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Sundance 2023: Shayda, A Thousand and One, When It Melts

Trauma has long been a theme of independent cinema—it doesn't cost a lot of money to tell stories of human resilience. And so it makes sense that a festival like Sundance would have a large selection of what could be called depressing cinema. However, "depressing" is often a more complex descriptor that it sounds. Two of the films in this dispatch are undeniably bleak, but they overcome that mood through dense character detail and ace filmmaking. The third wallows in its bleakness with too little artistry to balance out the sense that the audience is merely being punished for buying a ticket.

The best of the three is Noora Niasari's confident personal debut "Shayda," which won an Audience Award over the weekend for the World Dramatic Competition program. Reportedly based on the filmmaker's own experience, this drama surges with truth, thanks in no small part to a stunning performance from Zar Amir Ebrahimi, winner of Best Actress at Cannes for "Holy Spider." Ebrahimi plays a mother hiding out in a woman's shelter in Australia, alternately processing the trauma of her past and trying to carve out a new future for her daughter. With her abusive husband in the narrative mix, "Shayda" hums with inevitable dread. It's a tug-of-war between hope and fear that gives Ebrahimi the platform to carve out a completely three-dimensional character. We come to care for Shayda and her daughter. And, by extension, the thousands of women in the tragically same position in the world

"Shayda" unfolds in 1995 and features its title character, played by Ebrahimi, and her daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia) in almost every scene. Shayda moved to Australia with Mona and her husband Hossein (Osamah Sami), but his daily abuse, including rape, has become unbearable, forcing her into a shelter with an undisclosed location—the fear that someone will discover where Shayda and Mona live gives Niasari's film the momentum of a thriller, enhanced by a constrained aspect ratio that makes us feel as trapped as they are. In a sense, even as these characters are seeking freedom, they're trapping themselves in a life that makes any sort of mistake a potentially deadly one. It doesn't help that Shayda is forced to let Hossein see his daughter by the courts. What if Mona drops a detail about their location? It could put not only them in jeopardy but the other women staying there.

Ebrahimi gives a stunning performance, one that balances both palpable fear and stunning courage. Nisari puts a lot on her shoulders, traditionally telling the story and realizing that her title character will be what matters to viewers. Seeing Shayda try to stay a part of the Iranian community in Australia—while rejecting the old-fashioned beliefs that insist she returns to her husband—makes the character feel completely well-rounded, believable, and progressive at the same time. We believe in both her fear and her hope in equal measure. They can sometimes exist in the same space.

There's a similar balance of hope and fear in Teyana Taylor's excellent performance in A.V. Rockwell's "A Thousand and One," a somewhat surprising winner of the Grand Jury prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition program of this year's festival. (Previous recent winners include "CODA" and "Whiplash.”) Once again, it's a tale of a mother protecting a child as Taylor plays a New York woman named Inez who kidnaps her son from a foster program, changing his name and making sure he stays quiet about his background. The shared secret between Inez and Terry defines their relationship, a secret that raises the tension as a boy grows into a man and eventually discovers that mom was hiding more than he ever could have imagined.

There are two reasons that "A Thousand and One" was able to connect with viewers and rise above a relatively contrived narrative (although the contrivances of the final scenes are enough that it wouldn't be my pick over something like "All Dirt Road Taste of Salt"). 

First, there's Taylor's completely committed performance. She has a remarkably natural screen presence, instantly disappearing into her character in a way that makes the actress fade away. We believe we're watching a woman named Inez in mid-'90s New York City in every single scene. It's one of those acting turns that makes you want to see what a performer does next right now. Taylor could be major.

The second strength of "A Thousand and One" is Rockwell's transportive use of setting. The film thrums with the energy of New York in the '90s, using sound bites and news items to constantly remind one of its period piece dynamics, but also to give the film the feeling of life around Inez and Terry. As they are changing, so is the gentrifying neighborhood around them, and the detail in the setting grounds their arguably melodramatic story. If it felt like Inez and Terry existed only on modern sets, "A Thousand and One" wouldn't have the same juice. By putting so much care into the world around them, we come to care about Inez and Terry.

Sadly, Veerle Baetens can't get to the same place with her brutally manipulative "When It Melts," a film that required an age verification before the screening because it's such a dark, horrible experience. When you're going to make an audience suffer through the dark places that this story goes, the journey needs to feel worth the effort, and "When It Melts" doesn't quite get there. There's a genuinely strong performance from its young star that keeps it from total failure, but it's a film that makes it very clear early on that you're going to watch something horrific in the final act, and yet it doesn't make it clear why you should stick around to do so. And then it ends on such a dark note, making the two hours that came before feel even more punishing. I respect films willing to show the extreme horror of violence and trauma in a way that doesn't blink, but there needs to be more than that to hold onto. Otherwise, it's just torture.

"When It Melts" unfolds in a present/flashback structure, mostly the latter. In the present day, we meet Eva (Charlotte De Bruyne), who stumbles on a social media post about a memorial for an old friend from the village in which she grew up. Her reaction to this post makes it clear that she has trauma connected to this person and her youth, and the flashbacks play out like a slow-motion car crash, introducing us to a young Eva (the excellent Rosa Marchant) and her two male friends. The trio plays a riddle game, in which they find girls in town who they then tell a riddle. For every statement or question that gets the answer to the riddle wrong, the teen girl has to take off an object of clothing. Violent tragedy feels sadly inevitable, especially given how many adults in this community appear to be looking the other way.

Marchant is so believable here that her work almost elevates "When It Melts" above its weak screenplay. But I always felt like I was watching a movie, a problem when it comes to dark stories of the human condition like this one. It leads one to question why the filmmaker makes certain decisions instead of getting invested in the characters and their violent trauma. There's too much here that feels manufactured in a way that's punishing instead of enlightening. 

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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