Highlights from the 2023 Chicago International Film Festival

The Chicago International Film Festival just wrapped its 59th iteration last week, a robust showcase of more than a hundred films ranging from festival favorites from earlier in the year to stunning demonstrations of local talent. While many of the offerings already saw robust audiences at more high-profile festivals like Sundance, SXSW, and TIFF, this year's fest gave plenty of Chicago-set films a chance to play on their home turf.

These stories include heartbreaking coming-of-age tales in forgotten Chicago neighborhoods, talk shows haunted by demonic possession, families reeling from the smoke of tragedy, and the brittle freedom of the '60s biker-gang movement, among others. Check out a selection of the most interesting films we caught at the fest — some of which could be contenders in this year's awards season.

We Grown Now

Chicago International Film Festival 2023 - We Grown Now
Image credit: Sony Pictures Classics.

Director Minhal Baig's (Hala) third film centers on a particularly notorious part of Chicago's history — the Cabrini-Green housing projects, which provided low-income housing for poor, often Black, residents of the city. The area developed a reputation for crime, one born of deep poverty and exacerbated by institutional forces (racist policing, systemic disenfranchisement). But, as Baig's heartfelt, lyrical project demonstrates, it was also full of hope, opportunity, and resolve. Set in the fall of 1992, We Grown Now focuses on two inseparable friends — Malik (Blake Cameron James) and Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez) — who while away their days playing in the empty apartments of their run-down apartment building, or dragging mattresses up to the roof so they can bounce on them and “fly.” Their families struggle to make ends meet: Malik's mom (Jurnee Smollett) sighs with the pressures of single motherhood, while Malik's grandma (S. Epatha Merkerson) dispenses wistful advice and listens patiently to Malik's corny jokes; Eric's dad (Lil Rel Howery), meanwhile, struggles to instill virtues of ambition and entrepreneurship in Eric and his older sister.

Wistful and vital in equal measure, Baig's film plays itself out in dreamlike vignettes, minimalist dialogue over slow-motion shots of girls hula-hooping or the boys' imaginations turning a popcorn ceiling into an entire galaxy of stars. Sometimes its attempts at profundity feel forced and overly precious — the kids' dialogue is deeply on the nose, right down to the kids shouting “I exist! We exist!” to each other at vital moments of heartbreak — but Baig keeps her focus on the living, breathing organism of the city in which her film is set. Her characters occasionally seem more like symbols than people, representatives of the generational pain that Chicago's systemic racism inflicted on the residents of the now-defunct neighborhood. Still, it finds beautiful grace notes among the aching sincerity, with warm performances and an empathetic look at a part of the city that's long been ignored.


Eric Larue

Chicago International Film Festival 2023 - Eric Larue
Image credit: Chicago International Film Festival.

Where We Grown Now treats its subjects with almost unbearable reverence, Michael Shannon‘s directorial debut treats its grim subject matter with a bit too much glibness. Eric Larue, adapted from the Red Orchid play by Brett Neveu (and which Shannon has previously handled on the stage), feels like We Need to Talk About Kevin by way of Juno: A small-town mother (Judy Greer, all coiled restraint and hidden darkness) goes about her days in the wake of a school shooting in which her son, Eric, murdered three of his classmates. He's gone to prison, but she hasn't seen him yet; her local pastor (Paul Sparks) insists on setting up a meeting with her and the mothers of the three boys Eric killed. Her husband (Alexander Skarsgard) has turned to the town's newer megachurch for the comfort his dazed wife doesn't provide. Everyone turns to God, and nothing helps.

Eric Larue‘s greatest strengths lie in how Shannon handles his cast, many of whom he's worked with before. Greer rarely gets this kind of dramatic showcase, and it's gratifying to see her tackle a role filled with such stark silence and ambiguity. Both she and Skarsgard drive the film's major philosophical underpinnings, a mother and father running in two starkly different directions in the wake of tragedy. Greer's Janice wants to feel her pain acutely and make others aware of it; Skarsgard's Ron wants nothing more than to run away from it toward the familiarity of God, of faith, of gender roles. Neveu's script excels most when it explores the inadequacy of small-town faith communities to handle such unfathomable tragedy, where people pray for Jesus to take their pain away while others feed off the anger they feel at such loss. But the script's lapses into dark Midwestern comedy feel tone-deaf, tumbling into grim jokes that undercut the emotional pain of its characters. And the film's final scenes, and especially its final moments, are particular headscratchers.


Late Night With the Devil

Chicago International Film Festival 2023 - Late Night with the Devil
Image credit: AGC Studios.

Speaking of actors' showcases, longtime character actor David Dastmalchian finally gets the moment in the spotlight he deserves with Colin and Cameron Caines' lean, effective '70s thriller Late Night with the Devil. Styled as the “lost footage” of the final episode of a 1970s late-night talk show, the film follows its charismatic host, Jack Delroy (Dastmalchian), himself reeling from the recent loss of his wife, putting on a Halloween show that flirts with the spiritual and demonic alike. But even beyond the push and pull between the psychic and skeptic he's brought on the show — the classic dynamic of the 1970s obsession with spiritualism and Satanism, and the moral quandaries that followed — it quickly becomes clear that something more otherworldly is afoot.

