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Arts + CultureMoviesWhat we saw at Sundance 2024, part two: Oh,...

What we saw at Sundance 2024, part two: Oh, the drama!

Our critic takes in River Gallo's intersex love saga 'Ponyboi', Sean Wang's Fremont autobiographical tale, and much more.

This year’s 40th anniversary of the Sundance Film Festival returned to in-person screenings, premiering 92 feature films, compared to 128 in 2020. Even with the pared-down lineup, the whole shebang proved to be a return to form, overflowing with films from a slew of singularly unique visionaries. Here is a part two of my spoiler-free FiCKS PiCKS, the top dramas gleaned from the 37 feature films that I was able to access. You can hang this list on your refrigerator so that when one of them gets released this year, you can use it as a reference. Check out part one, which focuses on genre films, here, and part three, about this year’s documentaries, here.

India Donaldson’s peacefully profound Good One (US, 2023) showcases a devastatingly subdued performance by Lily Collias as Sam, a precocious 17-year-old who has to cope with competing egos of her father (James LeGros), and his oldest friend (Danny McCarthy) on a revelatory weekend backpacking trip in the Catskills. Probing progressive pitfalls on par with Kelly Reichardt’s films, Donaldson has delivered a humorously haunting look at present-day parenting. Special shout out to music supervisor Taylor Rowley (Windmills Of Your Mind) who packed the film to the brim with flawless melodies. Metrograph Pictures acquired the distribution rights and will release the film later on this year.

Nathan Silver’s Between the Temples (US, 2024) was a breath of fresh Sundance air with its gorgeous cinematography by Sean Price Williams and perfect performances by Jason Schwartzman and Carol Kane. This subtle screwball comedy leans into its Harold and Maude dynamic beautifully as it follows “a cantor who is having his own crisis of faith while taking on a new adult bat mitzvah student, who just so happens to be his grade school music teacher.” The film will screen at the 74th Berlin International Film Festival in February, in the Panorama section. Sony Pictures Classics acquired the distribution rights and will release the film later on this year.

Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s endearing tearjerker Ghostlight (US, 2023) was a surprise hit of Sundance’s Dramatic Competition as it follows a depressed construction worker who unexpectedly joins a local theater’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Showcasing solid performances by newcomer Keith Kupferer, Katherine Mallen Kupferer (Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret), and a delightful performance by Dolly De Leon (Triangle of Sadness), this film is really really good at what it sets out to do. Do your best to not read any spoiler reviews for this “little film that could.” Just know that Ghostlight has the same emotional punch as Sian Heder’s CODA (2021) and should be sought out at all costs. IFC Films and Sapan Studio will distribute the film later on in 2024.

Another highlight in the Dramatic Competition this year was River Gallo and Esteban Arango’s subversive saga Ponyboi (US, 2023), which follows a melancholy intersex sex worker looking for love in all the wrong places. With a truly hypnotic performance by newcomer River Gallo, who also wrote the screenplay, this slow-burn thriller had me literally on the edge of my seat by its spellbinding conclusion. At the film’s world premiere at the Park City Library Theatre, Gallo proclaimed that this was “the happiest moment of my life so far” and explained that Ponyboi burst out of “all the different ways in which I felt like an outsider in my life—being intersex, being Latinx, being from New Jersey.” The film is currently seeking distribution.

Didi (弟弟) (US, 2023) Set in 2008, the movie follows a 13-year-old kid who does his best to join a skater gang, nab the the cutest girl in his class, and figure out how to take care of his artistically frustrated mom (Joan Chen). Writer-director Sean Wang’s autobiographical tale, set in his hometown of Fremont, California, is surprisingly unsentimental as he presents the trials and tribulations of growing up online and out of place. Winning both the US Dramatic Audience Award and the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble Cast, the film was purchased by Focus Features, which will be distributing it later on in 2024. Also noteworthy is that, on the very same week as Didi‘s world premiere at Sundance, the Academy Awards announced the nomination of Wang’s 17-minute opus from 2023, Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó (Grandma & Grandma), which will be competing for the Oscar for Best Documentary Short this coming March 10.

Girls Will Be Girls (India/France/US/Norway, 2023) Perhaps the most surprising film of the entire festival was director’s Shuchi Talati’s gripping journey of a 16-year-old girl attempting to uncover her own romantic desires in a strict boarding school nestled deep in the Himalayas. But her sexual, rebellious awakening is curiously disrupted by her mother who never got to come of age herself. The film won the Audience Award for World Cinema Dramatic Competition, and the lead actor Preeti Panigrahi, an animation student of Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute, was also awarded a Special Jury Award for Acting. I am here to say that both awards are greatly deserved. Added to that, Kani Kusruti, who radiates as the stifled yet blossoming mother, is the key to this at-first seemingly ordinary tale. While you wait for this genuine treasure, be on the lookout for Talati’s 13-minute gem, A Period Piece (2020), about a woman who finally has sex one afternoon—only things quickly turn messy when period blood stains her pristine couch.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the film history coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and is part of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He curates and hosts “MOViES FOR MANiACS,” a film series celebrating underrated and overlooked cinema, in a neo-sincere manner.

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