The highs and lows of Sundance 2023

The Egyptian Theatre in Park City, Utah. (Photo: Shutterstock)

During my first in-person visit to the Sundance International Film Festival, I stayed four days, four nights, trekked over 10 miles down snowy sidewalks, and saw 14 feature films — 12 by women filmmakers, seven of these first-time directors. I laughed, I cried, I wore many layers of Heattech. Despite the expense, blisters, and occasional chilblain, I could only be grateful that the festival was scheduled early enough in the term that student papers were not yet rolling in.

Here are some highlights (and lowlights) of my Park City sojourn:

The author in Park City, Utah. (Photo: Eileen G’Sell)

High: Sitting feet away from both Mexican actor Gael García Bernal and former wrestler Saúl Armendáriz after the premiere of “Cassandro,” Roger Ross Williams’ debut film about the queer icon who transformed the realm of lucha libre. More than an inspiring biopic, the film was a jubilant, often tender, send up of toxic masculine norms. When Armendáriz (who recently suffered a stroke) stood up after the credits ran, the full house rose to their feet.

Low: Ironically: altitude sickness. Park City is not Machu Picchu, but the entire first evening I felt like I had a mild hangover. By the next morning, I was fine, and (almost) ready to brave the single-digit climate and accumulating snow.

High: Gliding down from my Airbnb in a bona fide gondola. I am no skier, so the journey felt like a frigid Six Flags ride to the bus stop.

Low: Waiting inside the bus shelters for an unpredictable amount of time to get from one cinema to the next; nothing was on schedule because of Sundance crowds, and the heaters rarely functioned. On the plus side, all buses were free, and festival volunteers were as warm as the air was not. On one late-night shuttle, I met a publicist from San Francisco who shared my keen taste in weather-proof footwear. Fashion win!

Gael García Bernal in “Cassandro,” directed by Roger Ross Williams. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

High: Attending press screenings for violent movies like “Run Rabbit Run” and “Cat Person” at 9 in the morning. Getting up early was a challenge, but my appetite for gore was matched only by that for the breakfast burritos sold at the Doubletree canteen.

Low: The final act of “Cat Person,” Susanna Fogel’s film adaptation of Kristen Roupenian’s controversial New Yorker short story (which I taught in my “Uncomfortable Literature” course in 2018). The first 100 minutes did justice to the undergraduate protagonist’s ambivalence toward dating, sex and female vulnerability; the last 20 minutes reminded me of a bad episode of “Law & Order: SVU.”

High: The final shot of Glorimar Marrero Sánchez’s debut film “La Pecera” — one of the most haunting, poetic images I’ve ever seen. I doubt this movie will make it to St. Louis theaters, but its poignant take on one Puerto Rican woman’s decision to end cancer treatment and return to her remote coastal community is devastating in the very best way.

Low: The sheer volume of Canada Goose puffer coats throughout the Sundance venues. If I wanted my visual landscape to be quilted by such ubiquitous black and gray, I could have just stayed at WashU.

High: Meeting cinephiles, critics and filmmakers from all over the world. Nothing compares to sharing cinematic experiences with other humans who respect film as an art form meant to be on the big screen, seen (and heard) by a group of mostly strangers in a dark, warm space.

I’m still in touch with an Argentine-German director whom I met in a freezing bus shelter.

Isel Rodríguez in “La Pecera,” directed by Glorimar Marrero Sánchez. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)