Sundance 2023: Midnight Selections

My Animal (Sundance Institute)

Sundance’s Midnight section offers up a trio of films–My Animal, Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls, and Talk to Me–with strong ambitions, if not always executions.

The Midnight section at Sundance has always been interesting. It’s a collection of movies who’s fates vary greatly. Some end up instant horror classics. Others immediately get lost in the ever-evolving landscape of modern cinema. This year’s lineup is no different. Although the selections featured in this dispatch vary in quality, each features something palpable and commendable. 

If you take a horror or queer cinema history class, one of the first things you learn is monster movies of the 1940s and 1950s were heavily queer-coded. Ghastly beings, from vampires to Frankenstein’s monster, were depicted as both dangerous and alluring, misunderstood yet manipulative. The werewolf is likely the best example of the queer monster of the era, traditionally depicted as hating their lycanthropic form and wanting to repress it as much as possible.

My Animal (Sundance Institute) Midnight Selection
(Sundance Institute)

Midnight selection, the horror romance My Animal updates that interpretation for a modern context. It asks if someone perceived as a monster can still find the love they deserve. The answer isn’t as straightforward as one might expect. Still, Jacqueline Castel’s debut is all the better for its refusal to offer a more optimistic, less complex resolution. 

My Animal’s story is relatively simple. Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez, Under the Silver Lake) is a young woman in time-displaced Canada struggling with her own personhood. She’s got a dead-end job at a skating rink and an interest in hockey that is going nowhere. To top things off, she’s inherited her father’s (Stephen McHattie) werewolf genes. 

Jacqueline Castel’s debut is all the better for its refusal to offer a more optimistic, less complex resolution. 

Figure skater Jonny (Amandla Stenberg) slowly but surely leads Heather to open up in ways that surprise even her. Menuez is both creepy and endearing in their performance, using the film’s disconnect from reality to their advantage. While Stenberg’s performance doesn’t quite match Menuez’s, their chemistry is instantaneous and authentic.  

The script itself is similar in this regard. It’s not exactly the most polished or natural, but that works for Castel’s uncanny, unplaceable world. It ties into My Animal’s overtly queer, and specifically lesbian, themes of isolation. Much like how nothing seems quite right about the setting or script, Heather and Jonny approach their burgeoning sexual attraction in ways that both hurt and heal them. Their story doesn’t wrap up nicely and neatly, but what about the lesbian experience is? 

Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls (Sundance Institute) Midnight Selection
(Sundance Institute)

Some projects are clearly labors of love, especially amongst the Midnight selections. Sometimes that’s evident from the on-screen enthusiasm of its cast or the scrappy ways a film might convey its themes with a limited budget. These are the films that always seem to be the hardest to review. After all, it’s not fun to pick apart a movie the cast and crew put their souls into. Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls is one such movie.

Thankfully, it mostly works. Its puppetry for the various disgusting demons is some of the most impressive in recent memory. They’re marvelously gross and often harken back to Tim Burton designs. (Sidenote: watching the videos writer-director-star Andrew Bowser uploaded to his YouTube channel detailing their construction will bring a smile to your face.) Every cast member brings an infectious energy that’s great fun to watch, even when the jokes don’t land. Props absolutely have to go to veteran genre actor Jeffrey Combs in particular for a deliciously campy performance as the film’s mysterious main villain.  

[Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls‘s] puppetry for the various disgusting demons is some of the most impressive in recent memory.

So many of its individual aspects almost achieve greatness. Unfortunately, its problem is right in the title – the titular Onyx, also known as Marcus (Bowser). There’s no denying that Bowser puts his all into the performance and has solid comedic timing. However, the character’s gimmick of exaggerated line deliveries and purposeful obtuseness is so obnoxious and grating that his presence gets incredibly old incredibly fast. Almost every other member of the ensemble—particularly the laid-back Z (Rivkah Reyes) and the studious professor Mr. Duke (Terrence C. Carson)—is more compelling to watch than its central protagonist. It’s a major problem that the film never overcomes. 

It’s worth noting that Onyx-the-character originated in a series of Bowser’s short-form YouTube sketches. Those sketches are amusing, but there is a major difference between making a three-minute sketch and a 110-minute movie. His cartoony demeanor does not translate well to film, a painful truth despite obviously the feature is a labor of love. 

Talk to Me (Sundance Institute) Midnight Selection
(Sundance Institute)

Thankfully, there is another Sundance Midnight film dedicated to ghosts and ghouls that does succeed in crafting a holistically compelling effort. It’s from a surprising filmmaker team—YouTube influencers Daniel and Michael Philippou, the duo behind RackaRacka. They’ve seemingly broken the YouTube film curse with their debut Talk to Me, a movie that is only about the platform in a metaphorical sense.

While many YouTuber movies such as The Thinning or Not Cool serve as glorified ego trips, the Philippous stick to being behind the camera to tell an original story with only tenuous social media ties. Instead, it focuses on the newest party trend among Australian youth: brief demonic possession. It’s a fad Mia (Sophie Wilde)–grieving the recent death of her mother–has become somewhat hooked on. Unfortunately, when spirits latch onto her best friend Jade’s (Alexandra Jensen) younger brother Riley (Joe Bird), Mia must find a way to close the door to a world that she’s increasingly relying on for comfort. 

YouTube influencers Daniel and Michael Philippou, the duo behind RackaRacka…seemingly broken the YouTube film curse with their debut.

Talk to Me is timely and very well-executed. It’s a commentary on the desperate lengths folks will go to to find viral success and, thus, as the line goes, true happiness. Nobody in the film seems to question why feeling happy must involve losing your soul for ninety seconds. Perhaps it’s a question better left unanswered. The lack of clarity is one of the more effective takedowns of our current digital landscape in recent film. It adds to the idea that, people’s perpetual desire for clout, to make themselves feel alive, will never subside. Even when the risks involve the supernatural. The ensemble’s performances are genuine, particularly Wilde and an especially funny Zoe Terakes, and further drive home Talk to Me’s overarching message. 

Also winning? The effects used to bring Talk to Me’s brief and not-so-brief possessions to the screen. They’re very well-made, if not necessarily original, in their design. They’re nearly all done practically. There’s one in particular that I, as someone with a particular ick for eyeball horror, found especially chilling. 

Real heart, soul, and reverence for horror’s dynamic history are embedded into these Midnight films, My AnimalOnyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls, and Talk to Me. Though some are more successful than others, all three proudly display palpable, powerful passion. 

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