with crime and inhabited by parents simply trying to feed themselves and who have long since given up the desire to dream, so their kids follow suit. We've seen this type of film many times before ("To Sir, With Love," "Stand and Deliver," "Dangerous Minds," etc...) But Christopher Zalla's poignant gem, "Radical," based on real events that happened in a Mexican border town, delivers a potent tear-jerker about an educator, Sergio (Eugenio Derbez, incredible), who eschews all rules to find the extraordinary potential in his students, empowering them to believe they can be whatever they want to be. "Radical" is deeply affecting and cuts to the core of just how joyous learning can be when you feel you have something to offer.

'When It Melts'

The most disturbing film at this year's Fest, destined to become one of 2023's most talked about, is Belgian director Veerle Baetens' provocative "When It Melts," which feels like the turkey baster cinematic love-child concoction of Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, and Yorgos Lanthimos. In her debut feature, Baeten, like Lucas Dhont's "Close," delves into the levels of cruelty adolescent are capable of. Liberally adapted from Lize Spit's 2021 novel "The Melting," the dual narrative centers on Eva at age 13 and as an enigmatic adult (played by Rosa Marchant and Charlotte De Bruyne, respectively) and the trauma she endured as a child and has returned home to confront. The shattering incident is sure to rattle audiences for several different reasons, and the (ultimately predictable, arguably contrived) ending is bound to divide people.

'Fair Play'

Chloe Domont's entrancing thriller "Fair Play" feels like an homage to '80s filmmaking with a modern #MeToo spin. Phoebe Dynevor ("Bridgerton") and Alden Ehrenreich ("Solo: A Star Wars Story") play NYC power couple Emily and Luke, who both work at the same financial firm but aren't allowed to disclose the fact that they're engaged. When Emily gets a promotion assumed for Luke, things begin to take an unnerving turn as Luke shows his true misogynistic colors. Both leads do formidable work, and Domont does a wicked job of ratcheting up the tension. Two memorable scenes are instant classics: The opening sex scene with a surprise twist, and an engagement party argument where true natures are revealed.


In yet another film where men are (rightfully) depicted as borderline monsters who only see women as possessions, Noora Niasari's debut, "Shayda," examines the plight of an Iranian woman living in Australia, who seeks refuge at a women's shelter with her 6-year-old daughter, for fear of retaliation from her husband, who repeatedly raped her and wants them both to return to Iran with him. The fucked-up system grants her unhinged husband visitation, and Shayda (a heartbreakingly and deeply affecting Zar Amir Ebrahimi) must worry each day about the safety of herself and her child. Based on personal experience, Niasari's film is an absorbing, scarily real portrait of a woman who must fight for her right to be free of the bondage of the misogynist culture she escaped from.

'Rotting in the Sun'

The first 20 minutes of Sebastián Silva's cinematic mind-fuckery, "Rotting in the Sun," contains more cocks and asses than I believe I have ever seen in an indie — oh, and gay sex, too. This biting meta queer satire on class, social media, gay life, and fucking then ambles along at a sexy pace until it takes a completely unexpected dark turn (like many films at Sundance this year), metamorphosing into something quite different. The film goes on slightly too long, but still fascinates. Silva plays a depressed version of himself who wonders about suicide and, on a getaway at a nude resort, meets over-the-top social media influencer Jordan Fistman (based on Silva's really meeting Fistman). Things get hair-raising from there. "Rotting" is unique, deceptive, surprising, and irresistible.


Academy Award—winning documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams makes his feature directorial debut with another inspiring film based on real events. "Cassandro" tells the story of gay wrestler Saúl (Gael García Bernal), known as El Topo, who grows tired of constantly losing his matches and wants to be a star. The way he goes about that changes how Mexico views out wrestlers. Bernal, in a wondrous, gloriously modulated performance, captures the character's conflicts, including his covert affair with fellow luchador Gerardo (Raúl Castillo). The film is genuinely touching, and illustrates the importance of having queer role models and how simply knowing someone is queer can change attitudes.

'Cat Person'

Another film that playfully (and then seriously) fucks with tone, Susanna Fogel's engrossing and discomfiting "Cat Person" initially appears to be an oddball rom-com with college student Margot (Emilia Jones) meeting older dude Robert (Nicholas Braun) while working at the local cinema. They have a few awkward dates, and then something happens that changes the relationship dynamics rather dramatically. The film ponders potent notions about perception via the male vs. female perspective, and, frighteningly, as in "Fair Play," highlights just how dangerous men can become when their egos are bruised. "Cat Person" also theorizes that men may very well get their ideas of romance from popular misogynist films made by... big surprise... men.


