With just over 70 features, this year’s Sundance Film Festival was smaller than usual, but not any quieter. While Park City was dormant as most audiences viewed the lineup online, the movies drove plenty of buzz. Few titles entered the festival with distribution, and studios begged off the usual tendency to use the festival as a marketing launch pad. Instead, Sundance retained one crucial aspect of its DNA above all: The breakouts.
Ever since it came to prominence more than 30 years ago, Sundance has been a platform for discovering new talent, from distinctive filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Ryan Coogler to acting discoveries like Parker Posey and Tessa Thompson. This time around, there were no shortage of discoveries, in addition to established talents moving into exciting new career phases. Here are the highlights.
Christian Blauvelt, Jude Dry, David Ehrlich, Kate Erbland, and Tambay Obenson contributed to this article.
Jerrod Carmichael and Rebecca Hall Are Real Filmmakers Now
People tend to sharpen their knives whenever successful actors step behind the camera for the first time — how dare rich and famous artists leverage their clout to make personal works of art! – but few premieres at this year’s Sundance cut deeper than the directorial debuts from “Christine” star Rebecca Hall and comedian Jerrod Carmichael. Already poised to have a big 2021 thanks to her starring role in last year’s Sundance breakout “The Night House,” Hall wowed virtual crowds with her bold and remarkably confident adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 puzzle-box novel “Passing,” which stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as mixed-race childhood friends who reach across opposite sides of the color divide to reconnect during one unseasonably warm Harlem fall. Unpacking her elliptical source material into a beguiling look at the spaces between identities, Hall reflects on her “complicated inheritance” in a debut that evokes the early work of Todd Haynes and melodramas of Max Ophüls in the service of something that feels entirely her own.
Carmichael, meanwhile, channels the fearlessness of his standup comedy into a buddy comedy that doesn’t dare to “go there” so much as it dares to start there. Co-starring with Christopher Abbott as two desperate friends who make a pact to kill themselves after one last day together, “On the Count of Three” manages to make a sweet, dangerous, and hilariously off-the-rails movie that somehow manages to have fun with subjects like suicide and depression without ever feeling the least bit glib about them. It’s a tonal juggling act that few have the courage to try, and even fewer the talent to pull off. As with Hall’s, it’s the kind of talent that would be infuriating to think about if it weren’t so easy to enjoy. —DE
Patti Harrison Proves Trans Actors Can Do It All
“Together Together” features an impressive cast of comedic talent, from Ed Helms to Tig Notaro to Julia Torres, but by far the most exciting turn is alt-comedy darling Patti Harrison in her first leading film role. As a recurring presence on TV shows like “Shrill” and “Search Party” and a writer for “Big Mouth,” Harrison’s stand-up is marked by a droll deadpan that borders on antagonistic. That signature “over it” ennui is on full display in “Together Together,” an unconventional friendship rom-com about a pregnancy surrogate’s (Harrison) unlikely friendship with the single straight guy (Helms) whose baby she is carrying. As she runs circles around Helms’ amiable dad-to-be, Harrison’s blasé sensibility is rebranded as a subdued ambivalence that works for the character’s arrested emotional development.
The fact that Harrison is trans is completely irrelevant to the movie, but it is an exciting bellwether for the state of inclusive casting. The obvious next step towards more inclusive casting is trans actors playing cis roles, and the premise leaves no room for doubt that Harrison is playing a cisgender character. As she huffs and puffs her way through a long and punishing birth scene, it’s impossible not to think of the small miracle occurring onscreen. —JD
Jessica Beshir Brings Ethiopia to Sundance
Jessica Beshir’s hypnotic Ethiopian documentary “Faya Dayi” provides a take on the African migrant crisis unlike most films on the subject made before it. Its characters seem to be in a state of constant flux — either dreaming of leaving, or returning from long trips abroad. There are recurring images of birds, both in flight and stationary, representative of the dreams of escape primarily among the youth, as well as their indecision over whether to leave or stay. There are a dozen tropes for films about Africans longing for better lives overseas that Beshir could have leaned on, but the blending of her film’s listlessness, making life seem almost like a bleak montage, its stunning black-and-white photography, and a haunting score borders on science fiction, renders it oddly mesmeric.
