Sundance has always been pretty gay. Whether the festival was supporting queer filmmakers to lead the indie film boom of the ’90s, ushering in the dawn of the New Queer Cinema, or unofficially partnering with OutFest to share programmers and titles, Park City has always been fertile ground in which LGBTQ cinema can thrive. This year brings fewer solely queer offerings than previous years, but the program still has plenty to look forward to.
This year’s program marks the first in Kim Yutani’s new role as director of programming. Formerly a senior programmer for the festival, Yutani began her career at OutFest, where she lived and breathed queer films in her roles as artistic director and director of programming. Yutani reports to festival director John Cooper, another out and gay power player in independent film.
When Sundance released its first round of programming, it boasted that 40 percent, or 45, of all films were directed by one or more women; 36 percent, or 40, were directed by one or more filmmaker of color, and 13 percent, or 15, by one or more people who identify as LGBTQIA.
With input from Sundance programmer Harry Vaughn and GLAAD’s Jeremy Blacklow, here are the most anticipated LGBTQ narrative features, documentaries, shorts, and episodic showcases playing Sundance 2019.
“To the Stars”
On the heels of co-directing the elder comedy “Land Ho!” with Aaron Katz, which played Sundance 2014 and won the Independent Spirit Awards’ John Cassavetes prize, filmmaker Martha Stephens returns to Sundance with a third feature all her own. (Her first two films, 2010’s “Passenger Pigeons” and 2012’s “Pilgrim Song,” premiered at SXSW). Shot in black-and-white, the film’s official description reads: “Under small-town scrutiny, a withdrawn farmer’s daughter forges an intimate friendship with a worldly but reckless new girl in 1960s Oklahoma.” Reading between the spoiler-free lines, and with confirmation from the Sundance programming team, “intimate friendship” means exactly what it sounds like. In addition to newcomers Kara Hayward and Liana Liberato, the film also stars Malin Akerman, Tony Hale, Jordana Spiro, and Shea Whigham. U.S. Dramatic Competition.
“Before You Know It”
As a one-stop-shop creative team, Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock cut their teeth on “Disengaged,” a neurotic and zany web series about two women planning their wedding. The series premiered on the now-defunct hipster content studio “SuperDeluxe” in 2015, earning fans for its cynical take on gay marriage. In the duo’s debut feature (Utt directs; she and Tullock co-write, co-star, and produce), they apply their brand of wry humor to a contemporary family drama-turned-soap opera. Utt and Tullock star as codependent sisters (one of whom is gay), whose lives are upended with the reveal of a long-kept family secret. The cast consists of queer community favorites Judith Light, Mandy Patinkin, and Alec Baldwin. Sundance regulars may recognize Utt from a bit part in “Ingrid Goes West,” a favorite from last year that could help propel this one to the top of the competition pile. U.S. Dramatic Competition.
As if making an indie film together weren’t enough to cement a bond, the director/screenwriter team Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann also happen to be married. The Columbia Film School grads make their feature debut with a few award-winning shorts under their belts, this time taking aim at evangelical christians. Set in 1926, “Sister Aimee” follows a famous woman evangelist (Anna Margaret Hollyman) who leaves the fold to take a wild road trip to the Mexican border. Loosely based on true events, the film presents a revisionist history that will no doubt resonate with timely themes. NEXT.
“Transparent” creative producer Rhys Ernst makes his feature directorial debut with an adaptation of the eponymous YA novel by Ariel Schrag, a lesbian graphic novelist with a devoted cult following. Produced by the venerable James Schamus and frequent John Cameron Mitchell collaborator Howard Gertler, “Adam” follows a virginal but horny teenage boy who spends an eye-opening summer living with his queer sister in New York City, specifically Bushwick circa 2005. Ernst winks at cinephiles with scenes shot at a pre-renovation Film Forum, dropping references to Jean-Luc Godard. The movie stars a slew of relative unknowns, including more than a few trans and gender non-conforming actors. More recognizable talent includes Margaret Qualley (“The Leftovers”) and Bobbi Salvör Menuez (“I Love Dick”). NEXT.