Dastmalchian is perfect here, calibrating effortlessly between Johnny Carson-esque showmanship and the haunting hollowness of a man struggling against the Faustian bargain he's made. The period details are also impressive, especially for a film made presumably on a modest budget — the wide-lapeled suits, the beige patterns on the set walls, the overwhelming grooviness of the whole presentation all perfectly ensconced the audience in that faux '70s coziness. And the Cairns' decision to play the episode out in something approximating real-time is impressive. When the show cuts to commercial break, we stay with the characters, handheld cameras following them as they privately freak out about what's happening before having to put on a happy face as the show returns. Its final act takes some huge stylistic swings that don't always land, but it's overall quite a treat for horror hounds.



Chicago International Film Festival 2023 - Monster
Image credit: Well Go USA Entertainment.

Hirokazu Kore-eda's films are so often suffused with a deep well of emotional sensitivity, tales of children and found families reckoning with the circumstances of their lives and the choices they've made. So, too, with his latest, Monster, another humanistic tale of people shunned by broader society for one reason or another. It starts simply, with a burning hostess bar in the middle of Tokyo: after that, Saori (Sakura Andō) notices her young son Minato (Sōya Kurokawa) exhibiting strange behavior, whether jumping out of moving cars or wandering the sewers by himself. Her search for answers leads her down a rabbit hole of judgments, recriminations, and blame — a host of people looking for the “monster” to blame. Is it the homeroom teacher (Eita Nagayama) who may or may not have accidentally struck him? Is it Minato's best friend (Hinata Hiiragi), whose connection arouses questions, even among each other? The vice principal (Akihiro Tsunoda), who has some grim secrets of her own?

Kore-eda's structure here is startling and thoughtful, looping back around to the same events from different perspectives so casually it's easy to miss that it's even happening. And yet, as the puzzle pieces fall into place, the bigger picture becomes clearer, dismantling a story about presumed child abuse into something far more empathetic. After his stint making films outside of Japan (his English/French debut The Truth, last year's Korean-language Broker), it's nice to see Kore-eda telling stories in his home country again — aided by a haunting final score from the late, great Ryuichi Sakamoto.


The Space Race

Chicago International Film Festival 2023 - The Space Race
Image credit: National Geographic.

I can't pay no doctor bill, but Whitey's on the moon: Gil Scott-Heron's iconic poem spoke to the frustrations of many Black Americans who saw the race to the stars as the province of white men, a waste of money that could be used to solve problems here on terra firma. But in Nat Geo's new doc The Space Race, directors Lisa Cortés and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza sought to highlight those Black astronauts who, even amid the systemic barriers of the space program, still fought to become a part of humanity's next great odyssey. Weaving archival footage with interviews of astronauts of color, young and old, the filmmakers offer up a brisk, informative, and easy-to-digest chronicle of the brave men and women who wanted to see the stars — even if the powers that be didn't think they were the ‘white stuff.'

The film glides through the early days of the space program in the '60s — where astronauts like Ed Dwight struggled against the perceived “political” nature of his appointment — through to the '70s and '80s, where many Black astronauts engaged in test missions that were heretofore classified from the public. These accounts make The Space Race really thrum, as one impressive pilot after another breaks down the assumptions, prejudices, and cultural tugs-of-war that made their experience in the program so challenging. Conversely, that's also what makes these self-styled “afronauts” so willing and eager to support each other, as we see through numerous accounts and cheerleading Zoom calls with new generations of Black aviators set to follow in their footsteps.


The Bikeriders

Chicago International Film Festival 2023 - The Bikeriders
Image credit: 20th Century Studios.

Six years have passed since Jeff Nichols made his last film, the sensitive and heartfelt Loving. Now, the director brings his Southern Gothic sensibilities back to Chicago for The Bikeriders, a loose adaptation of the titular book by David Lyon that documented the early rise of motorcycle clubs in the 1960s and '70s. The book feels like more of a photographic ethnography of the biker culture, so Nichols fictionalizes and dramatizes the titular bike riders' impulses for freedom and purpose, and the gradual devolution from a working-class boys' club to a criminal gang. Nichols channels this through three figures at the film's center — talkative Chicago broad Kathy (Jodie Comer), smoldering young rebel Benny (Austin Butler, finally shaking off his Elvis voice), and the paternal head honcho of the gang, Johnny (Tom Hardy) — all of whom try (and fail) to balance the humble, workaday origins of the gang with the ever-increasing risk of collapse they face.

All the while, Nichols paints the film with a honeyed, nostalgic lens, evoking the book's original, powerful images and trying like mad to sell the free-wheeling appeal of the club to its aimless Midwestern men. Through Kathy's jaundiced eye (she serves as an erstwhile narrator), Nichols paints these men as charming but wounded and occasionally quite silly: Who else would shrug off society's rules only to make their own club with its own set of macho rituals? With their leather jackets, tobacco-stained smiles, and names like Zipco (Michael Shannon), Funny Sonny (Norman Reedus), and Wahoo (Beau Knapp), the film's cast of characters exude a kind of self-styled idiosyncrasy, one the film both entertains and prods at. They're all colorful, even if they lie in an uncanny valley between Method realism and goofy caricature (the three leads' Chi-caago accents are something to behold, all right).

And yet, all this cruising about tends to feel like driving in circles, as Nichols' loping approach fails to go anywhere fast. The laidback, observational approach matches the Vandals' vibes, to be sure; Butler's Benny is the spitting image of James Dean, and Hardy's pugnacious Johnny deliberately styles himself after Marlon Brando in The Wild One. But at two hours, it feels like a lot of aimless wandering to get to a truncated conclusion. Perhaps that's the point — the Vandals' lifestyles are as thin as air, finding purpose in purposelessness. But by the time their masculine posturing results in the rapid erosion of their original mission, it's tough to find a strong footing.