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Sundance 2019: The 14 Breakout Stars of the Festival You Need to Know

This year's batch of breakouts-in-the-making include actors, directors, and writers (and, oftentimes, permutations of all three), all of whom are poised to impact the industry for years to come.

Clockwise from top left: “Honey Boy,” “Blinded by the Light,” “Quarter Life Poetry,” “The Farewell”

Steven Soderbergh. Ava DuVernay. Ryan Coogler. Paul Thomas Anderson. Catherine Hardwicke. Cary Fukunaga. Tessa Thompson. Hugh Grant. Kiersey Clemons. Jennifer Lawrence. Michael B. Jordan. Daniel Kaluuya. “Breaking out” at the Sundance Film Festival, “making a splash” at the annual event isn’t just a cool notch on any rising star’s belt, it also has the power to propel talents to the next big level and beyond.

This year’s batch of breakouts-in-the-making include actors, directors, and writers (and, oftentimes, permutations of all three), all of whom are poised to impact the industry for years to come. From brand-new stars to big names carving out a fresh space for themselves, this year’s Sundance played home to plenty of breakouts worth getting to know right now.

Here’s who they are, and how the impact they made at Sundance will catapult them to greater heights (and soon).

Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe (directors, writers, and actors, “Greener Grass”)

The world of “Greener Grass” feels so real and so recognizable, even as it becomes more and more layered with absurdities that make it feel alien. It’s like Wes Anderson taking on a “Black Mirror” installment, or the David Lynch of “Wild at Heart” suddenly directing an episode of “Desperate Housewives.” Yet it’s all original, and it’s given to us by two ingenious comedians in their feature film directorial debut: Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe.

“Greener Grass,” in which they also star, is a largely episodic satire of life in a creepily perfect neighborhood — everyone seems to have it all and everyone is totally vapid. It’s inevitable that it will all unravel, of course. DeBoer and Luebbe, who met performing together in the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York and created a proof-of-concept short for this feature that won Best Short at SXSW in 2016, have comedic instincts sharp enough to cut diamonds — and they’ve given us a jewel. They know just how to calibrate their performances for maximum squirm, how certain beats will pay off and rebound. But their work behind the camera is every bit as precise: this picket-fence dystopia is a masterpiece of worldbuilding, a Main Street USA with such densely packed detail it’s as desirable as it is disturbing. So many comedy directors prioritize the script and performances above any consideration of, you know, what their film actually looks like. DeBoer and Luebbe show that sublime visual beauty can easily accompany belly laughs. —CB

Caleb Jaffe (director, writer, and actor, “It’s Not About Jimmy Keene”)

This 21-year-old writer, director, actor, and more plays the quietest part in his Indie Episodic pilot, “It’s Not About Jimmy Keene.” Ivan (Jaffe) is the brother caught in between two warring sisters, a dying father, and a mom who’s trying to keep the peace. In the middle of it all is the eponymous Jimmy Keene, a black teenager shot by the police which has caused the family to fall into bitter, self-inflicted diatribes. Jada (Gabrielle Maiden) is the younger sister filled with anger; she wants to protest, march, and focus on the racial separation in America. But Aliza (Okwui Okpokwasili), the wealthy older sister, thinks these issues go beyond race, into “resource allocation and geography”; she insists anyone would slit anyone’s throat if they came between each other’s needs. Ivan is trying to sort both positions, as well as his feelings of general loss to the dissolving family around him.

Jaffe is a dry, engaging performer, moving through scenes with casual precision. But it’s his eye and ear that set him apart. He manages all these ideas quite well, exacting natural escalation and arguments without dissolving into a political lesson, and his directorial choices aren’t above intriguing, enigmatic symbolism and rich, lengthy one-shots. Young and full of big, booming ideas, watching Jaffe channel his thoughts into more and more pointed projects should be a rewarding pleasure. —BT

Samantha Jayne (writer and actor, “Quarter Life Poetry”)

"Quarter Life Poetry" Samantha Jayne

Samantha Jayne in “Quarter Life Poetry”

