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Sundance 2021 ‘Superior’ Review: The Style Kills in this Twin Thriller

In 2015, Erin Vassilopoulos’s short film Superior premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Now, six years later, her debut feature of the same name has premiered. Instead of re-telling the events of what took place in the short, Vassilopoulos builds upon the events of that film using the same cast and characters. Exploring themes of identity and reconnection, Superior is a stylish homage to 1980s films without ever solely relying on aesthetics. 

The opening sequence consists of two scenes happening simultaneously. One features Marian, played by Alessandra Mesa (who also co-wrote the film with Vassilopoulos), dressed in a red jumpsuit with blonde hair running from her abusive husband. Cutting from the chaos to a neat little home, we meet Vivan (Ani Mesa), Marian’s twin sister. From the start, it is clear the estranged sisters are complete opposites. But when Marian returns home and reconnects with Vivian, their lives begin to intertwine at a peculiar and eventually dangerous rate. 

Superior’s most striking quality is its style. Shot on 16mm, the film drips with vintage aesthetics. Handheld camerawork combined with framing reminiscent of 1980’s horror movies, the film feels as if you had plucked it out of a box of VHS tapes from your mother’s basement. This is meant in the best way possible — the film never relies on cliches or overt references to sell the time period — it simply just is the time period. Simple yet extremely visually affecting production and costume design add to this. Pops of red fill every frame, but it is never too overt in its design. Coming in at just the right moments, the synth score avoids overstaying its welcome. All of these elements come together to create a truly unique viewing experience.  

The fear that comes along with films presenting such a strong visual style is always that there is no substance to the story. Although operating at a slow pace, Superior doesn’t fall into this category. The relationship between Marian and Vivian is interesting from the start, and its development continues to draw the audience in. When Marian shows up at Vivian’s after being disconnected for six years, the two have a lot to catch up on. They are strangers now, with Marian’s closet full of secrets and Vivian’s new domestic life with her husband. As the two begin to get to know each other again, their relationship becomes even more fascinating. 

When Marian suggests they switch places for the day so that she can work on her music while Vivian takes her place at work, the story becomes so much more. Marian dyes her hair and cuts it similar to Vivian’s and they switch clothes, again referencing just how opposite of each other they are, or at least used to be. The two now occupy each other’s lives, resulting in sometimes funny and other times tense situations. This infiltration brings about change in both of the sisters that they desperately need. Vivian wonders if she is truly happy with the life she has chosen while Marian struggles with trauma from her abusive husband who is still out there searching for her. 

Using Marian and Vivian’s likeness as a main plot point can lead to some confusion, however. Their physical similarities are so close that it is hard to tell when they are still acting like the other sister and when they decide to switch back. This requires strong attention from the audience, which might keep some engaged and lose others in the process. Despite this complication, the scenarios that happen when they are switched keep the tension high throughout the second half of the film, especially as Marian’s past begins to catch up with her.

Vassilopoulos has created an extremely entertaining film in such a skilled manner. By not relying heavily on cliches, she crafts a more genuine story that is just a delight to see unfold. You do not need to see the short film before to understand the story, but it does add more context to the sisters’ relationship and their history. The Mesa sisters give outstanding performances, as well as the supporting cast, which enriches the world in which they function. Although the story is enjoyable, the style of Superior is what will be talked about — probably for a very long time.  

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