The Most Exciting Films at Sundance Were Made by Women

The festival’s showcase of movies by Janicza Bravo, Eliza Hittman, Kirsten Johnson, and others could be a sign of positive change in an industry struggling to diversify.

Promising Young Woman is one of the Sundance festival's biggest and boldest conversation pieces. (Focus Features)

A few days into my movie-crammed expedition to the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, I had an idle thought that I realized was a surprising one: I had yet to watch a film directed by a man. That’s the result of careful and inclusive programming efforts from America’s premier independent-film festival, which has been a crucial launchpad for many filmmakers and stars over the decades. It also could be a hopeful sign of change for an industry figuring out the best ways to tell new stories and broaden the range of people who get to tell them. Many of this year’s outstanding works deal with exactly these topics: the process of crafting personal narratives, and the idea of female agency in an often patriarchal society. Here are some of the most exciting examples.

Fittingly for an adaptation of a Twitter thread, Janicza Bravo’s Zola is a film about subjectivity, about witnessing and relating events that seem too outlandish to be true. In wrangling Aziah “Zola” King’s viral account of her 2015 road trip to Tampa with a fellow stripper and her unsavory companions, Bravo puts the viewer in a uniquely online headspace, constantly interrupted by the dings and whistles of phone notifications. The heroine, Zola (played by an arresting Taylour Paige), remains firmly at the center of the story, even as she’s sucked into the troubled orbit of Stefani (Riley Keough), her goofy boyfriend Derrek (a fantastic Nicholas Braun), and the mysterious “X” (Colman Domingo). The tale spins in wild directions as Bravo and her co-scripter Jeremy O. Harris blend the mundane and the ludicrous, but Paige’s steely confidence keeps the whole affair on track.

A very different road-trip film is Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which follows 17-year-old Autumn (the newcomer Sidney Flanigan) as she journeys from central Pennsylvania to New York City to abort an unexpected pregnancy. It’s a stark and forceful tale with a deliberately everyday quality—a career-best effort from the director Eliza Hittman, whose prior film Beach Rats also thrived on naturalistic dialogue and specific local detail. The obstacles that Autumn must overcome to get a safe, legal, and private abortion are punishing, but they’re also sadly mundane: hours spent roaming the Port Authority Bus Terminal in search of cheap food, or riding the subway overnight to avoid paying for a place to stay. The film’s electrifying centerpiece is a questionnaire about Autumn’s pregnancy that offers the multiple-choice options “never,” “rarely,” “sometimes,” or “always.” Flanigan’s extraordinary acting in this scene makes Autumn not merely a symbol, but a fully realized character.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Focus Features)

Questions of control over one’s body or one’s persona are a constant among many of these women-led works. That theme applies rather wittily to The Nowhere Inn, a mockumentary about the musician St. Vincent, a.k.a. Annie Clark, directed by Bill Benz (I did eventually make it to a few films by men). The script, which Clark wrote with the musician and comedian Carrie Brownstein, follows Brownstein as she tries to make a concert movie about St. Vincent. Both stars play themselves—or do they? Clark, who is funny, disarmingly natural, and quite an intimidating screen presence when she wants to be, playfully leans in to or inverts every trope of the mysterious, egotistical rock idol. The film has just as much fun with the way truths get distorted when a camera is brought backstage.

All of that makes The Nowhere Inn an unintentionally apt pairing with Taylor Swift: Miss Americana, Lana Wilson’s actual behind-the-curtain peek at one of the pop world’s biggest names. The film probably won’t change any perceptions of Swift; her fans should gobble it up when it comes to Netflix on January 31, while her detractors will likely remain unconvinced. Still, Wilson (the director of the searing abortion documentary After Tiller) does surface a few revealing moments. Footage of Swift’s spontaneous and inventive musical process in the recording booth is charming; far more interesting, however, is her own acknowledgement of the isolation she’s felt as she has struggled to please her critics, and the sense of freedom she found in announcing her political beliefs. Like any artist-approved documentary, the movie can’t escape a manicured quality, but there’s still some thrill to watching Swift mold—and change—her public image.

Miss Americana (Netflix)

An even more personal, sometimes wrenching documentary is Kirsten Johnson’s wonderful Dick Johnson Is Dead, also bound for Netflix. Johnson is a longtime documentarian whose previous film, Cameraperson, was a bold collage of visual memories she had collected while shooting footage for other movies. Dick Johnson Is Dead delves into Johnson’s own family life to focus on her boisterous and caring father, who is beginning to struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. With her father’s full participation, Johnson essentially creates a eulogy for a man who is still alive, staging broad, jokey “deaths” for him to act out, while also talking through his experiences and his bond with his children. Johnson is talented enough to avoid any exploitative pitfalls, making the film a truly successful tribute that should linger on the shortlist for 2020’s documentary awards.

One of the year’s biggest and boldest conversation pieces will be Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, a bleakly funny thriller that constantly stays ahead of its audience’s expectations. It stars an incredible Carey Mulligan as Cassandra Thomas, a barista haunted by past trauma who posts up at bars and pretends to be drunk so as to lure men into trying to take advantage of her before she exacts her revenge. Just what is that revenge, and just what is driving this frightening mission? Fennell lets that information leak out in ways both funny and alarming, deftly jolting the viewer’s sympathies every time they might have settled. The film straddles the line between clever and glib, but mostly falls on the former—though its surprising ending will likely be a matter of hot debate.

Any discussion of female auteurship at Sundance this year would not be complete without Shirley, Josephine Decker’s inventive pseudo-biography of the author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss). Decker’s previous film, Madeline’s Madeline, was a daring exploration of the artistic process at its most empowering and vampiric. Shirley covers similar territory, following a young couple (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) as they move into the Bennington College home of Jackson and her showboating professor husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). Quickly, they find themselves wrapped up in Jackson’s soul-sucking, invigorating creative process as she crafts a novel about a girl who goes missing on campus. Moss and Young make for a fantastic pair, encouraging each other’s anxieties and rebelliousness until the walls of reality begin to degrade.

I could not mention the interior horrors of Shirley without also nodding to Josh Ruben’s Scare Me, a micro-budgeted work that premiered in the festival’s Midnight section and neatly digs into notions of genre and storytelling without leaning on big-picture visuals. In this horror film of sorts, set in an upstate New York cabin, two writers (played by Ruben and Aya Cash) dare each other to tell scary stories with only their voices (and accompanying sound effects) to sell them. As their contest goes on, Ruben takes the tone from funny to satiric to truly tense. The film’s key concern reveals itself as the same conflict that drives many other Sundance standouts: the ways in which women have to fight to stay in charge of their own narratives.