Sundance 2021: Ma Belle, My Beauty, The Blazing World, and Son of Monarchs | Festivals & Awards

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Gambis invites audiences into Mendel’s state of mind through a slippery structure. The plotline leaps in time with flashbacks that blindside and jolting jumps that cut out plot points. These omissions are minor beats, like getting the first session of a big tattoo done or calling his girlfriend to join him in Mexico. Yet such leaps push us into an eerie unease that reflects his psychological trauma. Thankfully, this gives a thrilling edge to an otherwise stagnant drama.

Though intellectually stimulating, “Son of Monarchs” is emotionally anemic, grounding its pathos in two stoic brothers. We are welcomed into Mendel’s head, but not his heart. Alone, he broods, staring into the mid-distance. In the company of others, he pivots away from talking about his problems. Through flashbacks, we are only allowed into his fears, not his desires. So a climactic confrontation lacks a satisfying catharsis. Watching it, I wondered if I’d missed something, some crucial piece that would make this moment click. It’s as if Gambis trimmed too much of Mendel’s experience in sacrifice to capturing his threatening madness. Thus, the final act, which revisits rituals and settings to reclaim them, works only in theory, and not in feel. I was left nodding, not knocked out.

Forget dabbling in dreams, “The Blazing World” is here to chuck you into the deep-end with a spooky spin on “Alice in Wonderland.” Rather than a rabbit hole with a fluffy white bunny, this style-stuffed horror-thriller offers Udo Kier and a wormhole to another dimension. Harried heroine, Margaret Winter first spotted this peculiar portal on the day her twin sister drowned in the family pool. All these years since, she has been haunted by visions of this smirking man and the precious girl in a bubblegum pink dress. Could it be that her beloved sister is not dead, but trapped in another dimension? In hopes of rescuing her, Margaret returns to a home that quickly becomes a hellscape of demons, puzzles, and pain.

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Actress Carlson Young not only fronts the film, but also makes her directorial debut with a script that she co-wrote with Pierce Brown. Together, they craft a psychedelic journey through grief and forgiveness. Color is thoughtfully employed to build a stark contrast between the pale present, where the Winters linger in agony, and the funhouse mirror version of their home, where colors are violently vibrant, like poison dart frogs warning of danger. Each leg of Margaret’s journey brings her into a curiouser and curiouser realm. Cotton candy skies stretch over a merciless desert. Inky shadows and blood-red accents drape over a dark den. Scorching green hallways with lurching doorframes lead to a candle-bedecked dining hall reminiscent of the underground lairs of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Then, within them lurk monsters distinctly disturbing.

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