SUNDANCE REVIEW BREAKDOWN: THE DEEPEST BREATH, MY ANIMAL, YOU HURT MY FEELINGS, MAGAZINE DREAMS

THE DEEPEST BREATH (Laura McGann)

One of the most anxiety ridden documentaries in quite some time THE DEEPEST BREATH is a both a high tension sports doc as well as one of the most tragic romantic films in years. A look at champion freedivers, Laura McGann’s documentary captures what may drive these people to risk their lives for a sport that many don’t even know exist. For those who are unfamiliar with freediving (as was this critic) it is plunging into the depths of the ocean on a single breath. Simple to explain beyond complicated to understand the emotions and skillset behind it. Alessia Zecchini has become a champion all around the world, but her desire to continue to push past the limits will make you shudder in your seat. The film makes two things apparent right from the start in its horrifying opener; these people are beyond skilled, and anything can go wrong even as you hit the surface. THE DEEPEST BREATH wants to show you the reality not to scare you off, although many images of people blacking out is quite disturbing, but to remind us that people like Alessia always accept the reality of death but pursue for the love of sport and to well feel alive. On the other side of the coin is Stephen Keenan, a free spirited diver who uses his talents in the cause of keeping other divers alive. Keenan who has set some records of his own decides to become and open a facility for safety divers. Safety divers don’t get an easy break though, they themselves have to dive right with the athlete so the risk of life only doubles. McGann follows these two strangers and parrels their journey to a place that makes you see this documentary for the romantic story that it is. Much like a rom-com it becomes clear that Alessia and Steve are destined to meet, but THE DEEPEST BREATH excels at making you worry right from the start why this story seems to be told as if its already over. It isn’t a hat trick but McGann purposely chooses not to show us talking heads of Steve and Alessia less to worry about their possible demise but instead to be with them every step of the way and experience the journey in “real time” the way they did. This allows you to also fall in love with Alessia the way Steve does and vice versa. To see these extraordinary humans in both high standards as well as ground them back to earth whenever they are together. The film features stunning but terrifying freedives from several world champions but the excitement is always there. You may find yourself shaking your head that someone will keep attempting this life or death dives, but it also wonderfully plays into the notion that we may question these athletes but we are still amazed by their talents. THE DEEPEST BREATH is the kind of movie that surprises you from the first frames. It grabs your attention and heartrate and never slows down. A documentary that will get you talking about its subjects just as much as talking about how you were left shaking long after its ending. We may never fully understand what it is like to reach the depths that Steve and Alessia have reached but McGann allows us, if only for a few moments, to feel as alive as they did reaching into an endless abyss that is both full of life and love.

A

THE DEEPEST BREATH PREMIERED AT THE 2023 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL. IT WILL BE RELEASED BY A24 ON NETFLIX LATER THIS YEAR

MY ANIMAL (Jaqueline Castel)

It is nearly impossible to find a horror movie that isn’t a metaphor or deeper representation of something. This is far from a fault of the genre but instead an excellent way for filmmaker to get their feelings out in one of the best vessels in the medium. Unfortunately this also means there will be those that bombard you with their metaphors and forget to make sure it all blends well. MY ANIMAL the feature length debut from Jaqueline Castel has an intriguing premise, the right usage of horror to carry her deeper meanings but chooses a slow burn that finds yourself less intrigued and more exhausted. Premiering at the “Midnight” section of the festival is a no brainer, a story about a young queer woman possibly fining her first love while also batting a literal monster inside her, it practically writes itself. However writer Jae Matthews script chooses to take this 100 minute film and make it feel like well beyond two hours. Heather (Bobbi Salvor Menuez) wants to be on the men’s hockey team. She practices everyday in the snowy town that feels off the beaten path. When she isn’t skating she is at home with her two twin brothers, her alcoholic mom and understanding father. While everyone goes to be, Heather stays up late watching old movies and fighting off the moon. Everything about this film feels like a throwback to the video nasties era, but without any of the bite. The literal animal that lives in Heather is clearly a werewolf and while you expect the film to have more fun with this, Castel just wants this to be a representation of the many people who have to hold back who they really are because if the world knew their true selves they may be terrified. Even to this day it is not a farfetched analogy. But thankfully for Heather she may have just found her someone in the form of pretty girl skater but also rebel “Jonny” (Amandla Stenberg excelling beyond). Jonny and Heather have an immediate connection and while Heather may still be afraid to show her “monstrous” self she is able to go out with Jonny and connect emotionally, but more importantly physically with someone. Stenberg who has built quite the career in a short amount of time brings both an innocence and danger to the role. When she is on screen the attention is held, which makes it stick out when she disappears or becomes a last minute villain. Castel and her film both want to service the horror and the new profound love and sexual desire Heather feels for Jonny but the balance of the film is lacking. There are some excellent prolonged erotic dreamlike sequences that bring us to the middle of the film. But this all feels like a means to an end that doesn’t actually arrive. Slow burns in horror are common and can be quite engaging, but when the payoff is nonexistent you feel cheated. Stenberg however is the shining light of the film, carrying most of the unspoken lust and chaos of the film. Menuez isn’t a weak performer, but her skills at the time do not hold the same momentum and the already slight story suffers more because of her. Castel could be an exciting director in the future, a scene involving Heather and her father (Stephen McHattie) proves just that. When the film appears to be stuck, Heather and her father are able to have a confronting scene discussing how nobody should change for anyone and to always be who you feel you are. A scene that feel shoehorned, but also a tease of what could have been. MY ANIMAL stumbles along even amongst its glimpses of creativity, but all in all you know there could be more to this monster.

