Six years ago, New York-based filmmaker Erin Vassilopoulos released a short film titled Superior. The film tells the tale of an unusual flirtatious encounter between two twin sisters and a mysterious stranger. With its bold level of cinematic honesty and authenticity, the film resonated with both Sundance and Berlinale audiences alike. Since the release of the short, Erin has continued to create and direct numerous other short film projects. But none can compare to the beast of her latest feature length debut. A sequel following the events after the aforementioned short film of the same name, Superior is a uniquely interesting case of how a talented director can manipulate nostalgia to form a devastating story on domestic abuse and the questioning of one's own identity. Just like the short film, Superior is a project that is shrouded in a cloud ambiguity and righteous cinematic experimentation.
Scrapping any form of the male gaze from her creative vision, Vassilopoulos playfully toys with genre elements to deliver a uniquely bold commentary. Using an 80's backdrop to enhance the social politics and aesthetics of the time, Vassilopoulos comments on the tangibility and legacy of the nuclear family dynamic, and even touches on subjects such as domestic violence, misogyny, and even some brief subtext on sexuality that help the viewer succumb to the world of silence, aggression and mundanity between Vivian, Marion, and Robert. Adorned in a cloak of maddening drama, the film's greatest credit can also be served towards the work of cinematographer Mia Cioffi Henry and costume designer Allison Pearce.
After a short conversation with Pearce and Henry, it's clear that both Vassilopoulos and her crew of talented artists further enhanced the profound central narrative with their own individual set of skills. For example, Henry utilised a powerful 16mm look to enhance the dynamic between Vivian and Marion throughout the film. “We experimented with 35mm on her previous short film. It worked in that film since it was set in a mansion.” comments Henry on her previous film with Vassilopoulos. She details that 16mm was not only more tangible and portable compared with 35mm, but the choice of shooting on 16mm specifically coincided with the film's petite characters and locations. “It was always more about highlighting domestic abuse over the utilisation of camp.” responds Henry on a comment made about the specific aesthetics and inspirations used on set.
“I only had two weeks,” answered Pearce on the amount of time she had to prepare the costumes for the film. Out of pure luck, Pearce formed some of Superior's iconic visuals out of relentless thrifting. “We found Robert's leather jacket at a thrift store five hours away from the shoot.” says Pearce on the difficulty of perfecting Robert's iconic malicious look. Alongside the vibrant nostalgia at play, Pearce also mentions the usage of the colour red throughout the film. “It's a very attractive colour” she details, where the iconic red dress-wear adds a level of intricacy and narrative foreshadowing to the great peril to come.
The end result of Superior is a film that encapsulates all the best elements of modern independent film. A project that dares to break the boundaries and traditional conventions on three-act storytelling. A period piece that uses the aesthetics of the time to not only comment on the societal perspective of its decade, but also to mirror the actions and perspectives of our current pressing times. If anything, Superior (2021) is a grandiose footnote that greatly announces the start of an awe-inspiring wave of committed artists and talent in New American Cinema. For those lucky enough to see Superior for the first time without any preconceived expectations, just be ready next time for what Vassilopoulos has in store for her sophomore outing.
Superior premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival as part of the US Dramatic Competition category. The film will screen again virtually on February 1st. Superior is also currently seeking international distribution.