January 30, 2023

Sundance 2023 Reviews: “Past Lives,” “Fairyland” & “Infinity Pool”


PAST LIVES (A24):  The playwright Celine Song makes an impressive feature writing/directing debut with the lovely, eloquent Past Lives.  The film is sort of the opposite of Sliding Doors and all of the multiversal entertainment we’re showered with these days.  Rather than allowing Nora (Greta Lee), Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and Arthur (John Magaro) to experiment with different versions of their lives and choices, Past Lives explores the consequences of having made one choice and not another–in other words, real life.  Nora and Hae Sung had been childhood friends in Korea who might have become a couple if they’d had more time together, but she emigrated with her parents first to Canada, and then New York, where she met Arthur.  Song’s script shows us Nora and Hae Sung in their initial friendship, then a dozen years later when they reconnect online, and another dozen years after that, when they reunite in New York.  The ghosts of the decisions they haven’t made hover around them, coloring who they are to each other and to themselves.  Nora, in particular, wonders if she is or should be the person perceived by Hae Sung, who knows her through the experiences he’s had with her, or the person she is to Arthur, whose knowledge is shaded by the life they’ve shared.  There is regret, but also a greater understanding of the self.  This all sounds very heady, and Song at times extends scenes for discussions of identity and fate.  But the writing and acting are of such a high order that Past Lives is immersive rather than pretentious.  Greta Lee, whose career has mostly had her in supporting roles in comedies, gives a beautiful, multi-layered performance as Nora, and Magaro and Teo Yoo match her.  The lyrical cinematography by Shabier Kirchner and music by Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen are also notable.  Past Lives is a gracefully provocative film that asks us to examine how we become the people we are.

FAIRYLAND:  Alysia Abbott’s memoir about her life with her father Steve during the 1970s and 80s has been adapted by Andrew Durham.  After her mother’s death in an accident, Alysia (played as a child by Nessa Dougherty and as a teen by Emilia Jones) was quickly moved by Steve (Scott McNairy) from the midwest and his disapproving mother-in-law (Geena Davis) to San Francisco, where he pursued his poetry and journalism, and where Alysia soon discovered his homosexuality.  Although Fairyland is very much centered on Alysia and her father, it also serves as a social history of its era, and so Durham follows them through the thriving liberation of the 1970s to, inevitably, the story of AIDS in the 1980s.  Fairyland is always watchable and well-crafted, and McNairy’s performance rings true from start to finish, yet the first half makes a deeper impression, because the relationship between Steve and his young daughter feels fresh, and Dougherty makes something original and appealing of young Alysia.  Emilia Jones is burdened by some on-the-nose dialogue when teen Alysia, burdened by the mean jokes of her Reagan-era friends, rebels against her dad and takes a rom-com-ish study year in Paris.  The film packs an emotional punch when she’s forced to return to San Francisco, but along an arc we’ve seen before.  Fairyland is more solid than inspired, doing justice to its true story without transforming it into something more.

INFINITY POOL (Neon):  Parent-and-child film directors aren’t new (the Coppolas, Reiners and Levinsons come to mind, and this year’s festival featured the feature debut of Alice Englert, daughter of Jane Campion), but rarely if ever have filmmakers across a generation been in such artistic accord as David Cronenberg and his son Brandon.  Both are devotees of hallucinatory body horror, often as a vehicle for social commentary.  Infinity Pool is Brandon’s third feature, and it lives up to the family crest.  Set in a fictional country where tightly restricted opulent resorts cater to tourists while violence and poverty reign outside, it posits a sci-fi legal system that allows tourists to escape responsibility for their crimes–if they can afford the creation of a clone that will be murdered by the family of their victim as the original version watches.  Cronenberg adds a Bunuelian take to his father’s by further imagining that the experience of getting away with murder while watching your duplicate pay the ultimate price would erase morality and sanity from the perpetrator’s sensibility.  Thus James (Alexander Skarsgard), on vacation with his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman), once entangled with a group of expatriates led by Gabi (Mia Goth), finds himself in increasingly weird and disturbing situations that make him question his humanity.  Cronenberg’s plotting doesn’t exactly hold together even in a genre context, and his imagery is sometimes incoherent (partly perhaps in his effort to avoid an NC-17 rating), but Infinity Pool certainly makes an impression, and in Skarsgard and Goth he has actors who are game for anything.  Suffice it to say that the water in Brandon Cronenberg’s pool is extremely deep.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."