C

MY ANIMAL PREMIERED IN THE “MIDNIGHT” SECTION AT THE SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL. IT WILL BE RELEASED LATER IN THE YEAR BY XYZ FILMS

YOU HURT MY FEELINGS (Nicole Holofcener)

Get ready for your moms new favorite movie! YOU HURT MY FEELINGS the latest film from acclaimed screenwriter and director Nicole Holofcener, is a feel good little film about big ideas. Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) a novelist in New York City and her psychiatrist husband Don (Tobias Menzies) are not necessarily in a rut but they seem to be questioning their own faded success. Beth is questioning her new novel and Don isn’t sure if he is truly reaching and helping his patients. Thankfully they have each other to support; sort of. When Beth overhears Don discuss how he does not believe Beth’s new novel is good the script turns into a comedy of errors involving how marriage may be built on trust but grounded in the little white lies. Holofcener’s script takes this notion and stretches it thin for its short 90 minute runtime but the performances, which also includes a hysterical Michaela Watkins and Owen Teague, bounce off one another so naturally that you almost feel like watching a play being performed. YOU HURT MY FEELINGS is a rainy day feel good movie. A movie that will be both a delight to watch with your significant other but also a nightmare. All depends on which lie you choose to tell.

B

YOU HURT MY FEELINGS PREMIERED AT THE SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL AND WILL BE RELEASED LATER THIS YEAR BY A24

MAGAZINE DREAMS (ELIJAH BYNUM)

Sometimes films are relentless and in no way is that a negative thing. A film wants you to feel every ounce of pain it’s character goes through not to torture, but rather feel some empathy and reconsideration of our own behavior. Elijah Bynum’s MAGAZINE DREAMS is an endurance test and an extreme character study of a man who is destined to create conversation from its first frames. Jonathan Majors bares all in a tour de force performance as Killian Maddox, a thirty something year-old body builder obsessed with becoming a professional. The first time we see Killian it feels like a dream sequence as he demonstrates his body, which is basically Greek sculptor like, and Bynum circles around Killian allowing the audience to see every toned muscle. It is both a mesmerizing and provocative moment that from the start already opens up dialogue of the observation of the Black body and this country’s history with controlling and destroying young black men for their physique. Killian lives with his grandfather and works at the local grocery store where he eyes the beautiful cashier (Haley Bennett). But everything else in Killian’s life is devoted to the workout. In one of many hard hitting scenes Killian spends his time alone at the gym grunting in extreme pain fine tuning every muscle in his body. The film takes on that notion of “that guy” at the gym, we all know him, screaming too loud lifting weights that only an elephant could handle, and yet many of us laugh or even ignore this man. Killian is ignored, in fact the only time he finds people interacting with him is on his YouTube workout channel where he is met with comments as graphic as “kill yourself.” Killian appears to brush this off with more workouts, disgusting protein shake intakes and his other passion; writing letters to his role model and body builder Brad Vanderhorn. If you’re familiar with the Eminem song “Stan” then get ready for the live action version of that song. Killian’s obsession with Brad is full of letters to him about his workouts, his need to be better, his lack of a love life, and how some days he just feels like hurting people. Brad is the recipient of Killian’s honesty but his court ordered social worker only receives breadcrumbs and according to Killian he is doing great, doesn’t have anger outbursts, and is in a happy relationship. Bynum’s script is far from subtle and it won’t be hard to guess the type of person Killian is heading towards. But even if the word incel may get thrown around in your head when watching the film, Bynum has a much bigger empathetic approach to the character and film as a whole. There is plenty of Killian’s actions that you won’t root for, but in the realm of Taxi Driver or The Wrestler, we do not need to support our characters actions to justify their existence. Majors is one of the best up and coming actors who has given his all to every performance, and here is no exception. Every stutter Majors delivers and every bit of sweat poured is in full dedication to the role. His pain is Killian’s pain and the audience feels every bit of this. But it doesn’t mean that we do not fear Killian and his capabilities. In fact we are downright terrified, but there are far too many Killians in the world. Too many men and especially Black men in this country tossed aside for the excuse of mental illness and lack of resources. Sure there are not nearly enough hospitals or doctors in the world to help all those that need it, but where tangible resources may lack there is no excuse for the emptiness of our empathy. Bynum’s script isn’t arguing that if we are nicer we will have less mass shooters, murders or unremorseful men in this world, but it is turning the lens on us and asking why we continue to do the same thing over and over when there are so many that need a helping hand or just a fucking hug and letting them know things will be okay. A scene involving Killian picking up a prostitute named Pink Coat (Taylour Paige) is the first time we see Killian receive even the slightest bit of love. Paige plays it well as someone we know still has a job to do and will not give Killian the care he needs but there is still a worry and understanding in her eyes that this man needs somebody even when he refuses. Sitting at the premiere of MAGAZINE DREAMS at Sundance was an experience in audience litmus test. There were many walkouts and later discussions on how the film beats you up and leaves you with nothing. To each their own, but here is a film that may not want to make it easy for you, but the character of Killian is in need of our help. As the film expands and hits you throughout its two hour runtime it may feel like there is no end in sight, but Bynum wants us to stay with it all, even when things may be getting better for Killian. That may be when he needs us most, and the second chapter truly begins. MAGAZINE DREAMS may not be for everyone but it is certainly trying to speak to us all, and through all the intense and difficult scenes there is just a man. A man who is alone and needs assistance no matter how strong he looks.

A

MAGAZINE DREAMS PREMIERED AT THE SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL. IT IS CURRENTLY SEEKING DISTRIBUTION

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