Queer+ Films Worth Seeing at Sundance 2023

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday January 22, 2023
Originally published on January 19, 2023

Queer+ Films Worth Seeing at Sundance 2023

The 2023 Sundance Film Festival will take place January 19-29, 2023, in person in Park City, Salt Lake City, and the Sundance Resort, along with certain films available online across the country January 24-29, 2023.

The happy news for LGBTQ+ audiences is the number of queer stories being told this year as well as a host of queer artists creating cinema, including many movies examining the lives of trans people. They include Emanuele Crialese's "L'Immensità," from Italy, Saim Sadiq's "Joyland," Pakistan's shortlisted Oscar submission, and Vuk Lungulov-Klotz's "Mutt," as well as two terrific docs centering on Black trans people, Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker's "The Stroll" and D. Smith's "Kokomo City."

Other queer titles include Erica Tremblay's "Fancy Dance," Ira Sachs' "Passages," David Zonana's homoerotic "Heroic," and Molly Gordon's "Theater Camp."

"Maintaining an essential place for artists to express themselves, take risks, and for visionary stories to endure and entertain is distinctly Sundance," stated Robert Redford, Sundance Institute Founder and President. "The Festival continues to foster these values and connections through independent storytelling. We are honored to share the compelling selection of work at this year's Festival from distinct perspectives and unique voices."

The 2023 Sundance Film Festival's Salt Lake City Opening Night Gala Film is Robert Connolly's Blueback, which features an intense turn by Radha Mitchell.

The full slate includes 101 feature-length films representing 23 countries. World premieres dominate.

EDGE has sampled some titles pre-fest (more to come). Here are some of the best and most significant.

'The Starling Girl'

Certain to be one of the most acclaimed films of this year's festival (and probably the year), Laurel Parmet's elegiac debut feature, "The Starling Girl" is a coming-of-age tale set in a fundamentalist Christian community that is bound to generate conversation. At a time when very little nuance is allowed in our culture (ergo, our art), Parmet exquisitely manages to tell a complex story in the least judgmental manner, focusing primarily on the inner and outer world of her protagonist, 17-year-old Jem, perfectly embodied by Eliza Scanlen in an exciting breakout performance. Lewis Pullman oozes taboo sexiness as the pastor's son, whom she becomes enamored with (the chemistry is unmistakable). There are no false notes in "The Starling Girl" — just rich, engaging narrative filmmaking.


As someone deeply in touch with my Sicilian roots, Emanuele Crialese's first film in 11 years, "L'Immensità," resonated on many levels — from the strong, yet stuck-in-her-time-and-place matriarch, Clara (Penélope Cruz), to the deceiving bully of a patriarchal figure (Vincenzo Amato), to the 12-year-old who feels different from everyone else. Even the flights of musical fantasy fancy hit close to home. The partly autobiographical film masterfully captures an era. Luana Giuliani shines in the role of the adolescent coming to terms with transgender identity at a time when gender was viewed as strictly binary. Cruz delivers another breathtaking, shattering performance. She's a force, and a presence, even when she must subjugate herself. Her lip-syncing to the Italian version of Francis Lai's "Love Story" is joyous. In Sicilian with subtitles.


Lines of fantasy and reality blur in Mexican filmmaker David Zonana's transfixing feature debut, "Heroic," centering on an 18-year-old infantry cadet, Luis (a beguiling Santiago Sandoval Carbajal), who enlists to support his family (specifically his diabetic mom) and must suffer abuse and humiliation along with his fellow cadets. In addition, an enigmatic Sergeant Sierra (Fernando Cuautle) has targeted Luis as a mentee. The homoerotic undertones are off the charts. But Sierra has also involved Luis in some shady doings outside the barracks. Zonata's style is sometimes harsh and steely, sometimes sympathetic, always captivating. "Heroic" is everything "The Inspection" should have been in terms of investigating the moral underbelly of the military, and Carbajal is a newcomer to watch. In Spanish with subtitles.

'Kim's Video'

Anyone who grew up in the '80s and '90s in the NYC area will remember Kim's Video. I had friends who worked there, and they would share stories about the irascible Mr. Kim, who had amassed a crazy collection of films (VHS and DVD). But with the dawning of the digital age came the demise of rental shops. David Redmon and Ashley Sabin's riveting documentary, "Kim's Video," follows the completely insane story of the fate of Kim's 55,000-item video rental collection. The film jets to a small Sicilian village (Salemi) and, eventually, to Seoul, Korea. The wild story involves the Mafia, the return of the elusive Mr. Kim, and the ghosts of past filmmakers. Redmon and Sabin are movie-adoring documentarians that don't just investigate and report, but make a difference. "Kim's Video" plays like an edge-of-your-seat suspense movie. It's also a cinephile's wet dream!


