Laura Nix’s feel-good documentary introduces audiences to a batch of bright-eyed, bright-brained young academics, a group of high school scientists in the world who are prepping their projects for the prestigious Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). Want proof that the world is still breeding big brains? Leave it to the ever-productive and always-working Nix and her first feature since “The Yes Man Are Revolting.”
“What They Had”
First-time filmmaker Elizabeth Chomko has been hammering away at her debut feature for years, first taking her script for “What They Had” to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2014, later picking up a Nicholl Fellowship the following year. Appropriately enough, the film will premiere at Sundance next month, bringing things full circle for the filmmaker’s passion project, before opening in March via Bleecker Street. Starring Hilary Swank and Blythe Danner, the film follows a family who are forced to deal with the heartbreaking aftermath of an Alzheimer’s-inflicted event that threatens the tenuous bonds between the entire clan. It sounds like one hell of a showcase for both actresses, with the added bonus of supporting stars that include Michael Shannon, Robert Forster, and Taissa Farmiga.
You can’t fake “The Rider.” Chloe Zhao’s lyrical docudrama blends fact and fiction into an intimate portrait of American masculinity at large and a solitary cowboy trying to find his way back to the only life he’s known. Utilizing a cast of non-actors — most of whom are tasked with playing versions of themselves, in a story pulled from their lives — Zhao’s film derives its power from the truth that both drives it and inspires it, and the final result is a wholly unique slice-of-life drama. Zhao first made waves with her 2015 feature debut “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” a festival favorite set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota that tracked the bond between a pair of Lakota siblings. It’s also where she discovered young rodeo cowboy Brady Jandreau, who makes his debut in “The Rider” as an on-screen version of himself in the worst period of his own life.
Kimberly Reed’s documentary tracks so-called “dark money” contributions which can help tip elections using decidedly shady tactics. Reed’s film has some hope to it, however — even politics can be righted, even these days — and zeroes in on Montana as an example of how anonymous money can be kept out of elections, as the state dared to ban the same contributions that the federal government has allowed to thrive.
Sandi Tan’s documentary in the World Cinema competition section stands a good chance at being one of this year’s major non-fiction discoveries. The movie stretches back to 1992, when the teen filmmaker and her friends shot a road movie in Singapore with the help of an American mentor who later disappeared with the footage. Tan hits the road 20 years later to unravel the mystery of this unexpected thievery and finds that there was much more to the story than she imagined. As much as Sundance often supports strong observational and issue-driven filmmaking, it always makes room for these more personal, unpredictable projects, and the peculiar events at the center of “Shirkers” are likely to drum up plenty of conversation in Park City and beyond. –Eric Kohn
“I Think We’re Alone Now”
Before Reed Morano was named the Emmy Award-winning director of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” she impressed the festival circuit with her feature directorial debut “Meadowland.” The drama premiered at Tribeca, which makes Morano’s latest, “I Think We’re Alone Now,” a more-than-overdue Sundance debut. The drama stars Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning as two people who discover they’re the only humans left in the country and maybe even the world. Morano’s camera has such a piercing subjectivity to it that we can’t wait to see what she’s able to do with the dystopian genre. With a Sundance breakout waiting in the wings and a Blake Lively-starring action drama now filming, Morano is hitting the big leagues like never before. -Zack Sharf
It’s been a decade since writer-director Tamara Jenkins (“Slums of Beverly Hills”) scored an Oscar nomination for her poignant and hilarious screenplay for “The Savages.” She’s back with Netflix’s “Private Life,” about a woman (Kathryn Hahn) trying so many fertility therapies to get pregnant that her husband (Paul Giamatti) is suffering. That’s when dropout Sadie (Kayli Carter) comes into the picture with another option. Produced by Anthony Bregman (“Foxcatcher”) and Stefanie Azpiazu (“Enough Said”), the movie also stars Molly Shannon, John Carroll Lynch, Emily Robinson, and Francesca Root-Dodson. -Anne Thompson
Experimental filmmaker Josephine Decker has garnered a devoted cult following for sleeper festival hits “Butter on the Latch” and “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely.” Lyrical, erotic, and urgent, Decker’s inventive style caused The New Yorker’s Richard Brody to compare her to Terence Malick and Wes Anderson (in one breath — no less). Decker’s first film to play Sundance follows a teenage girl in an experimental theatre troupe that pushes her to blur the lines between performance and reality in disturbing ways. Starring Miranda July as the girl’s mother and Molly Parker as an ambitious theatre director, “Madeline’s Madeline” promises a wholly original woman-fronted film that intrigues and delights. –Jude Dry
“Never Goin’ Back”
Buzz is that this one is a scrappy film that has the potential to inject the festival with a jolt of energy. After 16-year-olds Angela (Maia Mitchell) and Jessie (Cami Morrone) lose their job at the local pancake house and, in an attempt to get rent money and avoid eviction, they embark on a day of adventure that includes “dudes, drugs, booze and an ill-advised heist.” Based on the director’s semi-autobiographical script about her teenage years in Garland, Texas, writer/director Augustine Frizzell is looking to flip the script on the “troubled teen” genre and show what rarely gets seen on screen – kids from lower socioeconomic families doing crazy, ridiculous, and stupid things just like in every other teen movie about kids from the suburbs. –Chris O’Falt
“Leave No Trace”
The new film from director Debra Granik, which means two things — it’ll likely be very good and somewhat unexpected — follows her 2010 Sundance breakout and Oscar-nominated “Winter’s Bone,” in which she surprised everyone, and her 2014 documentary “Stray Dog,” a soulful portrait of a motorcycle-riding Vietnam veteran. Both films, like her debut “Down to the Bone,” brought audiences into the worlds of characters we don’t see on the big screen, and “Leave No Trace” promises to be much the same. The story of a father (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) who happily live off-the-grid on the edge of Portland, Oregon, until their cover is blown and they are forced to journey into the wilderness. The last time Granik found a teenage actress to anchor her film it was Jennifer Lawrence, and early word is that New Zealand-born McKenzie could be yet another breakout. -CO
Special Shorts Bonus: “End of the Line”
Refinery29’s Shatterbox Anthology will be back at the festival to debut the first title of its upcoming season: Jessica Sanders’ “End of the Line.” Billed as “a short film about a lonely man who goes to the pet store and buys a tiny man in a cage,” the short boasts high quality visual effects and a cast that includes Simon Helberg and Brett Gelman. When the outlet launched their groundbreaking series in August of 2016, it was anchored by a forward-thinking concept: to “create short films that redefine identity, imagination, and storytelling through the female lens.” So far, they’ve made a dozen films with a dozen female directors. Sanders joins a sterling lineup of Shatterbox directors, including Kristen Stewart, Gabourey Sidibe, Pamela Romanowsky, and Meera Menon.