Royalty Hightower, "The Fits"
Anna Rose Holmer’s "The Fits," which premiered last fall at the Venice Film Festival, cuts close to the bone. The dramatic feature, set to screen as part of Sundance’s forward-thinking NEXT section, transports its viewers into a close, cloistered world seemingly only populated by the young. Hightower stars in the film as Toni, a young boxer who spends her free time practicing her moves with her brother at a local community center. As Toni starts to come of age, her allegiances steadily shift to the center’s other occupants, a dance team known as The Lionesses. Toni’s introduction into the intoxicating world of female competition is marred by a series of inexplicable "fits" that start steadily striking down the Lionesses at large. "The Fits" is unabashedly Toni’s story, and Hightower carries the emotionally fraught plot with absolute ease, turning in a natural performance that will make viewers forget they’re watching anything less than real life.
Markees Christmas, "Morris From America"
The young star of Chad Hartigan’s "Morris From America" hasn’t even graduated high school yet (he’s actually still in the tenth grade), but here he is starring in one of Sundance’s most anticipated competition titles. As the eponymous Morris, Christmas stars as a real fish out of water, an American kid forced to restart his life in Germany when his family relocates half a world away. A coming of age tale with a big, cross-continental twist, the film will likely hinge on what Christmas can bring to the table in terms of talent and screen presence. That Hartigan picked the relative newbie to lead the film is a serious sign of confidence that shouldn’t be ignored.
Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri, "Little Men"
Another Sundance mainstay who has chosen to skew a bit younger with his newest film, Ira Sachs’ "Little Men" is poised to feature two breakout performances from its eponymous junior-sized males. The film revolves around the blossoming friendship between Jake (Taplitz) and Tony (Barbieri) that kicks up when Jake moves into a new neighborhood. Their quick bond is tested, however, thanks to business disputes between their parents. Will their friendship survive? Will the duo break out? Sit tight.
Jacob Latimore, "Sleight"
Latimore has appeared in a handful of big budget films, from "The Maze Runner" to "Ride Along," but J.D. Dillard’s NEXT entry provides him with his first true starring role. As street magician Bo, Latimore has to use uncanny skills to charm his way through life, but when he runs into trouble with his drug dealer while attempting to care for his family, things could go topside very quickly. The film sounds like a wily blend of humor and drama, and if Latimore can make the role his own, he might be able to magic his way into being a true Sundance breakout.
Sky Elobar, "The Greasy Strangler"
One of the most curious titles on the always-intriguing Midnight section is Jim Hosking’s "The Greasy Strangler," which pits a father and son (Elobar) against each other in a fight for one woman’s affection, set against the backdrop of a walking disco tour that may be threatened by — and we’re just parsing scant information here — a particularly sticky murderer. Elobar has previously popped up in a variety of comedy outings, from "Don Verdean" to "New Girl" and even "Conan," but "The Greasy Strangler" looks to finally offer him the opportunity to show off his comedic chops in an unexpected environment.
Julian Dennison, "Hunt for the Wilderpeople"
Taika Waititi’s last feature before diving into the madness that is the Marvel director pool centers on a snappy city kid (Dennison) who finds himself lost in the New Zealand bush with his cranky foster uncle, a trip that almost certainly must result in all kinds of wacky hijinks, as it eventually leads to a national manhunt. Billed as an "adventure comedy," the Premieres title will rest on the chemistry and comedy that sparks between Dennison (in only his third role ever) and his uncle, played by beloved acting vet Sam Neill.
Morgan Saylor, "White Girl"
Saylor has already been to Sundance with another drama about the unexpected traumas and dramas of young adulthood (Carter Smith’s "Jamie Marks is Dead," which debuted in 2014), but Elizabeth Wood’s new feature gives her a chance to make her own mark on the festival scene. In the sultry New York summer, Saylor’s Leah falls for a new dude who just may not be the best thing for an ambitious college student trying to make her way in the big city. Caught up in passion, lust and drugs, "White Girl" should provide Saylor with more than enough room to show off her leading lady abilities in a high-intensity setting.
Lilith Stangenberg, "Wild"
Nicolette Krebitz’s World Cinema pick offers up an intriguing synopsis, as "Wild" is being officially described as chronicling "an anarchist young woman who breaks the tacit contract with civilization and fearlessly decides on a life without hypocrisy or an obligatory safety net." It’s a compelling enough pollen that’s only been bolstered by a handful of stills showing Stangenberg’s character…hanging out with a wolf? (Or maybe going a bit further than that.) With a truly wild idea behind it and skeleton cast, "Wild" sounds like it’s built to showcase its main (human) star; the German actress, who has been steadily working over the past few years, looks hungry to break out with a bold feature and an even more daring part.
Lou de Laâge, "Agnus Dei"
If there was any justice in this world, de Laâge would have been a household name after her turn in Melanie Laurent’s stunning "Breathe," where she played a daring new girl with a big secret who consumes and nearly devours her devoted new best pal (Josephine Japy, also one to watch). But maybe she was always meant to make her stand at Sundance. In Anne Fontaine’s Premiere title "Agnus Dei," de Laâge plays a young Red Cross intern during World War II who is unexpectedly caught up in the drama of a nearby convent, where a number of the nuns are quite unexpectedly pregnant. Early synopses call out de Laâge’s Mathilde as the true "savior" of the terrified women, and the film sounds like a powerful female-centric outing that could give audiences their own new heroine to cheer for.
Andre Hyland, "The 4th"
A fixture on both the comedy and graffiti scenes, multi-hyphenate Hyland has appeared in and made a number of shorts and television series, but "The 4th" gives him a number of opportunities to stand out. Hyland is not only starring in the film — a fun-sounding feature about an ill-fated Fourth of July barbecue — but he also wrote and directed it. The NEXT title might just be the perfect way to combat lingering blues from heavier Sundance films, and if ends up as being as fresh and frisky as it sounds on paper, Hyland is going to have a lot to look forward to (maybe even a celebratory cookout).