Pakistani director Saim Sadiq's debut feature, "Joyland," takes a harsh and honest look at the horrific consequences brought on by the patriarchal mindset. The film centers a sweet, closeted young gay man, Haider (a terrific Ali Junejo), who is ill-treated by his father and brother for not being strong and manly. Haider takes a job at an erotic theater as a dancer (which he is hilariously bad at), and falls for one of the show's divas, who happens to be trans (Alina Kahn). Haider is in a sexless marriage, and his wife longs for a different life. All three characters (and even Haider's father) are desperate for sexual fulfillment, but unable to find it because of the dictates governing their worlds. This stunning film is a call for acceptance and understanding. In Punjabi and Urdu with subtitles.

'Fancy Dance'

Director Erica Tremblay dives right into the mistreatment of indigenous people with her bracing and suspenseful first feature, "Fancy Dance." Lily Gladstone plays Jax, a lesbian trying to find her missing sister. Jax cares for her niece, Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson), and does what she needs to so they can survive. Meanwhile, Jax's dad (Shea Whigham) wants custody of Roki. Jax must also contend with a frightening underbelly world so many marginalized people find themselves lost in as she searches for her sister. Tremblay's impressive, uncompromising work is complimented by Gladstone's committed performance.

'Young. Wild. Free.'

It's been a while since my jaw dropped from a surprise twist in a film that also felt organic to the story. This was the case with Thembi L. Banks's gripping feature debut, "Young. Wild. Free." The film centers on Brandon (Algee Smith, in a terrific turn) as a Black high school student who finds himself in a messy situation thanks to an enigmatic young woman named Cassidy (Sierra Capri, excellent). The less said the better so as not to spoil this daring, emotionally satisfying film that pays tribute to its medium.


Feña (Lío Mehiel) is a young trans guy still coming to terms with his past. He's navigating life in NYC, as well as familial issues, when he runs into his ex, John (Cole Doman). The two fall into old patterns as they come to terms with new realities. Vuk Lungulov-Klotz lovingly dissects a complicated relationship in his directorial debut, "Mutt," and, along with Mehiel's modulated performance, shows us what the in-betweenness of trans life is like. Doman is deeply affecting. I craved a little more insight into the central relationship, but Mehiel and Doman are so good, they bled nuance.


Moody, mysterious, and mesmerizing describe Adura Onashile's debut feature, "Girl," but also could be used to describe her protagonist Grace (a hypnotic Déborah Lukumuena), who shelters her 11-year-old daughter, Ama (Le'Shantey Bonsu), from what she sees as the perilous outside world. Grace is continuously haunted by her painful past, and as she watches Ama come of age and begin to bloom, it threatens the insular world she has created for herself and her child. "Girl" is sometimes opaque, but is a stunning, well-crafted portrait of the bond between a daughter and mother — and a meditation on self-discovery.

'Kokomo City'

What begins as a simple talking heads portrait of four Black transgender sex workers becomes a reflection on race, class, sexual orientation, and gender identity that goes beyond the safe norm and provides some difficult, blunt truths via the brutal honesty of the subjects in "Kokomo City." This striking doc marks the directorial debut of Grammy-nominated D. Smith. These transgender women are aware of the strikes against them, not just in everyday society but within the Black community. No one sugar coats their journeys, nor do they concern themselves with sanitizing their stories. It's a refreshing jolt of unapologetic candor that commands attention.

'The Stroll'

Directors Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker tell a frank, harrowing story of trans sex workers and the meat packing district in NYC (pre- and during Giuliani's reign) in the compelling, sometimes convoluted doc "The Stroll." Many Black trans women felt safer on the streets than in their own homes during that time, although they also had to deal with horrific treatment from law enforcement. The film celebrates trans heroes Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, and paints a sad, yet very real, picture of transphobia.

'Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls'

Based on his popular internet character, writer-director Andrew Bowser's lunatic work, "Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls" owes a lot to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Fright Night," "Murder by Death," most films about devil sacrifices, and all things geek! This wacky, weird movie focuses on "Onyx" (Bowser) and four other satanists who gather at the Mansion of Bartok the Great to awaken an ancient demon. Alas, things are not quite what they seem. Perhaps one less hat worn by Bowser would have achieved a more glorious effort, but the film is enjoyable for what it is. And the post-death demon monsters rock!



One of the recent thrilling indie film surprises is "Jacir," the debut feature from Waheed AlQawasmi. The film follows the titular character (wonderfully played by newcomer Malek Rahbani), a Syrian refugee who lost everything back home, trying to survive in Memphis and longing for a better life. Lorraine Bracco plays Jacir's racist, opioid-addict, "Karen" of a neighbor, and jolts with a bold and brilliant performance that eschews all vanity and embraces the darker aspects of her character. In the end the film is a call for empathy and setting aside differences to end our debilitating divisiveness.

"Jacir" is screening for Sundance attendees on January 23, 2023, at the Music Lodge in Park City and will feature a music-filled evening of the film's original songs.

Sundance Tickets: In-Person Ticket Packages and Online Ticket Packages as well as single film tickets are available here.

Frank J. Avella is a film journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep and a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. Frank is a recipient of the International Writers Residency in Assisi, Italy, a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, and a NJ State Arts Council Fellowship. His short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide (figjamfilm.com) and won awards. His screenplays (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW) have also won numerous awards in 16 countries. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute