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Slamdance Film Festival Highlights 2023

While the Sundance Film Festival was unfurling its first in-person event in three years, it’s sister festival, Slamdance was also taking place just up Main Street in downtown Park City. A companion to Sundance, Slamdance often features films with a smaller budget, but it has been the launchpad of some major filmmakers over its history, including Jeremy Saulnier (“Murder Party”), Christopher Nolan (“Following”), and Oren Peli (“Paranormal Activity”). Recently, the excellent “Vast of Night” had its first premiere at Slamdance, and Steven Soderbergh chose the festival to premiere his “High Flying Bird.” Here are a few highlights from the 2023 edition.

The big winner from the Slamdance Narrative Grand Jury is actually a Chicago production, the insightful and genuine “Waiting for the Light to Change,” which announces an interesting new voice in Linh Tran. This character study almost feels like a non-American film as it has a slow, deliberate, non-flashy style that recalls filmmakers working today in Europe and Asia more than the indie film market in this country. It’s a project that one can tell was a labor of love for everyone involved, and was made by a bunch of students at DePaul University on the North Side and filmed entirely at a house on Lake Michigan. “Waiting for the Light to Change” has a relatively simple structure and familiar story, but the execution elevates what could have felt like just another film school project into what feels more like a launchpad for a major career.

Tran’s directorial debut stars Jin Park as Amy, who is reuniting with a former best friend at a lake house for a chilly weekend—the contrast of a lakeside beach setting but in jacket-wearing temperatures gives the whole thing a different feel than if it has been summer set. Amy hasn’t seen her friend Kim (Joyce Ha) since Amy took off for the west coast for grad school. They’re getting together to catch up, joined by Kim’s boyfriend Jay (Sam Straley), who Amy happened to be in love with when she left.

Everyone can remember those days in your twenties when you realize that not only have the dynamics with your friends from school changed but so have you. Tran taps into that crossroads in a person’s life, but she never does so in a melodramatic fashion, letting the characters drive the filmmaking through natural dialogue and interactions. She has a very patient camera—and the film can sometimes lack in urgency to a frustrating degree—but the slow rhythm allows the performers to inhabit the characters in a way that feels real. It’s as if we’re eavesdropping on a reunion instead of watching a manufactured one, and I’m eager to see where that gift with realism takes Linh Tran next.

Our very own Matt Fagerholm raved about Elisa Levine & Gabriel Miller’s “Sweetheart Deal” out of the BendFilm Festival, and I can join in that praise now that I’ve seen it out of Slamdance. This is a captivating doc about people on the fringe of society, women who turn to someone in their time of greatest need only to find themselves betrayed yet again. Levine & Miller assemble their film in a way that produces great empathy for these women, even as they face yet another unimaginable betrayal. They capture cycles of addiction and abuse, reminding viewers how hard it is to escape these situations, especially when even the people who offer help are vicious sociopaths.

“Sweetheart Deal” chronicles four sex workers in the city of Seattle, Washington. A man who refers to himself as the mayor of Aurora, the avenue also known as Highway 99, offers them help when they need it, letting them crash in his trailer, and even helping one catch a client who kidnapped and raped her. He supports them when they have literally no one else, even taking one of the women out on her birthday. He’s the only one who remembered it. And yet there’s something unsettling about his behavior early on as Levine & Miller catch him in possessive and even jealous moments. “Sweetheart Deal” becomes surprisingly suspenseful as we come to care for these people and hope they can find the road to happiness, one step at a time.

One of the big winners at Slamdance this year was the inventive documentary hybrid feature “Starring Jerry as Himself,” which took home the Audience Award for Doc, the Grand Jury prize in that category, and even an acting award for Jerry Hsu, who, you guessed it, played himself. The story that unfolds in Lawrence Chen’s clever film isn’t that thrilling on the surface, but the filmmaker had a brilliant idea during production and gets Jerry Hsu to play himself in a series of extended recreations, detailing what happened to him when he thought he might suddenly be the subject of an international event.

Jerry was an average Chinese immigrant living in Florida. Recently divorced, he was on his own when he got a call from the Chinese police, telling them that they needed him for a covert mission. Or did they? Based on something that really happened to the producer’s father, this is an entertaining experiment that proves that recreation-heavy documentaries need not be dull if the filmmakers are willing to get as playful as Lawrence Chen and his team.  

Finally, there’s Jeff Rutherford’s “A Perfect Day for Caribou,” one of the few Slamdance films that came to town with familiar faces. The two-hander stars the great Charlie Plummer (“Lean on Pete”) and character actor Jeb Berrier (“First Cow” and this year’s Sundance opener “Sometimes I Think About Dying”) in the story of a father and son coming to terms with each other. Both performers are strong and the lyrical black-and-white cinematography by Alfonso Herrera Salcedo can be beautiful, but the mid-section of this drama sags under the weight of a project that feels like it would have probably been stronger as a short. There’s just not quite enough meat on its bones for a feature. However, it’s again a perfect Slamdance film in that I’m all in on what Rutherford does next.

“A Perfect Day for Caribou” opens with a man named Herman (Berrier) sitting in a truck, recording a final message to his son Nate (Plummer) before he kills himself. Before he can do so, Nate calls, and the two meet up at a cemetery, where his son even brings his offspring, a quiet child named Ralph who ends up disappearing. As the estranged father and son search for the missing boy, they discuss their lives, moving back and forth between reconciliation and individuality. Plummer and Berrier are excellent, and there are times when “Caribou” reminded me of great theater—two performers bouncing character and back story off each other for 95 minutes. Rutherford proves that he can direct performance and help guide a stronger visual language than I saw in most films at Sundance this year. Those strengths alone will take him far, even if his first film isn’t “perfect.”

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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