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Much of Erin Vassilopoulos’ moody, something’s-wrong-in-the-suburbs directorial debut, Superior, takes place in a Reagan-era Barbie Dreamhouse come to life. Within its mint and pink-punch walls live Vivian (Ani Mesa) and Michael (Jake Hoffman), a young couple who are dismayed when her estranged twin sister, Marian (Alessandra Mesa, Ani’s own twin), a touring rock musician, drops by unannounced during a thawing winter and asks to stay for a few days. On the run from a young man (Pico Alexander) who looks like he’s doing rockabilly-hitman cosplay with his slicked-back hair, too-shiny leather trench and ominous leather gloves, Marian dreams that he breaks into her sister’s home at night, calming the couple’s three huskies so he can finish what he started.
Superior feels like Diet David Lynch: an unsatisfying substitute. Based on Vassilopoulos’ 2015 short starring the Mesas, the Halloween-set drama-thriller relies on atmosphere to carry it through — which it does until it doesn’t. Docile housewife Vivian and jittery cynic Marian begin to influence each other, until the 20-something sisters sport identical hairdos and pose as one another around town. Writers Vassilopoulos and Alessandra Mesa drop hints of twin telepathy, but as with much of their script, they’re more flickeringly evocative than anything resembling engaging characterization. The film is also hampered by stilted lead performances, especially in the scenes between the Mesas.
There’s an intentional blankness to Superior: its Anytown setting, the twins’ barely-there back stories, the spare plotting. Great films can and have been built around starkness and lacunae, of course, but here, pieces seem missing — there’s just not enough to hold onto. Marian and Vivian’s reunion gradually makes each of them whole, but we don’t get enough context for who they are or what their circumstances are to care what happens to them. As a result, emotional beats rarely land, as when Marian-as-Vivian contends with a cop looking for her, or finally hears what Michael truly thinks about her. The duality the twins represent feels like a particular wasted opportunity.
Superior’s most successful element might be its inspired-by-the-’80s aesthetic choices. The nervous synths (by composer Jessica Moss), quasi-grainy cinematography (by Mia Cioffi Henry) and modern-leaning costumes (by Allison Pearce) suggest an out-of-time quality that meshes well with the not-quite characters.
The best distillation of the film’s Americana-gone-to-seed is Marian’s teenage boss at an ice-cream shop. A well-meaning ne’er-do-well, lanky Miles (a winsome and quietly excellent Stanley Simons), who could be a pre-Scooby Shaggy, is the sweetest of the script’s three men — not that that’s saying much. Miles, too, ultimately betrays the twins, but he’s still worlds away from Michael, who seems determined to send his wife to an early grave by boring her to death (both in and out of the bedroom), and Marian’s pursuer, who inevitably mistakes Vivian for her sister when he drugs her and ties her up.
The revelation of Marian’s connection to her pursuer comprises Superior’s one genuine surprise — though, in keeping with the rest of the feature, even that feels underdeveloped. And frustratingly, it doesn’t make Marian’s dreams of his invasions of Vivian’s home any creepier or more meaningful. But it does raise more questions than it answers — just the way Superior would want it.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Cast: Alessandra Mesa, Ani Mesa, Pico Alexander, Jake Hoffman, Stanley Simons
Director: Erin Vassilopoulos
Producers: Benjamin Cohen, Grant Curatola, Patrick Donovan
Executive producers: Samantha Zalaznick, Pierce Varous
Director of photography: Mia Cioffi Henry
Production designer: Maite Perez-Nievas
Costume designer: Allison Pearce
Sound designer: Ryan Billia
Editors: Jenn Ruff, Erin Vassilopoulos
Casting: Susan Shopmaker, Emily Fleischer
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