Sundance Dispatch: Sacrificing (for) Children

We’ll do anything for our kids, won’t we? I mean, I don’t have any, but I’ve heard that’s how it is. The Sundance Film Festival isn’t a “family” fest in the sense that you would want to bring your children to it — it’s too cold and expensive and a lot of the movies are dirty — yet quite a few entries are about children, parenting, and all of the joys and horrors attendant to those subjects. 

We start with a favorite genre: movies about unorthodox teachers helping disadvantaged students discover the joy of learning while skeptical school administrators threaten. I am a sucker for these. Grind them up and let me snort them. It matters not if they are formulaic or even cheesy. This one’s called Radical. “Radical,” for crying out loud! This is a movie that turns its chair around and sits on it backwards so it can rap with the kids face to face. It’s Stand and Deliver and Dead Poets Society and Lean on Me, based on a true story and set in the dangerous border town of Matamoros, Mexico. 

Eugenio Derbez, the often grating Mexican comedy star who played a teacher in 2021’s CODA, is much better here as Sergio, a science teacher who has requested a transfer to teach sixth grade at a dumpy school that’s especially underfunded because the corrupt local government siphons away the funding it does get. We focus on a few of Sergio’s students: scrawny, unsupervised Nico (Danilo Guardiola), whose older brother is pressuring him to work for a drug dealer; brilliant, quiet Paloma (Jennifer Trejo), who lives with her father at a garbage dump and has to hide her books from him (he seems OK with the concept for “school” but disapproves of any extracurricular learning); and sweet Lupe (Mia Fernanda Solis), who likes school but is preoccupied with helping her parents care for her younger siblings. 

Sergio gets the kids interested in the subject of flotation: Why don’t boats sink? With no computers or library to assist in finding the answer, Sergio teaches them to use lateral thinking, logic, and trial and error, guiding them toward the solution without giving it to them — teaching them to fish, as it were. Meanwhile, the well-meaning but feckless principal (Daniel Haddad) observes warily while despairing of Sergio’s class ever being ready for the standardized tests when they spend their days dropping things in water tanks instead of memorizing dates and names (“teaching to the test” evidently not just an American problem). 

Christopher Zalla, whose grim Padre Nuestro (retitled Sangre de Mi Sangre) won the top prize at Sundance 2007, is more upbeat here, though every story like this must have at least one tragic turn. Seeing kids get excited about learning is a dopamine boost, even in contrived scenarios. It’s wholesome, you know? Derbez is a strong lead, showing Sergio’s energetic confidence in the classroom alternating with self-doubt when the children aren’t around. The kids are funny and sweet (did I mention Nico has a crush on Paloma?). Without getting preachy or even very sentimental, Radical is a satisfying addition to the inspiring teacher canon. Grade: B+

• • •

Shayda, the debut feature by Iranian-Australian Noora Niasari, is the partially autobiographical story of an Iranian woman, Shayda (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi), living with her young daughter, Mona (Selina Zahednia), in Australia in the mid-1990s. When we meet them, Shayda and Mona have just arrived at a women’s shelter and are building a custody case against Shayda’s abusive soon-to-be-ex-husband (Osamah Sami), a traditional Iranian man fond of pointing out to Shayda what they do to “progressive” women back home. 

Though set in the ’90s (and presented in the old square aspect ratio, I guess to remind us of VHS), a film that addresses Iranian women’s rights is very timely in 2023. Without getting on a soapbox, Shayda and the women around her — including kindly Australian social worker Joyce (Leah Purcell), Iranian friend Elly (Rina Mousavi), and fellow single mom Lara (Eve Morey) — represent different ways that women are oppressed, as well as the ways that women overcome their oppressors. 

Zar Amir-Ebrahami, recently seen with similar steely resolve in Holy Spider, is terrific as Shayda, addressing her trauma realistically but not so heavily that it becomes the focus of the film. Niasari wants us looking forward with optimism, not backward with fear. To that end, Selina Zahednia, the adorable little girl playing Mona (presumably an analogue for Niasari), is a constant ray of sunshine and a reminder to her mother (and us) that there’s hope for the future. Grade: B

• • •

Sometimes the children are creepy; sometimes it’s the parents who are creepy; sometimes it’s both. Welcome to Run Rabbit Run (at least the third movie to exist with that title), an Australian psychological thriller that unfolds interestingly enough to reward a single viewing but that I doubt would offer much on rewatch. – a single-serving movie. 

