‘Superior’ Submerges Viewers Into an ’80s Fever Dream


Still from “Superior,” a selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Mia Cioffi | Courtesy Sundance Institute)

By Cade Anderson, Arts Writer


In “Superior,” Marian (Alessandra Mesa) turns to her estranged identical twin sister, Vivian (Ani Mesa), for refuge. The pair must learn to navigate their new proximity to one another while both Vivian’s housewife routine and Marian’s desperation to escape her past start to collapse. Set in upstate New York in October 1987 and shot entirely on 16mm film, the film is seeping with campy, cult energy that’s impossible to pull away from. This feature-length directorial debut from Erin Vassilopoulos premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 30, 2021, as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition.

Portrait of Erin Vassilopoulos, director of “Superior.” (Photo by Marie Constantinesco | Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Themes of Sisterhood and Liminality

Before and after the screening on Jan. 30, Vassilopoulos emphasized her fascination with the Mesa sisters’ unique acting dynamic. Their presences are magnetic, and that’s why Vassilopoulos has been so keen to collaborate with them throughout the past several years. While “Superior” is Vassilopoulos’ first feature-length film, it’s not her first time as a director. In 2015, her short film of the same name, starring the same twin actresses, premiered at Sundance. The Mesa sisters returned in 2019 to help Vassilopoulos transform the short into a feature-length film, with Alessandra Mesa co-writing the new story and performing a prominent song on the soundtrack — a soundtrack which is absolutely stellar, by the way (once the credits started rolling, I immediately started saving the film’s songs on Spotify).

Vivian is feeling smothered by her life of small-town homemaking when her polar opposite — and perhaps her alter ego — appears out of the blue. But Marian, a high-energy punk musician on the run for her life, surprises both her sister and herself with her ability to settle into Vivian’s routine. As the two start to swap places, their identities warp to fit one another’s, a palpable and ominous tension crescendos in the background. “I wish I was good at something,” says Vivian towards the end of the second act. “You have gardening,” answers Marian, who has taken it upon herself to tend to the dying garden while Vivian covers for her at work. The two laugh, but it’s uncomfortably clear that something’s not right here. Where is the threshold between what is Vivian’s and what is Marian’s — between what we present to the world and what we actually are?

Intense and Immersive Visuals

“Superior” communicates through every single shot that this question does not have a simple answer. It’s clearly a story of sisterhood, but at its core, it’s also an exploration of identity and liminality. Much like our actual experience of one another in the world, the film’s narrative isn’t linear, and the characters are neither static nor easily understood. All that’s truly clear in “Superior” is the striking beauty of the visuals: hazy, immersive 16mm film; costumes and set designs that shift between intense reds, grays, violets, and greens; and perfectly-framed shots of the twins’ adventures in 1980’s rural New York. Vassilopoulos’ stylistic choices express the cognitive dissonance — and even the complete dissociation from reality — that comes when we decide that there’s a new role we want to play in the world.

As a blend between a low-budget family drama and a slow-burn psychological cult film, “Superior” is definitely not going to be for everyone. The middle chunk of the film lacks the exciting ’80s-music-video glamour of its intro and outro, and many questions that Vassilopoulos raises are never answered or even really addressed. At times, I wondered just how much the story actually had to say underneath its visuals and its soundtrack — but I was glued to the screen the entire time nonetheless. “Superior” is a fever dream of a viewing experience, and I’d say that Vassilopoulos has cemented herself as a solid voice in the future of indie cinema.


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