Another busy schedule of films at Sundance sees another mixed bag. An interesting queer love story spun from werewolf mythology, a remarkably beautiful piece of poetic slow cinema, marinated in the swampy heat of Mississippi, and what happens when you stretch a three minute YouTube gag out nearly two hours (spoiler: nothing good).
Debut filmmaker Jacqueline Castel channels the spirit of Angela Carter in My Animal (Canada/ 2022/ 100 mins), a modern fairy tale that repurposes the sexual subtext of the werewolf myth in the service of a queer love story between two outcasts in a snowbound Canadian town. Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) is already shunned by society; an ice hockey-loving tomboy who’s bullied by local boys and is the subject of mercurial outbursts from her drunken mother. She’s also a lycanthrope, to which only her similarly afflicted father (Stephen McHattie) can similarly relate. A romantic interest in figure skater Jonny (Amandla Stenberg) is a rare bright spot in her life, but prejudice, Jonny’s neglectful and abusive boyfriend, and of course Heather’s condition, threaten the budding relationship.
Doused in ’80s ambience, almost to a fault, and shot with a blood-and-bandages combination of sanguine red and dazzling now, it looks and sounds the part of the classic horror films it evokes. But Castel isn’t interested in shredded bodies and arterial spray. Instead, the film’s overt queerness and its lycanthropic subject are inextricably melded into a dark coming-of-age drama. Comparisons have been made with the Canadian classic Ginger Snaps, but its muted tone of almost Scandinavian melancholy puts it closer in feel to the underseen Danish film When Animals Dream. The lack of full-blooded thrills will be off-putting to many, but it has a chilly atmosphere you could cut, a tense depiction of complex family dynamics, and a striking central performance from Menuez. 3/5
Atmosphere is central to Raven Jackson‘s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (USA/ 2022/ 97 mins), but it’s the soupy heat of Mississippi that forms the backdrop to this rhapsodic tale. Jackson’s poetic film, lensed in impossibly verdant 35mm by Jomo Fray has a claim to be the most gorgeous-looking at a festival that hasn’t been short of beautiful movies. All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt captures snapshots in the life of Mack (played as a child by Kaylee Nicole Johnson and as a young woman by Charleen McClure). Jackson dispenses with chronology, moving back and forwards through Mack’s life, with some earlier moments adding significance to later instances, and vice versa.
Willing to linger on images and moods – the painted toenails of Mack’s mother (Sheila Atim) and Mack sits at her feet, a butterfly picking at split upholstery in the car on the way to her mother’s funeral, an extended sorrowful embrace with an ex-lover she hasn’t seen for years – this is sensuous film of sight, sound, and touch instead of dialogue. Its story is absolutely realist, but its narrative is pure expressionism. There are hints of Daughters of the Dust in its style, Terrence Malick‘s poetic eye, and even Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s patient elliptical imagery. Getting a piecemeal patchwork of Mack’s life means we lack a fully complete portrait of her as a character, but one gets the sense its a film that’s acting a repository of memory for Mack, so this approach makes absolute sense. It’s not going to work for everybody, but as a sensory experience, All Dirt Roads Tast of Salt is incredibly potent. 3/5
Sundance usually throws up one absolute stinker, and along comes Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls (Andrew Bowser/ USA/ 2022/ 110 mins) to duly oblige. Featuring the ‘Weird Guy’ character from Bowser’s YouTube channel, what works in short bursts becomes tedious quickly, and 110 minutes is just intolerable. The last time one note was stretched out this long was at a Sunn O))) concert. Amateur Satanist Marcus Tilbury (aka, Onyx the Fortuitous) is one of five enthusiasts of the dark arts summoned to take part in a ritual by Bartok the Great (Jeffrey Combs). Of course, things aren’t as they seem and Onyx has to fight for his soul.
With the popularity of content creators on YouTube, TikTok etc it’s no surprise that there will be an opportunity for some to step into feature films. Bowser isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, but there simply isn’t enough to Onyx to justify it. The plot built around him is generic, and the attempts to flesh out the character just reiterate the eccentricities and vocal tics that are apparent in the span of a three-minute video. Still there is some nicely shonky ’80s-style puppet work. Bowser’s contact list is clearly in good shape, getting Re-animator icons Combs and Barbara Crampton on board, and the film is going down well with his existing fans. A slew of five star reviews from brand new accounts on Letterboxd suggests a coordinated campaign, because there’s never a shortage of fanboys with sod-all better to do. But those fans are the reason it exists at all, so if it’s achieving what it sets out to do, more power to its arm. It’s fucking awful though. 1/5