Perhaps one of the most politically relevant films in a festival that loves political relevance, this documentary/narrative hybrid follows a group of activist DREAMers who intentionally get detained at the border. Directed and produced by Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra, the film is powered by the main group of undocumented immigrants who risk their lives to infiltrate America’s for-profit detention system and set people free. One of the main subjects is an out gay man, and a vital member of an inspiring ensemble that will surely make waves in Park City. NEXT.
“This Is Not Berlin”
This pumped up coming-of-age drama set in 1980’s Mexico City is sure to be one of the festival’s most titillating offerings. Directed by Hari Sama, the film follows a teenage boy who doesn’t fit in with his family or suburban school friends. Everything changes when he is invited to a mythological queer nightclub, fueled by sex, drugs, and this legendary city’s underground punk scene. World Cinema Dramatic Competition.
“Where’s My Roy Cohn?”
Notorious gay supervillain Roy Cohn was immortalized by Tony Kushner in “Angels in America,” but in addition to Al Pacino’s powerhouse performance in Mike Nichols’ 2003 miniseries, James Woods and Joe Pantoliano have also taken stabs at the infamous McCarthyite. A power player in his own right, out gay filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer (“Studio 54,” “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood”), brings his version of the most loathed man in queer history to the festival. Sources say the film is exceedingly dark and compulsively watchable. U.S. Documentary Competition.
Another year, another fashion documentary. This unending cycle of eye-catching biopics churns out films that almost always center a visionary gay man (“McQueen”) or a brilliant, eccentric woman (“Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel”). Luckily, both are catnip to queer audiences. This year’s offering comes directly from one of the genre’s stalwarts, French filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng, director of “Dior and I” (2014) and co-director of the 2011 Vreeland film. Following the superstar designer from From Iowa to Studio 54, what begins as a rags-to-riches story morphs into “a cautionary tale of an artist who sold his name to Wall Street.” Documentary Premieres.
“Ask Dr. Ruth”
Per the official synopsis: “A documentary portrait chronicling the incredible life of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a Holocaust survivor who became America’s most famous sex therapist. As her 90th birthday approaches, Dr. Ruth revisits her painful past and her career at the forefront of the sexual revolution.” The film spends a good chunk of time chronicling Westheimer’s advocacy for the LGBTQ community, including being one of the first public figures to speak out — and loudly — about the AIDS epidemic. Much like Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s appearance in Park City last year, if Westheimer shows up, which she’s rumored to do, she’ll definitely be the talk of the town. Documentary Premieres.
Kyra Sedgwick makes her directorial debut with a script from “Transparent” writer/EP Ali Liebegott, starring the hilarious Amy Landecker and Broadway diva Linda Lavin. The synopsis reads: “When a queer daughter begrudgingly returns home to Las Vegas for a weekend with her estranged, homophobic sister and people-pleasing mother, her gun-toting dad lets it slip that her mom’s cancer is back with a vengeance, forcing her to decide whether or not she can be part of the dysfunction that is her family.” Indie Episodic.
“Work in Progress”
Created by and starring veteran Chicago improviser Abby McEnany, this darkly comedic web series also features the return of “Saturday Night Live” legend Julia Sweeney. “After her therapist dies mid-session and she begins dating a trans man, Abby is forced to re-evaluate her life choices, dating options, and whether or not to confront the woman responsible for ‘ruining her life.'” Indie Episodic.
Michael Urie stars in the third short film from gay filmmaker Mathew Puccini (“The Mess He Made”). Written from experience, the film follows a young guy whose Grindr assignation leads him to a fancy Brooklyn brownstone and a fling with an older couple. What starts as a casual hookup escalates into something far more intimate, as he navigates the couple’s dreamy lifestyle and complicated marriage. U.S. Narrative Short Films.