Back at the Sundance Film Festival with her feature film debut, director and co-writer Erin Vassilopoulos expands upon her 2015 short film of the same name. Superior tantalizes in its study of identity, employing real-life identical twins Alessandra Mesa (who also co-wrote the script) and Ani Mesa to engage with the contrasts of persona and lifestyle. Though the film does an outstanding job in that respect, it’s incredibly lukewarm in its attempts to also be a haunting thriller.
Superior opens with Marian (Alessandra Mesa), who is on the run from her abusive husband Robert (Pico Alexander). After running him over, she finds refuge in the home of her twin sister Vivian (Ani Mesa), a stay-at-home housewife who has spent two years trying to conceive with her husband Michael (Jake Hoffman). Marian’s arrival is unexpected since she’s been estranged from Vivian for six years. The two catch up on each other’s lives, though Marian keeps the details of her old life a secret. When she convinces Vivian to switch places for a day, their worlds change in ways they didn’t anticipate.
Superior is a study in duality. Vivian and Marian couldn’t be more different than each other. What starts as a one-time switcheroo goes on for far longer, with Marian staying inside out of necessity and Vivian embracing the freedom that being her sister affords her. Vivian, whether she admits it or not, enjoys her life outside the house. She gets to interact with others and escapes the pressures of having scheduled sex with her husband, who is displeased with Marian’s long stay because it disrupts their routine and Vivian’s duties as a housewife. Outside the confines of her home, Vivian becomes a bit of a rebel, staying out longer, venturing around town alone at night, and hitting up bars whenever she feels like it. This is where Superior excels, in reaching past Vivian’s seemingly docile lifestyle to dig deeper into who she is as a person separate from what her marriage has defined her to be.
Meanwhile, Marian’s wild personality is tempered while she pretends to be her sister, only for us to realize that her entire indie rock persona may have been cultivated to reflect Robert’s interests. Having left her old life behind, Marian carved out a new one to fit in and survive. It becomes increasingly clear she had to cut herself off from Vivian to do so, only to return out of comfort, fear, and an attempt to finally live her life free of attachment. The ending of Superior indicates a path forward, both of the twins changed and perhaps even radicalized by the events that transpired over the course of the film. Vassilopoulos employs the mundane, yet highly stylized setting to explore the inner workings of identity and the influence others have on shaping who you become to great success.
Superior surreptitiously asks which life and identity is superior while maintaining an ambiguous answer that leaves us with much to contemplate afterward. However, while the film soars in its careful study of identity, it falters when venturing into the thriller aspects of the story. The threat of Robert’s arrival looms, with Marian’s hallucinations bubbling up from the fear that he could appear under any circumstance. Yet the lead-up to the final conflict is slow, simmering for too long before delivering an underwhelming finale that could have used a lot more gusto, especially considering how many times Marian’s flashbacks and updates on Robert foreshadow his eventual arrival.
Ultimately, Superior is a slow-burn that ventures outside of the norm when it comes to the conundrum of identity, often blurring the lines between one twin and the other as the film goes on. Considering the thriller aspects of the story, the stakes are high, but the film could have used a lot more intensity with regards to escalation. Its momentum flickers and burns out from its lack of urgency, leaving much to be desired in its final act.
Superior premiered Jan. 30, 2021 at the Sundance Film Festival. For more Sundance 2021 coverage, click here.