The movie focuses on the various processing stops of khat — the stimulant leaf that has become a daily chewing ritual among Ethiopians as a means to achieve Merkhana — a term that describes the high one gets from what is effectively a psychoactive drug not all that different from cannabis. As the harvested leaf is moved by truck on its way to sale, through the highlands of Harar, it gives Beshir a reason to capture the bewitching topography of the labyrinthine walled city, via mostly compelling vignettes that highlight the experiences of people involved in both the business and consumption of the cash crop that inhabits so much of their lives.
“Faya Dayi” is Mexican-Ethiopian Beshir’s feature directorial debut. Much of her previous short film work comprises of portraits of Harar, where she grew up. It’s a region of the world that rarely, if ever, receives recognition in western media — and certainly has never been depicted with this kind of majestic flair. The novelty of it all, as well as her evident skill, could be enough to make “Faya Dayi” a calling card for Beshir, who received her B.A in film studies and literature from UCLA. —TO
Emilia Jones Goes From Unknown to Awards Candidate
A not-entirely-complete list of things “CODA” star Emilia Jones had to do to prepare to star in Sian Heder’s crowd-pleasing winner: kick her British accent, polish up her singing chops, learn American Sign Language. All of that would be impressive enough, but the real trick is how the rising star used all of those elements to bolster a performance that’s captivating on its own. The entire film is anchored by Jones’ turn as teenage malcontent Ruby Rossi, and “CODA” takes its title from Ruby’s lot in life, as the child of deaf adults, her vibrant parents Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and Frank (Troy Kotsur). In fact, Ruby is the only hearing person in her household — her older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) is also deaf — and she’s long served as the Rossis’ hearing proxy to the world.
Heder’s film proved to be an instant smash hit at the festival, pulling in serious acclaim and selling to Apple for a record-breaking $25 million. That kind of big money signals that the streamer is going to be positioning Heder’s charmer for equally big awards, and Jones — previously best known for her turn in Netflix’s “Locke & Key” — will likely be any campaign’s centerpiece. There’s no question she deserves to be, care of a formidable performance that offers both craft and emotion in equal measure, something the young star makes look easy, even when we all know how much work had to go into it. —KE
Clifton Collins Jr. Finally Gets the Spotlight
Clifton Collins Jr. has been doing reliably great work for years. Best known as Lawrence/El Lazo on “Westworld,” he’s also popped up in supporting roles in movies like “Star Trek” (2009), “The Mule,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Honey Boy,” and “Waves.” With his deeply set eyes, he’s someone who looks like he can gaze right into you. Those eyes are asked to do a lot of work as Jackson, a horse racing vet who’s nearing the end of his career in Clint Bentley’s “Jockey.” Like many riders, Jackson is terse. Not one for drama, he’s not up for talking much — certainly not about his potentially career-ending injuries (he’s broken his back three times) nor about the young jockey (Moisés Arias) who claims to be his son. As understated a performance as you’ll see for a title character this year at Sundance, Collins’ turn as Jackson is a leading man role given the quiet power only the most skillful character actor could pull off.
Courtesy Sundance Film Festival
Collins’ grandfather, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, was also a character actor, one who appeared opposite John Wayne several times, such as when he played the cantina proprietor in “Rio Bravo.” Many of his parts in the ‘50s and ‘60s were underwritten stereotypes, but Gonzalez always managed to find humanity in his roles, even if it wasn’t there on the page. His grandson, Collins, shows a similar ability, though he’s supported by an exceptionally detailed, humane script by Bentley and Greg Kwedar. Many of his best moments are when he’s saying nothing at all. Getting inside this character’s head the way he does suggests even bigger and better things for Collins ahead. —CB
Fine Artists Make Fine Filmmakers
Filmmakers often juggle careers in mixed media, but two directors making their debuts this year have made especially successful transitions from fine art to first features. In Amalia Ulman’s black-and-white comedy “El Planeta,” the artist stars alongside her real-life mother in the charming story of Spanish mother-daughter grifters attempting to evade eviction. Ulman’s previous gallery work, such as “Excellences & Perfections” and “Privilege,” interrogate the relationship between personal desire and material objects. She does that here, too, in a playful and absorbing story of post-crisis Spain that keeps you guessing until the end. With UTA pitching Ulman around the virtual festival, she’s well-positioned to bring her sensibilities to a wider audience.
