It was a no-brainer that the dominant emotions at the opening night of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival would be things like jubilation, glee and relief.
Lots of relief.
This, after all, is the first in-person Sundance since 2020, when the event took place just as murmurs were growing of a virus spreading in China. The COVID-19 pandemic stretched on and the 2021 Sundance became an all-virtual event — and while the following year’s festival was announced as a return to an in-person Sundance, the Omicron variant turned 2022’s festival into a desultory virtual event instead.
So when Sundance theaters opened again on Thursday, the sense of joy was palpable. Everywhere you went, festival volunteers offered greetings of “welcome!” and just as often “welcome back!” Moviegoers responded with “glad to be back!”
At the Basin Recreation Fieldhouse, the festival welcomed itself back with an “Opening Night: A Taste of Sundance” awards gala, saluting a quartet of filmmakers who’d made their mark on these streets before: Ryan Coogler, who came here with “Fruitvale Station” long before he made any “Black Panther” movies; “Call Me by Your Name” and “Bones and All” director Luca Guadagnino; comic and TV host W. Kamau Bell; and “Nanny” screenwriter Nikyatu Jusu.
Elsewhere, the Indigo Girls documentary “It’s Only Life After All” came to the Ray, while at the Eccles Theater, a packed house filled Sundance’s biggest room for the premiere of “Radical.” And after a couple of hours of Christopher Zalla’s Spanish-language drama about a real-life teacher in an impoverished Mexican community, the jubilation changed to some tears and then to a standing ovation.
“Radical,” mind you, is not a typical Sundance indie — it’s openhearted rather than cynical, proudly corny rather than distinctly quirky. In a way, you could compare it to “CODA,” another Sundance hit about a teenager overcoming the odds that had more sentiment but less edge than the festival’s usual fare.
A thoroughly charming Eugenio Derbez plays Sergio Juarez, an unconventional sixth-grade teacher in a rundown school in Matamoros, where the kids regularly hear gunshots outside the school walls and entertain few illusions that education is a feasible path out of their tough circumstances. Will Sergio show them that path? If you’ve seen, say, “To Sir With Love” or “Goodbye Mr. Chips” or “Dead Poet’s Society” or “Stand and Deliver” or many others, chances are you know the answer.
The audience at Eccles on Thursday, and the one at the press & industry screening half an hour later and a few blocks away, knew the answer but responded enthusiastically anyway — and while “Radical” is not a radical movie, it doesn’t shy away from tough subjects. It also made for an appropriate curtain-raiser for a festival filled with people who are dying to feel good in big, crowded rooms.
Besides, the film begins as a new school year starts, with a giant banner reading “WELCOME BACK, STUDENTS!” hanging over the school entrance. Take away the word students and that’s a message Sundance is definitely ready to embrace.