The State of Queer and Trans Film After the 2023 Sundance Film Festival

Feature image by Unique Nicole/Getty Images

We hope you’ve enjoyed all of our Sundance 2023 coverage the past couple weeks! It seemed only fitting to end with a proper convo between us both about our experiences covering this year’s fest. Our favorites, our biggest disappointments, the state of queer film — we’re here to discuss it all!


Drew: How was your trip??

Shelli: IT WAS LOVELLLLLYYY!!! Yes I was excited for movies but also all I know about Utah comes from Big Love (and terrible laws) so I wanted to see it and it was fucking majestic going up that mountain to Park City! And it was my first Sundance in general! Getting to go IRL was great, being selected as part of the PII was even better, and seeing a million movies no matter how chaotic it was to get from spot to spot was a blast!

This obvs isn’t your first Sundance buuttttt how did you get the digital vibes this year?!

Drew: Good! I love that Sundance has continued to have an at-home component even as they’ve returned to in-person. Every festival should do that! I love movie theatres, I loved bouncing around TIFF in-person, sitting in the exact same spot when I lined up early enough, but festivals have long been inaccessible in lots of ways and at-home components help with that.

It’s also fun that we can publish a review and then our readers can buy a $20 ticket to some of the titles and watch them that weekend instead of waiting for wider distribution.

Shelli: That’s honestly why I was never able to go to Sundance In-Person ‘cos it’s SO EXPENSIVE. Staying in Park City or SLC alone is expensive and then just being there is wild expensive. Like, if you don’t have a press pass or mad money I can see how it can be tight to go and actually enjoy, so the accessibility of being able to watch from home and pick and choose films is a big vibe.

We talked about what movies we were excited for before it all started, purely based on our own research and film love but — did any of the ones you were excited for pan out to be dope?

Drew: Yes! First of all, I loved Gush. It reminded me of when I lived in New York and would go to the Anthology Film Archives to just watch random experimental films — maybe high, maybe sober — and not know what I was watching but feel it expanding my brain.

I also really enjoyed The Disappearance of Shere Hite and found it to navigate the whole “being about a second wave feminist” thing with much more thought than past films focusing on that era of feminism. But also I live on Letterboxd and know you didn’t like it as much as I did! Which is part of the fun of having two of us covering the fest.

Shelli: LOL I love Letterboxd so much ‘cos it really does make us covering it together even more fun ‘cos I get to be like “Oh Really that’s how she feel? Lemme ask her about that one.” I watched Shere Hite but kept getting pulled in and out of it all. And I never got around to Gush! That’s the thing with festivals though, I feel like we can be mad ambitious with the amount of movies you wanna see but — it’s just not gonna happen.

Drew: There are so many movies!! And I do think with this fest I tried not to push myself. I watched Shortcomings — which we’ll get to — and felt myself fading. And then I was like you know what I think I’m done with Sundance this year.

Shelli: What we both watched that we were excited for though was The Stroll!

Drew: Yes!! I liked The Stroll a lot! And I watched it back to back with Kokomo City which was really perfect viewing.

Shelli: Speaking of Letterboxd, in your review you said you loved when it felt like Kristen was just reminiscing with her friends, and THAT is what I loved about it. I loved that she was just chillin’ and talking to her homies like “Let’s talk about our stories that we were there for and take it from there.”

I actually got to go to a panel with her and Zackary and they talked so much about making sure the joy wasn’t left out of the story, and that often gets lost on heavier subjects when it’s someone on the outside in charge of the story.

Drew: It really shows the difference between a documentary made about a subject and a documentary made by a subject.

Shelli: EXACTLY.

And please – Shortcomings was a ride that I very much couldn’t wait to get off of and some people won’t leave me alone about it.

Drew: Hahaha I told Carmen this but it reminded me of a Woody Allen movie and that is obviously not a compliment. Which is frustrating because I actually love movies with pointedly unlikable protagonists! This one just didn’t really work for me.

Shelli: The thing about being a critic of sorts is that I think people are confused. Just because I say my take on a movie and don’t enjoy it, is not me being like “Don’t go see it,” unless I explicitly say….”Don’t go see this.” And just because I don’t like a movie does not mean I don’t know the importance of it existing, especially when it’s made by or featuring a cast and crew of marginalized folks. ALSO ALSO ‘tho, just ‘cos it’s got marginalized people in and around it does not mean i’m going to be like “This is incredible” and I just thought Shortcomings was tiptoeing around a lot!