A different kind of unbearable trauma is at the center of Singaporean director Anthony Chen's arresting film "Drift," starring Cynthia Erivo in an extraordinary performance as Jacqueline, a Liberian refugee wandering through a Greek island in a half daze, haunted by memories of a past violent uprising. Adapted by Susanne Farrell and Alexander Maksik from Maksik's 2013 novel "A Marker to Measure Drift," the film slowly pieces together Jacqueline's past and the horrors that have led her to living an internal existence — until she meets an American tour guide (Alia Shawkat) and the two women begin to bond. Chen provides the possibility of healing via this new and potentially romantic relationship.

'Theater Camp'

As mockumentaries go, "Theater Camp" owes a lot to "Waiting for Guffman" and other Christopher Guest films. Its style — silliness, yet love for the craft — shines through. Directed by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, and featuring co-writers Gordon, Ben Platt, and Noah Galvin, as well as a scene-stealing Jimmy Tatro, this wacky homage to lovers of musical theater leans more towards sketch comedy than a cohesive narrative, but fans will not care. In the Adirondacks, at a theater camp that has seen better days, we meet the founder, Joan (Amy Seders), who immediate falls ill. Her son (Tatro) must take over and somehow save the camp from foreclosure.

The cast of amazingly talented kids are fab. Galvin is particularly hilarious as the stage manager/go-to guy. The film is a zany celebration of anyone who has ever felt different, including (and especially) queer kids.

'Run Rabbit Run'

As indie horror movies go, Diana Reid's "Run Rabbit Run," has one of the boldest final reel explanations I have seen in a while. Sarah (Sarah Snook) is a fertility doctor whose seven-year-old daughter Mia (terrific newcomer Lily LaTorre) begins behaving bizarrely after a rabbit appears in their lives. Things get creepy and strange from there, and soon Sarah is forced to visit her estranged mother Joan (Greta Scacchi, unrecognizable) and confront some very dark, horrific demons from her past. Reid keeps things super scary, and Snook's rich, perplexing performance keeps us on our toes right until the very frightening ending.


Another terrifying mother/daughter thriller, Laura Moss's "Frankenstein"-meets-"Monkey's Paw" concoction, "birth/rebirth," follows a terse and snappish pathologist (Marin Ireland), who's preoccupied with her hobby: Attempting to bring the dead back to life. When tragedy strikes maternity nurse Celie (Judy Reyes), the two women must join forces, which leads them down a path to damnation. This film is truly frightening because it avoids the supernatural — the scares come from writers Moss and Brendan J. O'Brien, grounding the narrative in harsh reality. Reyes is terrific, and Ireland electrifies as a woman who'd rather be around the dead than the living.

'Little Richard: I Am Everything'

Little Richard (Richard Wayne Penniman) was gay long before it was safe to be out. He sang frank songs about anal sex and projected wild and unashamed eroticism during one of the most conservative decades of the 20th century (the 1950s). He would then find Jesus and renounce his queerness — only to return gayer and more flamboyant than ever — only to spend his final years repenting. As a music artist, Little Richard broke ground with his daring music, only to have it cleaned up and then whitewashed by the music moguls. He influenced The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and David Bowie, to name a few legends. And he rarely got credit for any of it — except when he blew his own horn. Lisa Cortés' engaging doc, "Little Richard: I Am Everything," finally places this paradoxical figure into the rock canon, where he deserves to be. His status as queer hero, however, will always be contentious.

'The POD Generation'

Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor play Rachel and Alvy, a couple in the soon-to-be future where technology has overtaken society, in "The POD Generation." He's a botanist concerned that we are moving away from nature. She works for a tech company and decides to visit the "the Womb Center," where people can have children, via pods, without actually getting pregnant. So begins this savvy, sometimes hilarious social satire, directed by Sophie Barthes. But for satire to sustain itself, it's always best to keep upping the ante as the story moves along. "The POD Generation," doesn't quite do that (a little more "Sleeper" would have rocked), but thanks to the gifted Clarke, Ejiofor, and a scene-stealing Rosalie Craig, the film soars more than not, and signals some warnings about where we are headed if we are not careful.

'The Persian Version'

Iranian-American Leila (Layla Mohammadi) is smarting from a recent breakup with her wife when she meets drag queen Maxmilian (Tom Byrne), whom she hooks up with — and who turns out not to be a drag queen, but the lead in a stage production of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." Leila has always struggled with two cultural identities at odds with each another, and must contend with a mother (an excellent Niousha Noor) who does not accept her lesbianism. Leila comes from a family of eight brothers, each with their own issues. The narrative then veers off, for a bit too long, into the story of Leila's mother and her troubled past. Leila discovers she's pregnant from her one-night stand, and... I'll stop there. Maryam Keshavarz's "The Persian Version" is a funny, sometimes confusing, yet oddly satisfying film.

Frank J. Avella is a film journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep and a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. Frank is a recipient of the International Writers Residency in Assisi, Italy, a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, and a NJ State Arts Council Fellowship. His short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide (figjamfilm.com) and won awards. His screenplays (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW) have also won numerous awards in 16 countries. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute