Given the state of the world this decade, it’s understandable that the indie film market often tends to the dour and the depressing. There’s been a more playful spirit at this year’s Sundance than the last couple of years, perhaps hinting that filmmakers are ready to smile, laugh, and play again. The three films in this dispatch are unapologetically designed to get a response that doesn’t rely on world-weary cynicism. Two of them are vibrant explosions of creativity, while the third doesn’t quite come together as successfully but hints at potentially great things to come.
One of the best films of Sundance 2023 will be on Hulu in March, where I expect its many fans will watch it over and over again. It’s got the feel of an instant cult classic, a movie that will have devoted fans who love its characters enough to memorize their journey. “Rye Lane” is a burst of cinematic energy, a film that incorporates beats from “Before Sunrise,” classic British rom-coms, and even the legacy of A Tribe Called Quest into something that somehow feels familiar and new at the same time. The emotional beats are what we’ve seen before—it’s another story of two people who have a very unusual meet-cute and spend the rest of a wacky night together—but the characters, their dialogue, and the vibrant neighborhood in which this is set elevate it into something fresh. Let’s face it: the rom-com is in a dire state right now. This is one of the best of the decade so far.
It opens in a bathroom. Dom (David Jonsson) is trying to muffle his crying in a stall when Yas (Vivian Oparah) occupies the one next to him (it’s gender-neutral). Dom has noticed that his ex-girlfriend has been flaunting her new man on social media, a bloke who happens to be Dom’s best mate. It’s a lot to handle emotionally. Yas doesn’t intervene but notices Dom’s shoes, and spots the fragile soul at the event they’re attending, a photography exhibit for a mutual friend. The two strike up a conversation and end up walking and talking through the London neighborhood of Peckham, which filmmaker Raine Allen-Miller turns into a character itself. With vibrant colors and eccentric characters everywhere, the background to this journey elevates the entire piece. It’s done with such love and creative passion that you wish you were walking alongside Dom and Yas to take it all in.
Of course, the main reason you want to join them is to enjoy the company of two hysterical, sharp, believable characters who are so fully realized that you root for their happiness from the beginning. At first, Dom seems like the less stable of the two (that bathroom crying scene), and there’s an incredible scene in which Yas pretends to be his new girlfriend when Dom meets up with his ex and former BFF. But Allen-Miller smartly balances the dynamic, revealing that Yas is coming off recent heartbreak too and may not be as confident as she pretends to be. It quickly becomes apparent that Dom and Yas bring out the best in one another as she brings him out of his shell and he grounds her and supports her.
None of this works without two strong performers to carry nearly every frame of the movie, most of which takes place on one night (hence the “Before” comparison, and there’s even a nod near the end that recalls the Linklater trilogy even more directly). Jonsson is a lot of fun, and I’ll smile when I see him pop up again in a movie, but “Rye Lane” belongs to Oparah. It’s as much a breakout performance as you’ll see this year. She’s one of those performers who naturally holds the camera in a way that you want to see what she does next. No wonder Dom finally comes back to life when they meet.
The joys of John Carney’s “Flora and Son” are no less vibrant, even if they should be expected for fans of “Once” and “Sing Street.” Once again, Carney is revealing something he very clearly honestly believes with his whole heart: creative connection can change your life. ‘“Once” for the Zoom Generation’ would be an easy way to pitch this delightful musical/comedy that doesn’t have an ounce of cynicism in its big heart, even as it captures a woman trying to find something in her life that can make her happy. With great performances, catchy tunes, and light-on-its-feet filmmaking that’s much harder than it looks, “Flora and Son” is delightful.
Eve Hewson does the best work of her acting career to date as Flora, a brash young mother in Dublin who has been in a rut for far too long. She’s too young and passionate to give into a life of Irish routine. The captivating Hewson is a force of nature, spitting out Carney’s one-liners in a way that makes it clear that Flora is capable of more than life has given her while also allowing viewers to question some of her decisions. Flora is always talking about how she has to find herself, but will that be at the expense of her son Max (the natural Oren Kinlan), who has taken to petty crimes and seems lost himself? At what point does a young mother have to sacrifice her dreams to make sure her son doesn’t lose his too? Or can both of their dreams come true?
This all makes “Flora and Son” sound more like a British kitchen sink drama than the buoyant comedy/musical it is, but it’s a testament to Carney’s talent that he can have a little bit of both. For the most part, he’s made a fun movie about a single mother who decides that she wants to sing. She’s going to learn guitar, write a song, and sing it at a local pub, maybe even doing well enough to win back her musician ex-husband (the great Jack Reynor of “Sing Street”). She signs up for online guitar lessons with a songwriter named Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who hasn’t been this charming in years). Flora and Jeff end up talking about way more than chords, flirting and connecting in a way that inspires both of them.
The music in “Flora and Son” may not be as instantly memorable as “Falling Slowly” or “Drive It Like You Stole It,” but that feels somewhat intentional. These people are more fumbling toward creativity than the characters in those films. It’s almost as if Carney is suggesting that when life gets in the way, the best thing you can do is collaborate with someone. Pick up a guitar. Talk about music. Laugh with someone. Be inspired by someone else and allow yourself to inspire them. Magic might happen. I get why that may be too cheesy for some people. It’s definitely not for me.
A very different tone occupies the frames of Midnight entry “Talk to Me,” but there’s something vibrant and promising about the filmmaking here that gives it that same kind of robust momentum as the other two films in this dispatch. Sadly, I don’t think it completely works—I kept wanting its themes to take hold and really develop into something more resonant than where the film ultimately lands—but there are some great ideas here, along with some promising filmmaking and remarkable horror images.
It opens with maybe its best. A man walks through a party to a room where someone who is clearly in a bad state sits on the edge of a bed. He appears bruised and maybe a little unstable. Before you know it, the man on the bed has stabbed the other one. And then he drives the knife into his own skull. It was one of those wonderful full-audience-gasping, holy shit moments in the theater that perfectly set the stage for a Midnight movie.
The film by Australians Danny and Michael Philippou then introduces us to Mia (Sophie Wilde), a young woman trying not to think about her mother on the anniversary of her death. Mia goes to a party and becomes involved in an insane viral craze. A group of teenagers has come into possession of a cursed hand. If you hold the hand and say, “Talk to me,” you will see a spirit (some of the designs for these are spectacular make-up jobs, by the way). And then you can let the spirit into your soul for 90 seconds. Don’t do it any longer. (You know that’s going to go wrong the minute someone mentions a timer.) The kids are recording the possessions and uploading them into viral history. It’s a TikTok version of "The Exorcist."
It's a great idea, and it starts with a ton of promise, but the Philippous lose some of their momentum after a stunning sequence in which the possession of a young man who never should have gotten involved goes horribly awry. From there, they spin their wheels too much with Mia’s emotional baggage, losing the rising tension that needs to be a part of a movie like this one. Still, the performances are strong and the directors have a visual language that doesn’t overtly reveal their YouTube background (as part of a channel called @RackaRacka), blending both old-fashioned horror storytelling with daringly new ideas.
“Talk to Me” is really part of a classic horror genre: the movies where kids play around with things they don’t really understand. And yet it feels just new enough to make me want to listen the next time they have something to say.