Cinequest 2023 Features a Wide Array of Ambitious, Impressive Films

Ben Friedman


With autumn rapidly approaching, thus begins the cycle of film festivals and the discovery of new talented voices. As bitter strikes continue to keep Hollywood shut down, studio executives are trying to find some semblance of normalcy within their calendar release date. If the strikes continue through September, this would mark a year in which the major stars and writers are not out promoting their work, which would be catastrophic for marketing.


In failing to reach agreements with the striking guilds, Hollywood executives are essentially forced to promote movies without their A-list cast. The first signs of danger may present themselves this month – August -- with the Venice International Film Festival and Telluride Film Festival beginning at the end of this month. In the meantime, film festivals such as the  Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival offer a glimpse of what this upcoming season has in store for Hollywood, both professionally and creatively.


The in-person lineup features 250-plus films both domestically and abroad. Cinequest showcases a plethora of exciting films and talent. From famous comedians, renowned directors, A-list actors, and young, exciting new stars, Cinequest offers a chance for Hollywood to present what remains exciting and innovative about the industry. I was lucky enough to catch a handful of the spotlight titles this year. From the struggles of young adulthood, Gen-Z anxieties, and family troubles, Cinequest offers a time capsule of titles that serves as a reflection on what is going on in the world today.




What if a horror film was made starring puppets? That is the base premise of Abruptio, which follows Les Hackel (James Marsters), a man who finds himself strapped to a bomb that will blow up unless he carries out heinous crimes. It is up to Les to not only avoid capture but discover who put him up to this. The puppet designs are nightmare fueled, showcasing a pseudo-photorealistic quality that purposefully gives these characters a level of eeriness. It is graphically violent and often obscene. It is a truly unique idea to create a horror film in the vein of Saw but utilizing puppets. However, that is where the uniqueness ends. Once the initial shock factor of the violent imagery of puppets is depleted, the film is nothing more than a generic horror-thriller devoid of cleverness. Ultimately, I found the experiment ambitious but flawed in its execution. While the world-building, practical effects, and innovation are admirable, the aesthetic and characters leave a lot to be desired. This is not a film for everyone, yet its unique energy and premise are sure to pique enough interest and potentially gain a cult following among horror fans.



The Adults

Michael Cera is having a big summer. After his critically acclaimed performance as Alan, the outsider in Greta Gerwig’s smash hit Barbie, the 35-year-old actor finds himself front and center with a new Universal Pictures release entitled The Adults. Cera stars as Eric, a man who goes back to his hometown and finds himself nostalgic for lost time between his two sisters following  their mother’s death. Rachel and Maggie. Hannah Gross and Sophia Lillis co-star as the two sisters in this awkward dramedy. The Adults tells the story of siblings trying to reunite, yet struggles to convey the emotions of its central figure, Eric, thus making his relationship feel hollow.


A talented actor, Cera is miscast in the role. His boyish charm makes him feel 10 years too young for the role. His struggles to connect to make Eric feel distanced due to naivety of age, rather than the loss of a parent. Despite the film’s struggles, director/writer Dustin Guy Defa proves himself a skilled talent in capturing the subtlety of interpersonal character dynamics, specifically of the female characters. Gross and Lillis’s dynamic feels authentic, and Defa’s framing allows his characters’ space to feel open with one another, allowing the audience the opportunity to be a fly on the wall, without ever feeling intrusive.



Going Places

Generation Z panic is growing evermore present in our current era of filmmaking. From titles such as Do Revenge, Not Okay, and Bodies Bodies Bodies, our young stars are focused on making art that is reflective of their complicated adolescence. Max Chernov’s Going Places falls in line with this generation of storytelling. The film follows three high school friends on one last road trip before going off to college.  Things don’t go as planned, when they accidentally hit and kill a woman in the middle of nowhere.


Unsure of what to do, the friends decide to cover up the hit-and-run as they try to untangle themselves from this deadly crime. The film stars Ethan Cutkosky, Spence Moore II, and Chloe East. Chernov’s direction is impressive, and the film boasts several large set pieces that are well staged and bring the audience into the suspense and anxiety of our lead’s situation. The film takes many big twists and turns that loses focus of its central characters. Despite its uneven storytelling, Chloe East, the breakout star from last year’s The Fabelmans proves herself to be quite an exciting actor to keep an eye on.



How to Ruin the Holidays

Christmas and comedy -- a duo as old as film itself. The hallmarks of the storytelling are essentially the same – dysfunctional family reunites for the holidays and hijinks ensue. The most important elements of this formula are its comedic sensibilities and its heart, and luckily How to Ruin the Holidays has both.


The film follows a middle-aged woman trying to live out her dreams in Hollywood, but after discovering her father took a bad fall, she must return home for Christmas. Colin Mochrie of Who’s Line is it Anyway fame stars as the father and provides much of the film’s biggest laughs. While the film relies heavily on formulaic beats, it succeeds due to its big heart. Fans of the beloved improv show are sure to find a lot to enjoy here.



Sometimes I Think About Dying

It is always exciting to see a young, capable actress -- who has not gotten a lot of chances to prove her dramatic chops -- finally receive material worthy of her skills. Director Rachel Lambert grants that opportunity to Daisy Ridley, who in turn makes the most of it in the romantic dramedy Sometimes I Think About Dying.


Ridley stars as Fran, a soft-spoken, socially awkward office worker who spends much of her time daydreaming about death, when one day a new person arrives at the office and takes an interest in Fran. Lambert’s ability to capture the mundanity of social interactions grants this film authenticity in its dynamics. Ridley’s restraint in movements brings a truly three-dimensional performance out of the young actress that is both endearing and frustrating by design. Oddly paced, the story struggles to remain engaging and thus relies on its talented cast to find something interesting in the everyday mundanity. While the story never all comes together by its resolution, the talent of Rachel Lambert is evident.


Hosted in Silicon Valley, Cinequest’s vision is to fuse innovation with the arts to empower creation, foster community, and lift artist voices along with their craft. From August 15-30th, Cinequest features a plethora of exciting films and talent that showcase what remains exciting and innovative about the film industry.


Author Bio:

Ben Friedman is a freelance film journalist and a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine. For more of his reviews, visit, his podcast Ben and Bran See a Movie, or follow him on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube: The Beniverse


For Highbrow Magazine


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