Sundance 2023: Heroic, Scrapper, Sorcery


The most gratifying aspect of exploring a program as unique as the World Dramatic competition arises from approaching voices and experiences that are so far removed from your own that they manage to challenge your outward perspective. The three titles collected here aren’t totally unified by a single theme (though two of them very clearly deal with an assimilation of some sort), but they are told from the perspectives of youth, people who are learning to navigate the pressures of growing up, and sometimes, of even being torn down. 

For instance, David Zonana’s “Heroic,” a sharp, incisive anti-war film, is the kind of searing storytelling that shocks your consciousness. In it, Luis (Santiago Sandoval Carbajal) enrolls in the Heroic Military College with the hopes of supporting his girlfriend and helping his ailing mother receive medical insurance. But he soon discovers the toxic root that upholds the foundation of this institution, which is physically situated in the heavy stone surroundings of Aztec architecture.

For Luis, the sheen first dims when his sergeant, Eugenio Sierra (Fernando Cuautle), offers an opening monologue to the platoon. While we’ve seen this scene play out plenty of times in other war flicks— so many filmmakers rip off Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” by employing the device of a foul-mouth, hot-headed sergeant dehumanizing his soldiers—Zonana takes a different route when Cuautle delivers the same kind of speech with a forced smile. The result is chilling. 

That isn’t to say Zonana isn’t influenced by Kubrick, a cheeky reference to “Eyes Wide Shut” makes as much clear, as does the narrative’s retooling of the army as a cultish entity whose influence works so overtly, you nearly believe it’s fake. There are allusions to graphic sexual violence, done mostly through the film’s shocking soundscape. TW: there is also a vicious initiation scene involving an animal. But mostly, “Heroic” thrives on the surreal, by way of both Luis’ deeply felt, haunting nightmares, and on a scene, whereby Luis is recruited to invade a home, that speaks to the psychological chaos raging within Luis’ heart. 

That disorder surges through every audacious cut by editor Oscar Figueroa Jara, every jarring composition by director of photography Carolina Costa—which rips open the themes of colonialism, poverty and exploitation—hurtling us toward a final breathtaking shot that establishes Zonana’s “Heroic” as the boldest swing against an institution that we’ve seen in quite some time.

In writer/director Charlotte Regan’s “Scrapper,” a tender coming-of-age story, a young girl, Georgie (Lola Campbell), lives alone in a London flat. Georgie’s mother has just died. Grieving and left to her own devices, she doesn’t attend school. In fact, she and her friend spend their days pilfering bikes to sell on the side. Georgia is resourceful: To evade family services she asks a local shop owner to record phrases she can use in phone calls to fake an uncle named Winston Churchill. As smart as Georgie is she knows this can’t last. Someone will discover the truth. 

A surprise literally flies over the fence when her ne’er-do-well father Jason (Harris Dickinson) leaps over the flat’s wooden gate. Out of her life for 12 years, he decides to reappear after hearing of her mother’s death. But there’s a good reason why Jason has been MIA. He never grew up. And so the prospect of fatherhood scares him. Still, for Georgie’s sake, he makes a bid to reconnect with his daughter. 

One of the great pleasures of Regan’s film is the relationship shared by newcomer Campbell and Dickinson. The pair become thick as thieves, demonstrating an uncommon easiness in each other’s company. 

In their efforts to learn about each other, Regan leans on a busy visual flair: She often opts for proto documentary vibes for comedic twists, whereby the people in Georgie’s life—her surly teacher, sarcastic kids, and her social workers—offer their opinion on the girl’s grieving process. Other impressionistic leaps, such as sped up footage, stitched by jagged cuts, can feel a tad too studied, and can distract from the organic father-daughter relationship composing this film. Nevertheless, “Scrapper,” which seeks to parse through the fears felt in grief, change, and maturation, is full of rare heart, a spunky embrace of ambitious empathy. 

Christopher Murray “Sorcery” is both unique—chronicling a young Huilliche indigenous girl’s search for vengeance—and offers tantalizing interests in colonialism, mysticism, and indigenous traditions. And yet, something doesn’t totally cohere. Real rage is missing. 

Othering is inherently a violent act. An injustice experienced by the 13-year-old Rosa (Valentina Véliz Caileo). Living on Chiloé Island in 1880, she and her father work for a German family as domestics. But when the family’s sheep appear bewitched by local magic, as punishment, the sadistic German father lethally sics dogs on Rosa’s dad. To find justice, she leaves Christianity and turns to Mateo (Daniel Antivilo), a grump who practices the island’s magic with other indigenous people, for help.  

Thrumming on a kind of magical realism, Murray’s film, based on a true story, tries to inspect the vicious assimilation wrought on everyone who isn’t white. We see how the racial hierarchy causes Christian Chileans to oppress the Huilliche, and how the Germans oppress the Christian Chileans. Ultimately, Rosa learns to practice magic so she might apply pressure on the local prosecutor, a man who desperately wants off the island, and his pregnant wife. Murray teases a far more brutal conclusion than what’s offered. Instead, he actually opts for a clarity that doesn’t wholly align with the righteous anger that should be felt. 

While “Sorcery” is certainly elegantly shot—capturing the rugged and pastoral textures of this island—it often turns to an opaqueness that doesn’t engender mystery but a frustrating evasiveness that causes the proceedings to drag. By the end of “Sorcery,” you end up wishing whatever emotions are swirling in this vat of identity, matched the distinctive subject matter.

Previous Story

Natasha Lyonne, Rian Johnson Make a Perfect Team for Peacock’s Poker Face

Next Story

Sundance 2023: Slow, Girl, Mami Wata