'Superior' is Beautiful and Bland

Erin Vassilopoulos’ feature debut is meticulously designed but lacks the story to hold up its beauty.

Sundance 2021: Superior
Sundance Institute

A film’s style is crucial in establishing its tone and atmosphere, informing the viewer about what to expect, at least aesthetically. It can be a feast for the eyes and can transport the viewer into the film’s world. But unfortunately relying solely on style cannot save a movie. Such is the case with filmmaker Erin Vassilopoulos’ feature debut, Superior. Starring actual twins Alessandra Mesa and Ani Mesa, this drama about identity relishes in its vibe and pushes the story to the side.

On the run from an abusive partner, Marian (Alessandra Mesa) takes refuge with her twin sister, Vivian (Ani Mesa), whom she hasn’t seen or spoken to in six years. Smoking cigarettes and loudly playing guitar, Marian disrupts the monotonous routine of Vivian and her square husband (Jake Hoffman), who collects vintage tobacco cans. Marian is in a band. Vivian’s appointments for sex with her husband are marked on the calendar. Despite their seemingly opposing lifestyles, they begin to bring the best out of each other, creating a balance between Marian’s recklessness and Vivian’s complacency. The twins try to make up for lost time, though Marian never reveals the full truth about why she’s shown up out of the blue.

Marian suffers from intense PTSD flashbacks to the tumultuous and violent relationship with her ex-boyfriend, Robert (Pico Alexander). Everywhere she goes, she worries he’ll appear around the corner or walk into the ice cream shop where she works. In an attempt to protect herself, Marian suggests that she and Vivian switch places under the guise of needing to finish a song. So, as twins are wont to do, they get similar haircuts and swap wardrobes to play-pretend in each other’s lives. It’s all fun and games as Marian learns to garden and Vivian starts smoking weed, but switching places backfires when Robert comes to find Marian.

Shot in 16mm, Supererior has a slightly hazy atmosphere that contrasts with its bright colors and frilled tops. Vassilopoulos is nothing if not dedicated to an immaculate 1980s vibe that captures a very specific moment both in time and in its small-town location. Style is quickly established in the first fifteen minutes with Marian’s glam style consisting of a tasseled white leather jacket, low back leotards, and short skirts, and Vivian’s clean housewife aesthetic made up of kitten heels and white silk blouses complete with ruffles and balloon sleeves. They couldn’t look any more different in their stereotypical representation of twins whose paths have diverged.

Superior’s set design is also so specifically 1980s with its color-blocked rooms, beds covered in crocheted blankets, lamps with large and colorful ceramic vases, and wood paneling. It’s like walking into a parent’s childhood home that’s a warm relic of the past. The details are so meticulous that it feels like a giallo film. Furniture is in just the right spot, the colors complement each other exquisitely, and there’s even the signature giallo red lighting. It’s Dario Argento’s Tenebrae by way of small-town America. 

There are some gorgeous melancholic moments where each sister quietly reflects on their regrets in life. Marian craves stability and safety while Vivian wants freedom and the ability to just interact with other people. In one another, they finally understand what they want in order to be happy. But despite the sweet rekindling of a stagnant relationship between sisters, they are barely characterized outside of aesthetics and opposing lives. There’s no real understanding of their complex relationship and what had led to their estrangement. It’s difficult to connect with them without any real investment in their past.

Superior is a film with so much potential. Unfortunately, it collapses in on itself and becomes a repetitive narrative that loses its thread on talking about trauma, identity, and what it means to be free. Showing their identity-switching routine over and over again becomes tedious, and the only moment of growth is that Vivian starts smoking weed. Only in the film’s final minutes does the action ramp up and take an impressive and unexpectedly violent turn reminiscent of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

Superior began as a short film starring the same sisters, and it shows. Vassilopoulos didn’t build and expand enough material to enrich the story. Instead, her script relied on showing the same repetitive routines without much variation to fill in the middle of the story. Despite these stumbling blocks, Vassilopoulos’ has a very strong aesthetic voice that creates a gorgeous and alluring set design where everything is perfectly in place. She isn’t afraid to embrace her own creative style, which translates into the beauty of Superior. If only she extended that same embrace to the story.

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Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance writer and editor based in Washington, DC. She loves all things horror and will defend bad vampire movies until the end of time.