A SELECTION OF 2023 SUNDANCE SHORTS
While several great world cinema shorts premiered last week at Sundance including now 2023 Oscar-nominated The Flying Sailor, Sundance captured the American zeitgeist of what it means to survive, and sometimes thrive, in today’s complicated and torn nation. At the beginning of the independent film scene, the White male journey was the norm. In today’s festival climate, a much more open and diverse voice of who America’s storytellers are is a welcome turn.
Topping the list is Tari Wariebi’s We Were Meant To about Black men born with wings and a young teen preparing for his first flight despite our country’s handicapping with no-fly zones. The metaphor is apt and the story, while leading in an expected direction, takes off in a new way. Tim Johnson, Jr, plays Akil, the lead, who is trying to win the girl, learn how to deal with his wings, and learn from his father’s powerful lesson of what could go wrong just for being a Black man in America. In his director’s statement, Wariebi notes that he wanted to deal with systemic oppression as a hopeful love letter to youth today to break free of the system. From the acting, cinematography, score, and special effects, he achieves precisely that.
Also focused on young love is The Dalles, directed by Angalas Field. Focused on Cam who works the family cherry stand, a cyclist stops by and asks for directions to a cruising site. Hiding who Cam is from their mom, they follow the young guy and connect by the river. A quiet and simple story told in looks and disguised language of the closeted in LGBTQ+ America, The Dalles never makes a statement but just shares a moment of how the grass is always greener on the other side.
In Tai LeClare’s, Headdress, making a statement is the thesis, if only he can find the right one from his own numerous identities inside. At a music festival, a white female is wearing a headdress and Tai must decide how to confront her. Think Inside Out but Indigenous. Will the young goth Tai win out, the current data collector, the gay peacemaker, the stoner, or some future self he has yet to know? A delightful romp through the mind of a guy on an edible, the film makes big statements while Tai deliberates his own.
Mike Donahue’s first short film, Troy, really stays within his theatrical lane with few simple sets and great performances. Thea and Charlie deal with their neighbor who has loud boisterous gay sex 24/7 in his apartment. With guest stars such as Dylan Baker (Happiness) and Dana Delany (China Beach), the short builds out a story of a couple whose boring life is changed by their neighbor. Apartment living often leads to the mystery of what is on the other side of the wall and the couple first curious about their neighbor, becomes emotionally invested in his well-being. When Troy’s heart is broken, they seek how to help him, only to find that their relationship depends on it. Adina Verson is a particular standout as Thea as she makes us believe and relate to the couple.
Walk of Shame directed by Dane Ray is quite the departure from comedic relationships to a widow mourning her husband to the phase where she donates his clothes to a thrift shop. As she is beginning to try to date, she is disgusted by online dating. As she runs across a man wearing her husband’s old Army jacket, she follows him and connects. Shannon Plumb lays herself bare in her vulnerability as she tries to connect with Chris Thomas (both characters are unnamed). Playing on the title words, the story doesn’t lend itself to what you expect.
Sometimes the presence, rather than the absence of family, can drive you to frustration. For Kayla Abuda Galang, that time is Thanksgiving. When You Left Me on That Boulevard, set in San Diego, is the story of a young Filipina girl who gets high with her cousins before the holiday. A quiet snapshot of a typical family, the short encapsulates a perfectly average holiday, a slice of Americana. Its simplicity is what makes it lovely.
Another simple family story but beautifully orchestrated is Crystal Kayiza’s Rest Stop. A Ugandan-American woman and her children travel from New York to Oklahoma City to live with her boyfriend. The travel along the way is observed primarily through Meyi, the daughter, who watches her mother navigate the decision. A quiet story laced with stunning cinematography and a simple truth to the plot, the short is tender.
In The Family Circus, a Vietnamese-American family has a not-very-simple day with their son over the Christmas holidays on his third potential DUI and tries to cover it up in front of the police. Michael Ironside s the officer, lonely at the holidays, brings a nuance to the story that holds a tension of what will happen next throughout. That tension holds the story together while the set dress and performances lead to a world-building that entrances.
Highlighting disability in America, Thriving: A Dissociated Reverie, takes a look at real-life Kitoko Mai in a narrative version of their story of living as a Black nonbinary, disabled artist that also used to be a sex worker. Nicole Bazun directs this surrealist tale that takes a comedic look at dissociative identity disorder. Hyper colors and quick cuts between therapists and personalities make for a fun original short.
In I Have No Tears and I Must Cry, the American dream persists, with its rocky turbulence of immigration. Director Luis Fernando Puente spotlights Maria Luisa (Alejandra Herrera), newly married and on her way to getting her green card. But in true American fashion, the dream is a couch, a great couch that she wants to buy for their new home. Herrera’s face to the cold officer (played by Cherie Julander) is the emotional arc of the film, guiding us through joy, hope, disbelief, fear and disappointment.
– Melanie Addington
2023 Sundance Film Festival short films