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Sundance 2023: "Infinity Pool" Claims Place Among Cult Classic Movies

Noelia (Isel Rodriguez) and friends navigate matters of life and death in The Fishbowl / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Noelia (Isel Rodriguez) and friends navigate matters of life and death in The Fishbowl / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

It is hard to assess the overall quality of Film Festivals unless you see all the movies, but Sundance 2023 has proven to be a good source of substantial roles for actors. Well, at least if we go by what I have seen. Even when indie movies fall short of expectations and can't deliver on their potential, performers of every level offer work worthy of your time. Check these out.

Magazine Dreams

Jonathan Majors (Devotion) gets the role that will turbocharge his career. Killian is an amateur bodybuilder constructing his life around becoming a star. The "magazine dreams" of the title refer to making the cover of health magazines, just like his idol, Brad Vandenhorn (Michael O'Hearn), to whom he writes unresponded fan letters. Killian faces some mental health or developmental challenges, as we can deduce by eavesdropping on his sessions with a compassionate therapist (Harriet Sansom Harris). After much effort, he musters the courage to ask the girl he fancies at work (Haley Bennett) for a date. But every little interaction that goes sour might push him over the edge.

Muscle memory: Killian (an amazing Jonathan Majors) falls short of his Magazine Dreams / Photo by Glen Wilson, courtesy of Sundance Institute

Muscle memory: Killian (an amazing Jonathan Majors) falls short of his Magazine Dreams / Photo by Glen Wilson, courtesy of Sundance Institute

Writer-director Elijah Byrnum wisely decides not to diagnose his character and observes how pressure keeps building up on him. Majors is excellent at embodying a walking paradox, a physically strong man so fragile he can come undone at any moment. He is a survivor of domestic violence and the sole caretaker of his grandfather (Harrison Page), an elderly Vietnam veteran. The specter of violence surrounds him and might as well possess him. The movie inches towards a development that echoes too uncomfortably the evening news, but this is not a case of filmmakers shamelessly plundering the headlines for significance. 

Magazine Dreams skillfully recreates how the cults of celebrity and success build a mirage that entraps the castaways of the American Dream. In one of the most lacerating scenes of online cruelty since Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham, 2018), Killian scans comments on his YouTube channel only to find pleas for suicide. It can be hard to watch. The movie falters in the last third, overstaying its welcome with false endings. Once you think it has made its point, it goes on and on. Again, such a thing did not prevent CODA (Sian Heder, 2021) from conquering Sundance and the Oscars. Go figure.

* Update: "Magazine Dreams" was the subject of a bidding war at Sundance. It was finally acquired by Searchlight Pictures for an undisclosed amount. Alas, release was delayed after several former romantic partners made public accusations of assault against Majors. The movie is set to open on December, 2023.

Fancy Dance

Lilly Gladstone is great as Jax, a queer, no-nonsense, petty criminal in the Seneca-Cayuga reservation in Oklahoma. When her sister Tawi (Houli Sioux Gray) disappears, like many other Native-American young women, she takes on the challenge of caring for her niece, Riki (Isabel Deroy-Olson). The girl dreams of reuniting with her mother to dance at the upcoming Powwow. Jax feeds this fantasy while investigating what happened to her sister and dodging authorities who want to take the kid from her.

Take to the Powwow: Deroy-Olson and Gladstone are a great team in Fancy Dance / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Take to the Powwow: Deroy-Olson and Gladstone are a great team in Fancy Dance / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Echoes of Winter's Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) are apparent, but Fancy Dance is not as tight and ruthless as that memorable Appalachian noir. The resolution to the mystery is somewhat anticlimactic. Circumstances plant the seed for a tragic ending, but the movie blinks at following dramatic logic and closes in an awkwardly staged resolution. Alas, there is real power in the performances. Gladstone is an ace, and her chemistry with Deroy-Olson pushes you over the rough patches. Shea Whigham is excellent as Jax and Tawi's father, a white man haplessly trying to do right by his bi-cultural progeny. The low budget film credentials are strong with this one. 

The Fishbowl

We interviewed director Glorimar Marrero Sanchez about her debut feature film, but nothing can prepare you for the emotional and aesthetic experience of The Fishbowl. To compare colonialism to cancer might sound like a heavy-handed metaphor, but the clarity of her vision gives vital breath t the idea. Isel Rodríguez plays Noelia, a cancer-stricken filmmaker who decides to return home to the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, haunted by warfare contamination planted by the US Army and an upcoming hurricane.

In the air tonight: Rodriguez escapes back home in The Fishbowl / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

In the air tonight: Rodriguez escapes back home in The Fishbowl / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Noelia half-heartedly tries to go on with her work, producing a film about the plight of Vieques, but can't quite make it. Time is against her, and the impending weather disaster only makes the clock tick louder and faster. Alas, we sense she has never felt so alive. The beautiful images conjured by Marrero and cinematographer Pedro Juan López elevate the film. Check out how the first and final scenes connect the themes with Noelia's desire. A circular narrative trick finds serenity among the chaos.

Infinity Pool

Three years after Possessor (2020), Brandon Cronenberg returns to prove that the mind-and-body-bending thriller was not a nepotism baby's lucky shot. After all, his dad, David Cronenberg, is the best director horror fans have. Junior is talented enough, and here, he crafts a naughty thriller about ugly occidentals up to no good in a luxury resort on a poor, imaginary island. James (Alexander Skarsgård) is a blocked writer trying to jumpstart his inspiration through a vacation with Em (Cleopatra Coleman), the wealthy wife who sustains his career. He is intrigued by the forthcoming Gabi (Mia Goth), the British wife of Alban (Jalil Lespert), a star architect from LA. The couples get friendly and arrange a day at an off-resort secluded beach. This innocent escapade will lead to madness and violence.

Riding fast to the deep end: Skårsgard and Goth hide under masks in Infinity Pool / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Riding fast to the deep end: Skårsgard and Goth hide under masks in Infinity Pool / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

The less you know going in, the better Infinity Pool will work. The plot might remind you of many other movies about innocents corrupted by more worldly, mischievous characters and vehicular accidents that send the rich to the other side of privilege. Alas, Cronenberg makes the tropes his own and finds an unyielding fountain of horror in self-hate. Goth is chilling as Gabi sheds the appearance of ingenue and reveals the power-mad shrew pulsating beneath her lovely appearance.

Complaints on social media about the movie being hard to follow are unfounded. Perhaps people are put off by the violence and the penchant for graphic sex and violence. Censors are on the sidelines. A hand-job in a close-up may get excised before the movie opens on January 27, as well as two or three shots of genitalia. Still, the hallucinogenic sequences that suggest a drug-enhanced orgy should remain in place.

From The White Lotus (Mike White, 2021-2022) on TV to Triangle of Sadness (Ruben Ostlund, 2022) in theaters, we live in a cultural moment where audiences want to revel in watching the rich behaving badly and more or less getting some comeuppance. Maybe the pandemic or the Trump presidency poured salt in the wounds of inequity. Kudos to Cronenberg for being the only one that takes the hate further, all the way to the breaking point and beyond.

* Update: "infinity Pool" is available to stream at Hulu. Rent or buy at all the major digital platforms.

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