Filmmaking’s Finest on Full Display at Sundance x Chicago

The Sundance Institute visited the windy streets of Chicago from June 19 to 21

Premier film nonprofit The Sundance Institute visited the windy streets of Chicago from June 19 to 21. Bringing together the local film community, the Institute screened a handful of upcoming films featuring in-person discussions with creatives.

Along with the films explored below, the Institute’s opening selection “Luther: Never Too Much” depicted the life of jazz musician Luther Vandross. The documentary is expected to be released on Max early next year. 

Gabriel Mayers and Adam Pearson (left to right)

‘A Different Man’

Written and directed by Aaron Schimberg, “A Different Man” follows Edward, a shy actor with a severe disfigurement.

Unable to maintain working and social relationships, Edward undergoes radical surgery to transform his appearance. It’s only after the procedure that Edward discovers a stage role he was born to play — but no longer fits the bill for.

Edward, played by Sebastian Stan, fixates on a role based on his life before treatment. As his sense of self crumbles, he obsesses over the actor cast in his stead — the charming and similarly conditioned Oswald.

“A Different Man” captures genres of horror, comedy and emotion with attentive care.  Schimberg (“Chained for Life,” “Go Down Death”) directs with intention, spanning long takes of tense sequences to revisiting themes of identity and confidence. Stan (“Fresh,” “Pam & Tommy”) in turn gives an arresting performance as a man coping with an identity crisis.

As aloof actor Oswald, Adam Pearson charismatically excels. Diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, the growth of non-cancerous tumors in the nervous system, Pearson (“Under the Skin,” “Rodentia”) melts away stigma with a witty persona and kind composure.

Along with producer Gabriel Mayers, Pearson joined a discussion following the screening.

After working with Schimberg on “Chained for Life,” Pearson disclosed. “He wanted to write a character specifically for me, that was quite gregarious and more outgoing.”

That “gregarious” personality translates delightfully to screen. Despite “A Different Man” favoring psychological horror, a surprising amount of comedy arises from Oswald’s goodwill.

“In my mind we were making a psychological thriller,” Pearson stated. “We accidentally made a comedy here.”

First time producer Mayers agreed with the sentiment. “A Different Man” is a film impossible to pin down to a single genre. 

“We thought it was a thriller when we read it on the screen, A24 thought it was a horror,” she said. “None of us knew it was a comedy until we watched it.”

Mayers elaborated on her personal connection to the film. For a feature based on perception and identity, the producer related those themes to a familial relationship.

“My father had a stroke when I was younger and he was paralyzed for the rest of his life,” Mayers said. “What was so interesting about watching him was this sense of paranoia he had in the way people perceived him.” 

In spite of its lighthearted nature, “A Different Man” is deeply invested in darker emotions. Paranoia, identity and self-acceptance are the film’s prevailing conflicts.

“I never really understood until I read it in the script,” Mayers said.

“A good film or good art will change what you think for a little while. And great art will change how you think for the rest of your life,” Pearson said. “And I think we’ve done some great art here.”

“A Different Man,” rated R, is scheduled for wide release Sept. 20.

Emily Kassie (left)

‘Sugarcane’

From journalists Emily Kassie and Julian Brave NoiseCat, “Sugarcane” chronicles the investigation into Native American Residential Schools. 

The schools, founded across North America between the 17th and 20th centuries, aimed to assimilate Indigenous children into the Catholic faith and English-American culture. 

After the 2021 discovery of 215 child graves at the Indian Residential School, in Kamloops, Canada, “Sugarcane” follows the aftermath felt by British Columbia’s indigenous communities.

Horrifying truths are unearthed as the filmmakers follow individual stories. As evidence mounts, calls for justice rise against the Church’s complacency in the face of centuries of abuse.

Appearing for discussion, Kassie described a personal coincidence regarding the film’s primary location and her filmmaking partner, NoiseCat.

“Out of 139 schools in Canada, I happened to choose the one where my friend’s family attended and where his father’s life began,” Kassie said.

