Early reports that the streaming boom at Sundance was over were greatly exaggerated. At least that’s true for Amazon, which has made several eight-figure purchases at this year’s festival, muscling its way back into the film market after a quieter year and a transition in leadership. Though Netflix has yet to make a big buy, Apple recently sealed its first deal, picking up the coming-of-age film Hala for a planned streaming service that doesn’t exist yet.
In 2019, Sundance is arguably more mainstream than ever. Many options at the festival this year are the kinds of projects major studios used to make all of the time—crowd-pleasing comedies, true-story adaptations, and teen romances. With Hollywood now consumed by brand management, major franchises, and mega-budgeted blockbusters, independent producers have become the caretakers of the midsize movie.
One such movie is the playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon, which Amazon snapped up for a jaw-dropping $14 million, reportedly outbidding five other studios. In his filmmaking debut, Colaizzo adapts the story of his roommate and best friend, Brittany (played by Jillian Bell), who resolved to turn her hard-partying lifestyle around by running the New York City Marathon. The movie thrives because of Bell, a live-wire performer who’s given several memorable supporting turns in films such as 22 Jump Street and Rough Night, and in the TV show Workaholics. She’s hilarious when the movie needs her to be, but she’s just as good at depicting how Brittany’s bubbly outer shell conceals a fair amount of self-loathing. Bell also has an incredibly charming romantic foil, played by Utkarsh Ambudkar.
Amazon’s other major acquisitions were Late Night and The Report (which I covered in an earlier Sundance piece), but a project that the company brought to the festival is Ritesh Batra’s Photograph. This quiet but winsome Hindi-language film centers on the connection between a struggling street photographer, Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), and a graduate student, Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), who pretend to be a couple for a week to satisfy Rafi’s visiting grandmother. Batra’s last movie in Hindi, 2013’s winning love story The Lunchbox, was a huge success in India and abroad; since then, the director has made the muted English-language dramas The Sense of an Ending and Our Souls at Night. Photograph returns Batra to his hometown of Mumbai, and the film works best as a portrait of the city’s margins, where Rafi scrapes out a living taking pictures of tourists. The movie’s romantic edge could be a little sharper, but Batra remains an undeniable talent.
Apple’s purchase of Minhal Baig’s Hala is perhaps the most intriguing buy of the festival, largely because the company’s film-industry plans remain murky—it’s still not even clear if Apple acquisitions will receive theatrical releases. Hala is a remarkably assured second movie from Baig, whose debut was 2016’s little-seen romantic drama 1 Night. Her new movie stars the terrific Geraldine Viswanathan (a comic standout in last year’s Blockers) as a Pakistani American teenager named Hala who’s wrestling with her sexuality and with her growing desire for independence from her parents. Baig seeks to avoid the repressive clichés of intergenerational clashes by making Eram (Purbi Joshi) and Zahid (Azad Khan) feel like real, flawed people, rather than like mere cultural roadblocks to their daughter’s development.
One of Netflix’s biggest projects at Sundance is The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. In his directorial debut, the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor adapts the memoir of William Kamkwamba, a Malawian teenager who built a wind turbine in his hometown to help irrigate crops and save his community from famine. The film firmly adheres to the “inspirational true story” template, setting up the massive stakes of the Kamkwamba family’s hardship and exulting in William’s triumph against all odds. But the movie succeeds because of Ejiofor’s nuanced handling of the interpersonal dynamics at work—the wounded pride of William’s father, Trywell (played by Ejiofor), who struggles to allow his son to lecture him about farming, and the determination of William’s mother, Agnes (Aïssa Maïga), to resist the stereotypes of her ancestors who had to “pray for rain.” You know how the film is going to end—it’s right there in the title—but it spends time investing you in what’s being saved.
Other splashy projects are still waiting for acquisition, such as the Spanish director Alice Waddington’s Paradise Hills. A cheaply made sci-fi thriller that looks like a blockbuster, it’s bedazzled with CGI sets, sumptuous costumes, and an Instagram-influenced future world of wealthy “uppers” and poor “lowers” that loosely borrows from young-adult hits such as The Hunger Games. A quartet of young stars—Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle Macdonald, and Eiza González—play four rich girls banished to a fancy, island rehab center presided over by the imperious “Duchess” (Milla Jovovich). They’re all there to be cured of their aberrant public behavior, but something more devious is clearly going on, and the story starts to drag as the details unfold. Paradise Hills flounders with a weak script, but the ways in which Waddington, a first-time filmmaker, stretches a small budget to build out the world’s visuals suggest that she could be a profound Hollywood talent. Even if this movie doesn’t go far, the director’s next project could be a big one.
Another imperfect but promising directorial debut is Them That Follow, Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage’s film about a snake-handling church in the Appalachian Mountains. The movie itself feels touristic: It peeks at a world most audience members wouldn’t understand but fails to really examine the beliefs that might drive congregants to pick up live snakes during services. Them That Follow is an extremely well-acted movie, starring Walton Goggins as a charismatic preacher, Alice Englert as his conflicted daughter, and a wonderful Olivia Colman as the church’s gritty matriarch. Both Poulton and Savage have a great sense of environment, lending haunted menace to the film’s backwoods setting, but the script leaves much to be desired.
Sundance will wrap up this week with its awards, and further bidding wars are on the horizon for some of its late-breaking hits. But the checks being written by Amazon, Apple, and others suggest the future of the festival will not be just in nurturing marginalized storytelling voices in the industry, but also in reminding Hollywood that smaller-scale movies can still exist in theaters—and thrive.