And that’s the vibe! Like, I don’t need all the characters to be likable and sweet, and I think when that’s mentioned in a review, folks think THAT is why I didn’t like it, when in reality it’s like…no that’s not it.

Sherry Cola is a fuckin’ star tho lol

Drew: Yes!! Over the past years of being a critic I’ve really had to figure out a balance in what films I write about and how I write about them. For example, if there’s a super independent film made by people who don’t often get to make movies and it’s bad, I just won’t cover it. But with bigger films — even bigger indie films — I think it does a disservice to not engage with the work critically. Not doing that leads to a lot of mediocre art.

Shelli: I AGREE

Drew: But yes absolutely just because one of us has an opinion doesn’t mean it’s fact. It’s literally an opinion You hating Carol does not make Carol disappear from my Blu-Ray collection lmao

In fact, I’m like oh cool this person I respect has a different opinion from me tell me more!
I learn so much from people with different opinions than me.

Shelli: If so many eyes are on it and I sit here and say I love it even ‘tho it’s bad, then we just get more bad shit and EYEDONUTLIKEDAT

AND SPEAKING OF CAROL LOL…. Eileen.

Drew: That is the one movie I’m so sad I couldn’t watch from home. Because I know I’d have opinions about it.

Shelli: I have been desperately trying to find out how to get you a screener but I feel like my chances are slim ‘cos they will 1. read my review and 2. find my tweets about Carol and put it together and go “Absolutely not.”

Drew: I have a high tolerance for movies where cis white women glance at each other. But a low tolerance for movies that try to make law enforcement sexy. So I really don’t know where I’ll land with this one.

Shelli: If you don’t mind me saying, we talked before about my excitement on it and how you were wary of trusting this director with the story and I must say, after seeing it, I should have listened to you and looked past seeing Anne in period costuming.

Drew: I do love Anne Hathaway though and I love that the worst people online seem to have given up their hate campaign toward her. This is off topic but the response to The Last Thing He Wanted baffled me. I think someday people will look back on it in the context of Dee Rees’ fifty plus year career and be like oh this was actually good.

Shelli: I never understood the hate towards her! Ella Enchanted is a fuckin’ masterpiece and she’s just a happy white woman from what I know.

Drew: Did you notice any trends, specifically in the queer movies? Like how are you feeling about The State Of Queer Film after this fest

Shelli: The main theme I saw was that queer people can be shitty people too.

Drew: Wow I’ve noticed that theme from my life.

Shelli: The Persian Version, Shortcomings, Thriving (a short), My Animal, all kinda showed queer people being terrible and blaming a lot of shit on others.

Drew: I’d also throw in Mutt with that

Shelli: I WAS GONNA SAY MUTT! And it’s something I truly fuck with because just like I’m done with the Magical Negro trope I’m done with the Queer People Are Sweet Trope

Drew: Yes absolutely. When done well it’s really just expanding the humanity we’re allowed to show on screen.

Shelli: Film feels like it only has space to allow growth for different groups like 20 years at a time. In the past few years or so (like three), we have been seeing queer people in film outside of trauma and pain. It’s evolving to see us as everyday folks who can be terrible, romantic, sweet, murderous — and also just happen to be queer.

Did you see a theme running through the queer films?!

Drew: With the queer docs and Cassandro which is a biopic, I definitely saw an attempt to grant people humanity who maybe in the past were seen as caricatures.

Shelli: Damn that’s true and I’d add the Little Richard doc into that too. I’m guilty of seeing him as such before I watched this doc, if I’m being honest.

Drew: Yes! And ultimately I think a movie like Mutt where we get to see a realistic trans guy maybe being a little shitty to his ex is accomplishing a similar thing to a documentary that shows Little Richard’s inner struggles that led to periods of internalized homophobia.

Shelli: Docs high key won the festival for me this year by the way.

Drew: Me too!

Shelli: Did you feel hella let down by anything you watched?

Drew: It’s funny because I liked The Persian Version. But I still feel disappointed I didn’t love it. I really appreciated your review and it does highlight the things I did love about it. But I wish the modern day love story had been either left out or expanded upon. It’s ultimately a story about a mother and a daughter so maybe I’m making too much of this one element. But I’m sensitive to a cis straight man in drag being the comic relief!