The same goes for Pascual Sisto, whose debut “John and the Hole” was one of the more talked-about titles in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Sisto’s mixed-media work “reimagine the mundane as captivating alternative realities,” and “John and the Hole” certainly does that in timely fashion: The eerie thriller finds a disturbed young boy (Charlie Shotwell) trapping his family in a shelter near their affluent home and attempting to experience the adult world on his own terms. The slow-burn drama uses a child’s view of the world to redefine its palatial setting, raising fascinating questions about the alienating effects of luxury in the modern world. Though the movie’s unnerving style isn’t for all tastes, it undeniably catapults Sisto into the ranks of audacious filmmakers angling to provoke strong reactions from their audiences. While both directors may continue to work in other media, their Sundance debuts suggest they’re poised to remain a part of the film world in the years to come. —EK
Fran Kranz Finds Life After “Cabin in the Woods”
Fran Kranz has been acting for 21 years, starting with brief appearances in “Donnie Darko” and “Training Day” and breaking through with a string of Joss Whedon collaborations, including “The Cabin the Woods,” “Dollhouse,” and “Much Ado About Nothing.” It was Kranz’s performance as the stoner Marty in “Cabin in the Woods” that put him on the map for many moviegoers, but the actor never had as buzzy of a role in the decade that followed. Fortunately for him, Sundance 2021 marked a redefinition for his career as he delivered one of the festival’s breakout dramas from behind the camera. “Mass” is Kranz’s feature directorial debut and showcases four knockout performances from Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney as parents who come face to face with the shooter who killed their children. Whether or not Kranz returns to acting remains to be seen, but with “Mass” he has set up a promising future for himself as feature filmmaker.
IndieWire senior film critic David Ehrlich called “Mass” an “absorbingly honest and intimate” drama in his review, noting “the careful balance that Kranz strikes between the movie’s four lead performances reflects a natural confidence behind the camera.” The review continues: “A single-location drama about four people sitting in a sterile church anteroom and discussing — at length, and in real-time — the unequally shared tragedy that split their lives down the middle, ‘Mass’ is so anti-cinematic at every turn that it almost comes as a surprise that it wasn’t adapted from a play or shot during COVID. And yet, at no point does this sobering and worthwhile feature debut from actor Kranz feel like it shouldn’t have been a movie, or that it could’ve been anything else.” —ZS
Questlove Adopts a New Skill
Questlove has always been a skillful mixmaster, and in “Summer of Soul (…or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” he has masterminded what is, in effect, a perceptive and joyous remix of the concert film. Given his background as a musician and music historian, he may have been the best person to direct the film, which introduces audiences to forgotten “Black Woodstock” — a landmark 1969 Harlem concert series with dazzling performances from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, the Staples Singers, 5th Dimension, and mny more. Like much of the world, he had never heard of the event until he was shown footage a couple of years ago. That was the beginning of what would become of the time-capsule that is “Summer of Soul.” And as he worked on the film through the pandemic and the racial reckoning that followed the death of George Floyd, the scope of “Summer of Soul” expanded.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
It’s not a stretch to say that, if the cataclysmic protests of 2020 not happened, the film would resonate differently. Questlove understands this all too well, as evident in his approach to the film. His most valiant decision was to position nearly every act as an exploration of the Black musical experience. He digs into history to reveal something important about each musician or group, fluidly editing relevant anecdotes into their stage performances. But, best of all, his knowledge of, as well as love and respect for the musicians and the music is palpable, and he goes out of his way to ensure that the heartbeat of it all is never lost. Questlove’s talent at the drums was already well-established; with this year’s Sundance, his documentary bonafides are, too. —TO