Anonymous Content / Sundance 2019

Already a published author and Instagram star (or at least prominent creator with 125k+ followers), Jayne’s Sundance debut feels like the next step in what’s been a brimming breakout. Her project (along with director Arturo Perez Jr.) is “Quarter Life Poetry,” a series of vignettes encapsulating what it’s like to be “young, broke, and hangry.” Her videos range in length and content; one might span 10 minutes and cover a reluctant Friday night out through fast and furious rapping; another might be a quick mishmash of coworkers ignorantly exemplifying the figure of speech, “a camel is a horse made by committee.” Still others focus on awkward office bathroom etiquette, frustrating yoga exercises, or other common internal frustrations given a grand voice by Jayne’s writing and performance. Though each specific talent (especially her linguistic skills) deserve their own isolated consideration, it’s the array of intelligent creativity that makes Jayne a stand-out. Fans will be able to see for themselves when an iteration of efforts heads to FX later this year. —BT

Rashid Johnson (director, “Native Son”)

Conceptual artist Rashid Johnson, collaborating with playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, returned to his native Chicago to shoot his stylish, jazzy update of the Richard Wright classic “Native Son,” drawing vivid performances from two Barry Jenkins discoveries, Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”) and Kiki Layne (“If Beale Street Could Talk”). Johnson has an eye for how to frame and move and when to slow down for a telling detail or close-up. This Chicago is off-kilter, not set in a specific time, with a questing character at the center who is heading for disaster. HBO bought the film from A24 — between them they will make an event out of this gifted film debut. —AT

Noah Jupe (actor, “Honey Boy”)

“Honey Boy”

It’s only one of the best pre-teen performances in recent memory. Anchoring Shia LaBeouf’s therapeutic dive into the source of his PTSD is the boy (Jupe) he use to be when he was a child actor paying his wayward father (LaBeouf himself) to be his chaperone. In LaBeouf’s and director Alma Har’el’s film about swirling emotions and toxic masculinity, the spiritual anchor becomes Jupe. It’s remarkable, layered performance, as Jupe captures the talent, loneliness, and spirit of a young soul grasping for something solid while the ground beneath him is anything but stable. —CO

Mindy Kaling (writer and actor, “Late Night”)

Yes, of course you know Mindy Kaling, one of television’s most reliably funny and whipsmart creators and stars, but what her feature screenwriting debut and first bonafide big screen starring role proves is that all of her talents very much translate to a bigger pool. The Nisha Ganatra-directed comedy made a big splash during the first weekend of the festival, when Amazon snapped it up for a cool $13M. And it’s easy to see why, because the Kaling-written, -produced, and -starring comedy is the kind of endearing and witty feature that, well, they don’t really make too much of anymore.

Engineered with an eye towards current culture — Kaling plays a fresh-faced comedian who lands a job at Emma Thompson’s late night show, which boasts a boring writers room entirely populated by white dudes — but outfitted with all the beats and delights of a classic comedy, “Late Night” is the kind of film that has both heart and humor. Sure, that sounds cheesy and cliche, but the great stuff of the film is that it transcends those tropes, resulting in a winning final product that hinges on Kaling’s comedic timing both on the page and the screen. Sorry, television, we’re taking your gal. —KE

Viveik Kalra (actor, “Blinded by the Light”)

“Blinded by the Light”

Gurinder Chadha’s fact-based feel-good feature is all heart (and just a lot of very good Bruce Springsteen jams), but it only really works if the audience is willing to give their own hearts over to the vibrant star-in-the-making carrying the story. British actor Kalra had just one other credit under his belt before the crowdpleaser electrified the festival during its first weekend, but that didn’t stop audiences from falling for his charming, totally relatable performance.