I’m always trying to check in with myself as a critic and examine my biases. Which sometimes manifest in not understanding certain experiences but also can manifest in being sensitive to certain tropes even if they’re being done in a way that’s pretty harmless. It just seemed like a missed opportunity to underline the queerness of the story and the POV. I know it takes place in the mid-00s but it didn’t need to feel like a movie from the mid-00s in its treatment of sexuality and gender.

Shelli: And that’s fucking fair, ‘cos I was so wrapped up in the story of mum and daughter that I didn’t clock it until I read your review on Letterboxd. I’m sometimes so wrapped up in a story that on a second or third watch is when things that were big for some folks click for me. That’s the dope part about conversations like this (and even just reading other folks reviews) is that I am not looking for my thoughts to be changed on the film, I’m moreso trying to be like “Damn, I didn’t think of that” and carry it into how I am watching films in the future.

Drew: Yes!! And also one thing being meh in a work of art doesn’t make it bad. That’s something I think is important — that we can understand why something may not work for someone or for a certain group of someones without dismissing it outright.

Shelli: Sidenote: Another theme I keep seeing in queer films is “White person with POC partner” and omigosh I’m high key so tired of it — and it kept going this year.

Drew: From putting together the big lesbian movie list, I can confirm this has been going on for years and really sucks. Especially when it’s a white filmmaker wanting diversity points but not thinking about race and how it changes their story.

Drew: Was there anything you were really let down by?

Shelli: Sometimes I Think About Dying really really let me down! I was so excited for it! I feel like it was oversold and didn’t deliver and damn I was sad about that.

Drew: I also really disliked that one.

Shelli: I’m not a huge fan of Megan Stalter but I swear that wasn’t the reason lol

Drew: I am a fan and hated it so can confirm haha

Shelli: Also I almost typed “Sometimes I Think About Dykin'” and that would be a movie I’d watch.

Drew: !

Shelli: But all in all – It was a good fest. I feel like the queer slate of films didn’t deliver as much as I’d hoped, but we’re getting pulled out of the box where queer folks in film are either teaching or begging to be seen as human AND queer, and for that I’m high key grateful.

Drew: Yeah not to be a snob but the films I’m always going to gravitate toward are really singular visions like Animalia and Heroic. L’immensita and to a lesser extent Mutt had that. But for the most part the queer films didn’t feel quite of that ilk.

Shelli: I don’t think that’s snobbish at all! I’m always gonna go for the ones that are imaginative and hit the heart — but not in too much of a “Let me teach you about dykin'” kinda way. Perhaps that’s why I loved The Persian Version so much.

And no one asked but the best movie to come out of Sundance for me this year was Rye Lane — I refuse to stop talking about it. It’s the best romcom I’ve seen in like a decade, and it is officially one of my top 5 fav films.

Drew: Omg okay I noticed you saw Rye Lane multiple times?? I was so impressed by that. Like I simply must see this film because to rewatch during a festival?? That’s real love.

Shelli: HELLO I SAW RYE LANE 5 TIMES

Drew: FIVE?? That brings me so much joy. I love when festivals lead to that kind of discovery.

Shelli: I watched it two and half times online back to back and twice in theatres. It’s how I closed out my fest and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Drew: Beautiful

Shelli: AND I DIDN’T EVEN CARE THAT THERE WAS NO DYKIN!

Drew: That’s how you know a movie is special

Shelli: I love talking film with you!

Drew: I love talking film with you!

Shelli: Thanks for chatting with me!

Drew: Next fest we’re going to go together and party. Park City or idk Cannes won’t know what hit em.

Shelli: Drew — they are not going to be able to take how smart we are and how hot we look. And that’s something they just gonna have to deal with cos it’s happening.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 538 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. i’ve loved the sundance coverage and agree, y’all definitely need another festival trip together. i especially love coverage of movies that one of you really liked and the other really didn’t because the way you talk about what you each bring to the table when you watch something. good movies are not good for everyone equally! and being able to talk about that like civil humans is important!

  2. I am not really “a film person,” so please bear with me.

    Was QUEER PARIVAAR at Sundance last year? I am dying to see that movie. Did anyone see WARSHA last year??

    I was surprised/delighted to see SOMETIMES I THINK ABOUT DYING was at Sundance because I saw the original short online. Has anyone seen that? Jim Sarbh is in it. I’m curious to know what disappointed folks about the full-length version.

  3. “It’s evolving to see us as everyday folks who can be terrible, romantic, sweet, murderous — and also just happen to be queer.”

    The things I loved to hate/hated to love about “Gentleman Jack.”

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