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Sundance 2021: “Superior” reinvents the neo-noir

Sundance Superior

Erin Vassilopoulos’ thrilling debut merrily plays with the film noirs of the past while spinning it into something vibrant and new.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

Superior, Erin Vassilopoulos‘ feature debut that expands on her 2015 short by the same name, is a vintage doppelganger adventure, a fun dreamlike neo-noir that pays homage to a prior era in filmmaking while also existing as an unparalleled art piece in today’s modern world. A little Brian De Palma’s Sisters, a little like a Belle and Sebastian vinyl, Superior wears its influences on its sleeve while also creating something brand new. 

After an accident, Marian (Alessandra Mesa) goes on the run, showing up at her identical twin sister’s house unannounced. Immediately the differences in the siblings’ existence are obvious — Marian is a wild child who plays in a band and chain-smokes cigarette after cigarette, while Vivian (Anamari Mesa) is put together, planning out everything from daily housework to having sex with her husband, Michael (Jake Hoffman). 

Their differences are best summed up in their ice cream orders; while Marian goes for the chocolate with chocolate sprinkles, Vivian goes for the classic vanilla. As the sisters spend more time together, they slowly begin to embrace each other’s habits, even taking a few as their own. Eventually, they decide to trade places for a few days. What could it hurt? Will Marian’s past find her? And what does this mean for the future of Vivian’s predictable life? 

The strength of Superior is immediately evident in the film’s heavily stylized production design. Since the film is set in the 1980s, the look of every scene is perfectly retro — complete with beautiful reds and blues — but with a specific touch of twee. The results feel as if Pedro Almodovar’s Matador and a St. Vincent song were put in a blender before exploding all over some incredible mid-century furniture.  

Superior wears its influences on its sleeve while also creating something brand new. 

Mixed in with the look is a stilted pace that paradoxically works with the awkwardness built into Vassilopoulos’ cinematic world, adding a layer of camp that alludes to the ’80s films Superior so obviously draws from. While this tempo might not work for all viewers, it’s proof that the filmmaker is dedicated to creating her own artistic vision rather than some blockbuster money maker. Superior is a reclamation of this particular mode of cinematic art. 

Of course, the look would be nothing but an artist’s failed vision if the cinematographer’s skill can’t match it. Luckily, this isn’t the case with Superior; each of cinematographer Mia Cioffi’s compositions could be framed and hung up in a gallery, filled with rich color mixed with the perfect amount of grain to match its noir aesthetics. Cioffi’s attention to detail perfectly captures the setting and the story on 16mm, which is just the cherry on top of the camp sundae. 

Since the look of a film is only part of the final result, the real-life twin sisters that star in the lead roles deserve a shout-out. The Mesa sisters have incredible chemistry, evoking a specific warmth that only sisters could achieve. To be honest, it took me a minute to realize it wasn’t the same actors in both roles, which now makes me laugh but proves that they really achieved the idea of doubles they were going for. 

Finally, Vassilopoulos’ direction deserves heaps of applause. Her work to bring together so many elements to create such an oddball world and story really pays off. The balance of subtle dark comedy with beautiful period thrills creates a special viewing that’s one to remember. Here’s to Superior being the first of many creative on-screen ordeals by this innovative filmmaker. 

Superior played in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and is currently seeking distribution.