The personal connection between the directors and subject matter is the beating heart of “Sugarcane.” In the time spent recounting those affected by the schools’ abuse, old wounds are still fresh.

“Julian attended 10 funerals while we made this film, I attended five,” Kassie said. “The past is present for these communities, this is a place where the cycles of abuse and addiction go on from each generational trauma.”

Ahead of its wide release, “Sugarcane” is already drumming up support from the federal government through its festival rounds.

“The first Indigenous cabinet secretary Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior, came to our Sundance premiere as did Congresswoman Sharice Davids,” Kassie said. “They are leading the first ever government inquiry [into residential schools] here in the United States.”

This October, the documentary will screen at the Rome Film Festival. Kassie hopes screening the film at the Vatican’s front door will force hands to act.

“We are ready to make sure that the Catholic Church sees this,” Kassie said. “We have every intention of holding them to account.”

“Sugarcane” points a revealing light on a schooling system that spanned generations, perpetuating sexual assault and premature death. 

This movie is “the first documentation of infanticide, stories of an incinerator coming to light and witness testimony ever on this issue,” Kassie said. “We know this is not the only school where this has happened.”

Following the film, a community member of the San Carlos Apache tribe commented on the film’s necessity.

“As a race of people, we were targeted for genocide,” he said. “We’re still here.”

“Sugarcane,” is set for release Aug. 9.

Kayla Foster, Edmund Donovan, Tommy Dewey, Melissa Barrera, Caroline Lindy (left to right)

‘Your Monster’

From debut feature filmmaker Caroline Lindy, “Your Monster” depicts a sheepish actor finding her confidence, with the help of the monster in her closet.

After being dumped by a playwright, Laura attempts to reclaim the off-broadway role her ex had promised her. While she struggles to find her voice on stage, a bizarre creature named Monster helps her regain self-assurance at home.

In setting, “Your Monster” oddly shares similarities to “A Different Man.” While similarly blending genres, “Your Monster” emphasizes its romcom and theatrical elements.

Appearing for discussion were Lindy, stars Melissa Barrera and Tommy Dewey and supporting actors Kayla Foster and Edmund Donovan. Lindy kicked off the discussion by detailing her inspirations.

“I grew up on musical theater,” Lindy said. “I always looked to the women I saw on stage, in Broadway shows, as these powerful, loud unafraid women who were unleashing their monsters and getting a reward for it.” 

Fearlessness shines through Laura and Monster’s relationship. The more Monster supports her, the more Laura takes control of her life. Lindy continued to describe the duo’s endearing interplay from a comedic perspective.

“I knew I wanted to make the film funny,” Lindy said. “A woman meets a monster, hilarity ensues.”

Barrera (“Scream V,” “Abigail”) followed up on Lindy’s thoughts and praised the film’s mix of tones. The actress recounted the miraculous amount of work accomplished within a short amount of time.

“How did I get a script that’s horror, romcom and musical? It’s all my favorite things in one,” she said. “We shot this film in only 20 days.”

Dewey (“Casual,” “Perry Mason”) worked with Lindy, as Monster in the original short film the feature began as. In expanding the film from short to feature, Dewey commented on what set “Your Monster” apart.

“The short felt very different. It was still blending genres but it was totally distinct from what we had here,” he said. “We kind of found this deep romance that the film turned into.”

Producer and actor for the film, Kayla Foster comedically summed up the film’s hook.

“The movie lives and dies on whether the monster’s hot,” she said. Lindy quickly agreed, “My North star was to make him lovable.”

A release date for “Your Monster,” is yet to be announced.

Featured images Brendan Parr | The Loyola Phoenix

Brendan Parr

Brendan Parr

Brendan Parr is a fourth-year majoring in Film and Digital Media and minoring in Political Science. Since joining The Phoenix during his first-year Brendan's been a consistent presence. Covering film, television, comic books and music, his pension for review writing motivated his column, 'Up to Parr.' Brendan joined staff as Arts Editor in fall 2024.
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