It stars Sarah Snook (Shiv on HBO’s Succession) as Sarah, the lightly frazzled divorced mother of 7-year-old Mia (Lily LaTorre), who starts saying odd things like that she “misses” Joan, her grandmother whom she has never met. When Sarah apprehensively takes Mia to meet Grandma, who’s in a nursing home whose phone calls Sarah keeps ducking, the diminishing old woman thinks Mia is “Alice.” But who’s Alice? And why is Mia now insisting that she is indeed Alice?

Speaking of Alice, there’s a white rabbit, too. It shows up in Sarah and Mia’s yard and is presumed to be a portent. (Sarah Snook tells it to “f*** off,” in case you’d like to hear her say the Succession catchphrase in her native Australian accent.) As Mia’s behavior continues to be weird — though still within the bounds of acceptable childhood weirdness — Sarah’s grip on reality starts to fail. 

The screenplay, a first for Aussie novelist Hannah Kent, parcels out information in the manner of a novel: slowly, carefully, letting us wonder about each new mystery (who’s Alice? What happened to her? What’s happening now?) long enough to be curious but not frustrated. The trouble with telling a story that way, though, is that once everything has been revealed, the audience might take a step back and say: “That’s it?” But along the way, director Daina Reid delivers a few shivery scenes and tense moments, even if it is ultimately a familiar sort of story. Grade: B-

• • • 

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Just over 50 percent of this year’s Sundance films were directed by women, a remarkable achievement in inclusivity. Birth/Rebirth is one of them, and I’m so glad — glad the movie exists, and glad it wasn’t a man who made it. Playing in the Midnight section, it’s a messed-up horror film that is messed up in ways so specifically related to womanhood that if a guy thought of it, he’d be accused of being tasteless and exploitative. But a non-guy? Hey, more power to you. As a fan of messed-up horror movies, I’m thrilled to see director Laura Moss (who co-wrote with Brendan J. O’Brien) being every bit as sick in the head as a Cronenberg. 

Judy Reyes, whom you will recall as Nurse Carla on Scrubs, returns to her medical roots to play Celie, a maternity nurse and single mom whose life revolves around her energetic young daughter, Lila (A.J. Lister). Working at the same hospital as Celie is Dr. Rosemary Casper (Marin Ireland), a chilly morgue technician who has an off-putting manner and is awkward around living people. When a fatal case of bacterial meningitis strikes poor Lila, Rose has a solution: “an experimental treatment I’ve been working on.”

“For meningitis?”

“For death.” 

Well, then. Here we have two women, one driven by love for her daughter, one driven by scientific curiosity, tampering in God’s domain. The ghastly details of how, exactly, a deceased girl is kept alive, and what Celie and Rose must do in order to procure the necessary treatment elements, I will leave for you to discover; suffice it to say that Celie’s daily interaction with pregnant women is a stroke of luck. Rose contributes, too, in a horrific and darkly funny way. 

“Horrific and darkly funny” just about sums it up. When Celie yells “You mad scientist princess bitch!” at Rose, it occurs to me that this could have been — though not necessarily should have been — much campier than it is. Instead, it’s mostly deadpan, the insidious plot executed with chilling matter-of-factness. Reyes and Ireland are as committed to their performances as their characters are to their insane plan, never winking at the audience. You completely believe that both women would do the things they do. Grade: B+

• • •

Elsewhere on the spectrum of “devoted mothers” we find Earth Mama, writer-director Savanah Leaf’s thoughtful exploration of an agonizing maternal quandary: What if you weren’t capable of caring for your children? 

In San Francisco, a Black woman named Gia (Tia Nomore) is facing that reality. Only recently clean and sober, she’s jumping through the hoops necessary to get her two kids back from foster care — court-ordered classes and programs and whatnot, which she struggles to attend because she’s also working as many hours as she can (which the court also requires). Oh, and she’s pregnant, and very reasonably afraid that she will lose custody of this baby as soon as it’s born. At the suggestion of a counselor, she considers an open adoption.

Leaf sympathetically captures the details of Gia’s precarious living situation and poverty. Tia Nomore, a newcomer, embodies Gia’s weariness and frustration as she navigates the government programs and comes to terms with the fact that loving her children isn’t the same as taking care of them. It’s a quiet gut-punch of a film. Grade: B+

Check out our coverage of this year’s Sundance documentaries here.

Eric D. Snider has been a film critic since 1999, first for newspapers (when those were a thing) and then for the internet. He was born and raised in Southern California, lived in Utah in his 20s, then Portland, now Utah again. He is glad to meet you, probably.

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