As the slightly nerdy Javed, Kalra is instantly recognizable as our protagonist, but he still earns every scene, as the ambitious British-Pakistani teen finds his way (hint: the answer is The Boss) during the waning days of the Thatcher administration, butting heads with his dad, striking out with his schoolmates, and dreaming of so much more. Aided by a mild-wide smile and leading man appeal, Kalra makes every note of the film sing, a runaway hit led by a runaway star. —KE

Alejandro Landes (director, “Monos”)

Meet your newest international auteur whose next stop will likely be Cannes regular. Regardless if this child soldier tale — think “Lord of the Flies” meets Colombian Civil War — is your thing, “Monos” demonstrates a seemingly boundless cinematic talent. A film that is in constant motion, but also invention. Landes isn’t following any rules of filmmaking here, but is completely in control while driving 200 mph, bringing a masterful sound design and another incredible Mica Levi score along for the ride. And yet, this isn’t simply cinematic exuberance, but at the service of story that is an urgent cry for sanity in the midst of country unable to break its cycle of violence. —CO

Abby McEnany (writer and actor, “Work in Progress”)

Anxious, insecure, yet wonderfully outspoken when cornered, Abby McEnany kills all woeful Woody Allen comparisons early in her Sundance pilot, “Work In Progress,” by literally killing her therapist. OK, her autobiographical character didn’t wield the knife or anything, but McEnany very well may have bored her to death — a risk utterly inconceivable for anyone enjoying the Chicago improv all-star’s performed work. McEnany is sharp, self-deprecating, and endearingly natural onscreen. She brings astute comic timing to every scene, often filling her interaction with an extra dose of personality and charm. Her character may be feeling lonely and worthless, but McEnany’s immense appeal comes across instantly. It’s a good thing we should hear more from her soon, as Lilly Wachowski develops her pilot for television. —BT

Ashton Sanders (actor, “Native Son”)

“Native Son”

Courtesy of Sundance

Buried in the middle section of “Moonlight,” Sanders anchors the film update of the classic novel “Native Son,” the tragic story of a young Chicago man seeking his place in the world, eager for new experiences and insights. Lean and graceful, Sanders plays green-haired Bigger Thomas as a sensitively tuned live-wire who doesn’t always make the best decisions, as his hair stylist girlfriend (Kiki Layne) suspects. When Bigger starts driving the boss’ rebellious and flirtatious daughter (Mary Qualley) to parties, he’s attracted, but keeps his distance — until things get complicated. A contained actor with narrow eyes, Sanders draws us inside his head, no matter how much we want to pull away. —AT

Honor Swinton Byrne (actor, “The Souvenir”)

The offspring of successful actors sometimes struggle to escape charges of nepotism, but Honor Swinton Byrne’s mesmerizing turn in “The Souvenir” is so good that nobody can reasonably accuse her of riding mother Tilda’s coattails. British director Joanna Hogg’s poetic autobiographical look at her own youth, as a film student in a troubled relationship with a drug addict, gives Swinton Byrne plenty of room to convey the intelligence and sensitivity of a young woman waking up to the world. Hogg’s quiet, subtle approach is a natural fit for the actress’ understated talents, as she propels this delicate character study. Positioned as the first of a two-part narrative, “The Souvenir” is an exciting launch pad for a terrific performer who doesn’t need the context of her famous relative to make it clear that belongs on the screen. —EK

Joe Talbot (director and writer, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”)

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

A24

The myth of the Sundance breakout often comes down to the Eccles premiere, where competition films screen can become overnight sensations on the basis of one audience’s enthusiastic response. This year, that distinction fell to “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” in large part because Talbot has assembled an operatic experience readymade for the big screen, even though the story he’s telling is intimate. Talbot’s swooning look at the plight of Jimmie (Jimmie Fails), who moves into his grandfather’s old home in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, manages to operate as a euphoric love letter to the city’s complicated history and a wistful assessment of gentrification. Talbot’s audiovisual sophistication makes this busy, tonally daring movie into a delicious sensory overload from start to finish, one rich with unexpected twists, including the exciting uncertainty of where his career will go next. —EK

Lulu Wang (director and writer, “The Farewell”)

“The Farewell” is Lulu Wang’s very personal immigrant tale about feeling stuck between two worlds and never feeling like she quite belongs to either. Wang’s talents, though, would appear to run much deeper than her well-written autobiographical script. Her voice is expressed with the camera — a sense of rhythm and humor that shines through in her unique compositions and pacing that demonstrates the potential of an auteur that is more than capable of transcending her engaging Sundance debut. —CO

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