Sundance’s 2023 Films Are All About Complicated Romances & Male Identity

From the story of a queer Lucha Libre wrestler in Cassandro to Jonathan Majors’s stunning turn in Magazine Dreams, these are the highlights from Park City.

by Jihane Bousfiha

a still from the film passages
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

After hosting virtual events for two consecutive years, the Sundance Film Festival returned to its chilly, high-altitude home of Park City, Utah, for an in-person celebration of cinema from January 19th to the 29th. Meanwhile, a handful of this year’s promising selection continues to be available online—so as countless critics, celebrities, and industry people flocked to the first major film festival of the year, I spent the duration binge-watching the cinematic offerings from the comfort of my own bed. Sundance’s lineup this year is a mixed bag, featuring highly anticipated titles that end up underwhelming, while the occasional standouts emerge triumphantly.

One such highlight is documentarian Roger Ross Williams’s narrative feature debut, Cassandro. A vibrant crowd-pleaser, the film is, more than anything, a vehicle for the immensely talented Gael García Bernal, who delivers a fabulous and physical performance in the title role. Set in the world of Mexican Lucha Libre wrestling, Cassandro orbits (and rarely ventures beyond) the purview of Saúl Armendáriz, a gay wrestler hailing from El Paso, Texas, who rises to stardom in the 1980s under his eponymous stage name. Despite remaining within the confines of the familiar sports-underdog-biopic formula, Cassandro is a big-hearted and exhilarating tribute to the legacy of a queer icon.

Gael García Bernal in Passages.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Another film that attempts to comment on male identity is Magazine Dreams, which approaches the topic through a more unfocused lens, but boasts a committed central performance from Jonathan Majors. Writer-director Elijah Bynum presents a visceral character study of an awkward man named Killian Maddox (Majors), whose aspirations of becoming a bodybuilder evolve into a rage-fueled obsession. When he’s not working at a grocery store and taking care of his ailing grandfather, Killian pushes his body to the extreme—enduring a cycle of constant eating, steroid injections, weight-lifting, and competitions—to make a name for himself. The movie takes on more than it can handle as Bynum tries to cover toxic masculinity, trauma, and mental health while breezing past any meaningful commentary. Regardless, Magazine Dreams is worth seeing for the sole purpose of witnessing a star as captivating as Majors command the screen for two hours.

Jonathan Majors in Magazine Dreams.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Among the actor-driven titles, Sundance’s lineup has also been peppered with a slew of romances. The term “erotic” has been tossed around, namely in relation to Chloe Domont’s corporate thriller Fair Play and Ira Sachs’s achingly tender Passages. The description aptly fits the latter: a sex-filled three-hander that oozes with a sensuality that modern cinema often lacks.

With his eighth feature, Passages marks Sachs’s return to his brand of low-key, brutally honest dramas. Against a Parisian backdrop, Passages stars German treasure Franz Rogowski as Tomas—an egotistical filmmaker who finds himself at the center of a love triangle when he cheats on his softer husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw), with Adèle Exarchopoulos’s school teacher, Agathe. (He bluntly tells Martin the following morning, “I had sex with a woman. Can I tell you about it, please?”)

As Tomas oscillates between Martin and Agathe—first leaving his longtime partner to be with the new object of his affection before growing jealous of Martin’s new rebound—the trio is caught in a dynamic that slowly eats away at their feelings. Rogowski’s chemistry with his co-leads palpitates through the screen, while Sachs’s mastery of developing messy and raw characters is on full view. I also must give a special shoutout to the fantastic wardrobe in Passages—specifically, the many mesh shirts and crop tops worn by Rogowski, along with Whishaw’s excellent knitwear.

And then there’s Fair Play: a film featuring love, power, and gender, all wrapped into one. Domont’s first feature certainly evokes the erotic thrillers of past eras—it has drawn many comparisons to Fatal Attraction—but Fair Play doesn’t necessarily seem interested in eroticism itself so much as capturing the uneasy dynamics within a couple that happens to be, at the onset, very horny. In one of the first scenes, the central couple, Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), hook up in the bathroom during his brother’s wedding party. While cleaning themselves up, an engagement ring falls out of Luke’s pocket. Next thing we know, they’re happily engaged—but of course, it can’t be that simple.

Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor in Fair Play.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Emily and Luke work at the same high-pressure hedge fund, which means their relationship is kept a secret—which can be sexy, until it suddenly isn’t. When Emily overhears that Luke may be up for a promotion, she (literally) showers him with sex and Champagne. But the tables quickly turn when she ends up getting the coveted gig. Luke may seem happy for her, but her growing success has clearly fractured his ego, to the point where he can’t fathom having sex with her. To the dismay of some viewers, Domont chooses to approach this power shift with ambiguity, remaining neutral until the final act. Instead, the filmmaker focuses on developing two fleshed-out, highly flawed individuals who are clearly doing more harm to each other than good. Like a handful of Sundance’s films this year, Fair Play may check all the boxes of what makes for a surefire hit—but it never holds back.