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Five Underrated Indie Films that Premiered at Sundance

One Attendee’s Powerful Visit To The Film Festival Of The Year

By Max Kohn

Since its inception in August of 1978, The Sundance Film Festival has grown to be the premier event for seasoned and budding filmmakers alike. On average attracting a global audience of 100,000 or more cinephiles a year, it is also the place to be for film enthusiasts. While Sundance is known to be sacred grounds for indie films and films that break new ground, there are still well known directors and writers that most likely claim their spots early. Which leaves smaller films from lesser known but talented directors, left to possibly deal with the 30,000 plus submissions Sundance acquires every year, and the 1% chance of getting a slot to screen their film. Even with these slim odds, Sundance premieres stunning and thought provoking indie films every year. “You Hurt My Feelings” and “Magazine Dreams” were two highlighted bigger projects films this year. Several small films shined and deserve just as much, if not more recognition. Listed below are five unique films that deserved every single minute of screen time at Sundance Film Festival 2023. 

5. Scrapper

Scrapper 2023 Sundance Film Festival

This low-budget-indie from the United Kingdom about a young dad who tries to reconcile with his daughter after her mom dies, is an emotional, silly, and powerful movie which was thoroughly enjoyed by audiences. As one immerses themselves in the Essex lingo, viewers learn about Georgie, a 12 year old who lives by herself and generally gets by. However, when her dad shows up, he tries relentlessly to connect with her, no matter how skeptical or resistant she is. 

A big strength of the movie was its voice. Charlotte Reagan, in her directorial feature debut who also wrote the movie, utilizes UK slang throughout, making the characters feel incredibly real and grounded. The brilliant script is also a big factor of why Scrapper is such a strong movie. Reagan blends the silly with the dramatic very well. One could find themselves laughing or crying at any second.

The last huge highlight of the experience of watching Scrapper was the acting. Lola Campbell, who plays Georgie, shines throughout, delivering an impressive performance at such a young age. The dad, played by Harris Dickinson, is also amazing in his portrayal of this childish yet determined dad.

Overall, the film Scrapper really shines in the way it deals with its themes of loss, reconciliation, and parenthood. The movie glowed with authenticity, with its story being able to resonate with anyone who has a heart.Since showing at Sundance, Scrapper has been selling to various markers by Charades, including to Picture House in the UK. A release date has not yet been announced.

4. Mutt

Mutt 2023 Sundance Film Festival

Audiences at Sundance certainly considered Mutt to be an underrated masterpiece. The low-budget indie set in New York follows Feńa, a trans man, during a hectic day in New York City. The whole day is set around the fact that he has to pick up his dad from the airport, but this seemingly simple task becomes much harder, especially considering the myriad of problems that come out of nowhere. This movie brings viewers into the life of being trans and the problems that can arise from it, especially if you have an old fashioned family.

A main reason why Mutt is so unique is because of how it portrayed the experience of being trans. In general, most people don’t consider all of the issues that can come up in a trans person’s life. However, Mutt shows issues that may seem small but are really painful to go through. An example that stuck with this Sundance attendee, was when Feña, is at the post office and not only gets misgendered, but is unable to get his package because of his name change. And when he shows the post office worker his ID, he doesn’t recognize him, as the picture was taken before he transitioned.

Another issue it covered was the nature of relationships when it comes to gender identity. Originally, Feña had a boyfriend before he transitioned, but when the two start talking again, it forces both of them to ask themselves which gender they are really attracted to. And in addition, which version of their partner are they more comfortable with?

Just like with Scrapper, the acting is fantastic, with Lío Mehiel’s performance carrying the movie. Deservedly, Mehiel won the Jury award for best actor at Sundance. One hopes Mehiel will continue his acting journey, due to his massive potential.

Overall, Mutt  is a must watch, because of how important this movie is. This is a great movie to educate audiences on trans struggles, especially when trans representation in media is so sparse.

Thankfully, after weeks of waiting, Mutt  finally found a distribution home in Strand releasing. A release date has not been announced but it will get a theatrical release in North America.

3. 20 Days in Mariupol

20 Days In Mariupol Sundance Film Festival

About the early days of the invasion of Ukraine, this documentary will break your heart into a million pieces and shove them in a drawer. It is one of the most gut-wrenching things audiences at Sundance viewed. The difficulty in comparing documentaries and fiction in film critic circles, has 20 Days In Mariupol landing in the number three spot. This movie is incredibly important, especially in today’s political climate.

Does this movie have an agenda? Sure. Does the footage in this movie have the power to change minds? Absolutely. Simply put: People need to watch this. If one has ever wondered as to whether the war is real or if it’s a serious situation, watch it.

In 20 days in Mariupol, the viewer is taken on a journey with Mstyslav Chernov, a Ukrainian journalist and documentary filmmaker, who’s been covering the Russian/Ukrainian conflict for quite a long time. Chernov takes the viewer with him as he walks around the port city of Mariupol, a city annexed in the early days of the war. Throughout the movie, the viewer witnesses the atrocities committed by Putin and Russia’s regime, terrorizing innocent Ukranians. This movie will make one feel unwavering sympathy and devastating heartbreak. The viewer meets the victims of the annexation, hears their stories, and feels their grief. When this Sundance attendee watched it, I couldn’t help but put myself in their shoes. They had nowhere to go. They were (and many still are) trapped in this warzone with no end in sight.

Overall, this documentary is a must-watch, but only for audiences that are willing to see horrifying things. At times, it feels like a war movie and not a documentary. However, it’s extremely important to see it to know exactly what’s going on in Ukraine. This isn’t something any audience should be forgetting about. This documentary shows the truth. And in a world full of lies of deceit, it’s more important than ever that people watch and share this documentary. 20 Days in Mariupol does not have a release date or a distributor yet.

2. Theater Camp

Theater Camp 2023 Sundance Film Festival

Well well well, here we are at Theater Camp. This was certainly an audience favorite, winning the Jury award for best ensemble. A huge strength of the movie was that it was able to make fun of itself, something that a lot of comedies don’t really do. So many comedies don’t have the element of satirizing themselves and often seem too stuck up or “classy.” Theater Camp is the opposite. It’s rowdy, hilarious, crazy, and heartwarming.

Theater Camp is about exactly what the title says. To be more specific, it tells the story of a theater camp’s staff trying to engage the campers while dealing with a variety of crises, all stemming from the camp’s long term director (played by Amy Sedaris) having injured her head and ending up in the hospital the whole summer. The camp’s staff have to keep the camp going in the face of eviction or be bought out by the wealthier neighboring camp. Written, directed, produced and starring Ben Platt and Molly Gordon, Theater Camp hits all the right notes and will have viewers laughing until they run out of breath.

If one were to name all the strengths of Theater Camp, they’d be writing a 100 page article. To be concise: everything clicks. The story, the comedy, the cinematography, and especially the acting. So many characters are played by actual teenagers (something rare in stories about young people). Every single one of the kids was on point in their performance, not only making them hilarious in the movie, but bringing a surprising amount of heart.

In conclusion, see the damn thing. It’s hilarious. Contrary to belief, viewers don’t have to know numerous show tunes, facts about theater, or even have attended camp to  see it. It reaches all audiences clearly and makes a strong case for the Golden Globe for best Comedy or Musical. And in this Sundance Attendee’s thoughts, Theater Camp absolutely deserves it. Searchlight bought Theater Camp and has set the release date for July 14th 2023. 

1. The Starling Girl

The Starling Girl 2023 Sundance Film Festival

This film blew audiences away. Every aspect of the movie shines and it makes for a great coming of age drama. The Starling Girl will make one cringe, raise their hands up in glee, and will entertain throughout the entire running time. The Starling Girl can technically be categorized as a drama, but other parts feel like a thriller. Because audiences are rooting for the main character, Jem (played by the insanely talented Eliza Scanlen), audiences feel her terror, pain, and triumph. It’s truly a masterpiece and easily the best movie this writer has seen all year.The Starling Girl follows Jem Starling, a 17 year old in a fundamentalist Christian community. Everything in Jem’s life is going fine, but when her 20 something youth pastor (played by Lewis Pullman) returns from a trip to Puerto Rico, she starts to crush on him. Throughout the movie, the backdrop of Christianity plays a role. Audiences see life through the lens of someone who is told to follow all of God’s laws and to stay away from Satan. This is what makes the film so intense and fascinating.

The film has many strengths but the most important one is the perspective that writer/director Laura Parmet brings to the story. Parmet shines a light on so many issues that teenagers face, especially in a community that’s so strict with its rules. Teenagehood is the most important time in a person’s development and being raised in a fundamentalist Christian community does not make that experience easy.

Overall, seeing The Starling Girl is greatly encouraged. With a unique perspective by Parmet, stellar performances by the leads, and ultimately a unique story, it’s not a film you want to miss.Bleecker Street has acquired The Starling Girl and has set the release date for May 12th 2023.

Sundance has proven once again that the cinema that comes out of the festival is arguably better than most Hollywood films. That can be for many reasons but ultimately, Sundance Films don’t have the constraints of a studio telling them how to make their films. The filmmakers are able to make their films with full creative license. They’re able to tell their stories without receiving the notes of executives who’ve never made a movie in their lives. All the larger movie studios care about is selling their movies with big stars and plenty of action, not meaningful stories with lesser known actors. Occasionally Sundance audiences will get to view the gritty drama or the powerful indie bought by a studio, but it’s rare.

That’s why cinephiles and random moviegoers have to appreciate Sundance. It showcases filmmakers who tell authentic stories. That’s the word that kept coming to mind when watching the above five films as well as the other 10. Even if films weren’t that good at Sundance, they were still authentic. Avant Garde. Breaking the mold. When no one else is.

This Sundance cinephile encourages audience members of all frequencies to go to their local film festival. They’re easy to find. There, audiences see movies by up and coming filmmakers. The ones who’ll be making the Hollywood movies of tomorrow. Oftentimes, a viewer will  find that the film festival movies, the unbought, low-budget indies are often better than the ones  Hollywood produces.

Sundance Film Festival 2023: All Eyes On Independants

Source: Dead Talk Live

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Max Kohn is a sophomore at The City at of New York studying film. He is a fiction track student who is an aspiring writer/director.