My watches at the Sundance Film Festival 2024 have been filled with a plethora of talent, with one of the widest varieties in narratives that I have seen. With this report, I delve into a world of crime, of the dead returning to life, and a true coming-of-age story.

Ponyboi (Esteban Arango)

Ponyboi (2024) – source: Sundance Film Festival

It’s always refreshing when you see a crime thriller presented in a new and needed, light.

Ponyboi, you’re my kind of jam.   

Ponyboi (River Gallo) works in a Laundromat while also engaging in sex work in NJ under the employ of Vinny (Dylan O’Brien), a local gangster with an inherently sleazy demeanor. Tensions rise as Vinny consistently betrays their best friend, Angel (Victoria Pedretti) with whom he’s having a child.

When a drug-related death sets off a chain of violence, Ponyboi is entangled in a dangerous web with a mob family and suffers the wrath of Vinny. 

There’s something interestingly fulfilling about seeing O’Brien push himself to such terrifying lengths. His admirable transformation is evident as he commands scenes with ample intimidation.

River Gallo is remarkably bold and delivers a compelling and convincing performance, radiating charisma throughout. Special mention to Murray Bartlett‘s small yet dreamy cowboy role – a brief encounter that leaves a lasting impression.

Overall, the script (by River Gallo) follows some familiar crime beats, yet the characters and their portrayals are uniquely embodied, infusing this neon-tinged film with distinctive allure. 

The narrative, punctuated by stark violence, manages to retain unexpected moments of sweetness that quietly captivate. A gritty, grimy vibe pervades, complemented by a vibrant aesthetic that the leads electrify, adding an extra layer of intensity.

Esteban Arango’s strong direction ensures the pieces, as messy as they may be, come together in colorful harmony. 

Despite some pacing and plot fumbles, Arango’s Ponyboi is a showcase for talented performances with River Gallo and Dylan O’Brien as standouts. Fierce and exciting, Ponyboi predicts a promising future for all involved.

Handling the Undead (Thea Hvistendahl)

Handling the Undead (2024) – source: Sundance Film Festival

Handling the Undead is a face-to-face encounter with grief. What’s lost is returned but at what cost? And with a cold sting of uncertainty that buries itself in your stomach. Can you suffer this twice?

While there aren’t clear reasons as to why or what exactly will come of it from a worldview, Handling the Undead concentrates on three families and their interactions when a loved one returns from the dead.

An elderly woman (Bente Børsum) attends her partner’s (Olga Damani) funeral but finds her returned home. A mother (Renate Reinsve) is thwarted in a suicide attempt by her father (Bjørn Sundquist), who presents her young son back to her, miraculously alive. Another family loses their matriarch (Bahar Pars) only to be then found by her husband (Anders Danielsen Lie) alive.

These three stories allow for an in-depth and delicate glimpse into how each loss is singular and devastating. 

While there are some horrifying scenes, primarily in its final act, it’s the dramatic pull, a slowly unfurling emotional tundra, that makes it unforgettable. Thea Hvistendahl’s feature debut is one of aching patience. At times the pacing feels lethargic, but there is a beautiful way in which the film moves through time, where each moment is forever and yet never enough. 

The performances are all excellent, elevating even the quietest moments. I can see this film being divisive, especially because of the pacing, but it never failed to captivate me. A more intimate look at a story of this ilk, the slow-moving Handling the Undead takes its time with an exploration of grief and the emotional impact of having those lost returned to us. The final shot is a gut punch, for grief is a lonely place.

An amazing score, terrific sound design, and another fantastic performance by Renate Reinsve, make this slow rumination on grief with a supernatural spin, worth it. 

Girls Will Be Girls (Shuchi Talati)

Girls Will Be Girls (2024) – source: Sundance Film Festival

Girls Will Be Girls is a fresh-faced teenage drama that incorporates a myriad of intriguing dynamics, executed with standout female performances. 

Shuchi Talati‘s tender English-Hindi high school drama gracefully unfolds amidst the picturesque Himalayan foothills. In this compelling feature debut, our teenage protagonist Mira (Preeti Panigrahi) grapples with her burgeoning emotions within a tense relationship with her mother, Anila (Kani Kusruti).

Since the arrival of Sri (Kesav Binoy Kiran), her duties as a student prefect faced challenges, and a profound attraction begins to take root. The narrative beautifully explores the idea that the journey of growing up can occur at any stage in life, and Girls Will Be Girls intricately depicts the many facets of this truth. As the story unfolds, it becomes tense and complex, especially when Sri garners the attention of Mira’s mother.

Driven by dialogue, the narrative unfolds vividly yet realistically. The film exudes a spirited and bold essence, offering moments of discomfort and deep emotion. Some of the pacing suffers, but the script is so well written that it doesn’t negatively impact the story.

As a directorial debut, this film is exceptionally conceived. Kani Kusruti and Preeti Panigrahi are fantastic, with some very effective moments together and apart. 

Girls Will Be Girls stands as a riveting contemplation on female sexuality, the bloom of youth, and the yearning for adulthood. It weaves a poignant tale of womanhood, presenting two intersecting points of view: that of a mother and a daughter.

Follow our Sundance coverage HERE.

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