PARK CITY, Utah—Every year since the Sundance Film Festival began, in 1985, the founder and figurehead, Robert Redford, has kicked off the event with a discussion of the featured movies and the state of independent cinema. Named after one of Redford’s most iconic characters, the annual Utah gathering was designed to foster filmmaking talent outside the studio system. But this year, Redford made something clear: He no longer needs to be in the spotlight. After a brief introduction, he stepped aside at the opening press conference. “I think we’re at a point where I can move on to a different place,” he said, ceding the stage to the executive director, Keri Putnam.
Sundance has debuted films from some of indie cinema’s most prominent voices over the past 30-plus years, including Steven Soderbergh, the Coen brothers, Todd Haynes, and recent Grand Jury Prize winners such as Damien Chazelle and Ryan Coogler. But in stepping back, Redford is acknowledging the welcome ways in which the festival continues to evolve: Some 40 percent of this year’s movies were directed by women, and 36 percent were made by people of color. Meanwhile, 63 percent of the accredited press come from “underrepresented groups,” Putnam said.
Since arriving at Park City last week, I’ve seen 17 movies, cramming in screenings in search of breakout hits, exciting new voices, and less heralded gems that could easily get lost in the mix. Sundance is a place for movies to make a splash and get picked up for large sums of money by big studios, but it’s also where unproven directors can debut work alongside veteran filmmakers. In fact, some of the strongest projects I’ve seen so far come from names I’d never heard before.
The most outstanding movie I saw during the festival’s first, packed weekend of programming was Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, the second film from the Chinese-born writer and director, who moved to the United States at a young age. The Farewell dramatizes an incredible personal story, one that Wang told on an episode of This American Life: Her grandmother is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and her extended family decides to keep the news secret from the matriarch during a big reunion. Awkwafina plays an American-raised granddaughter, Billi, whose desire to tell her grandmother what’s really happening is tied to her larger unresolved sorrow over leaving her homeland as a child.
The script is packed with mundanely funny observations, its family dynamics are keenly observed, and Wang is a confident presence behind the camera, playing her intergenerational ensemble off one another and rarely resorting to impassioned speeches to make her points. This is no My Big Fat Greek Wedding–type broad comedy. There’s humor in every scene, but a kind rooted in the unspoken bond between Billi and her grandma (played by Zhou Shuzhen) and the very different connection Billi has with her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin). The indie-studio heavyweight A24 acquired The Farewell for a reported $6 million, possibly setting the stage for the movie to get the sort of wide audience and Oscar success that prior projects such as Room, Moonlight, and Lady Bird enjoyed.
The splashiest buy at the festival thus far has come from Amazon, which ponied up $13 million for the rights to Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night, a buzzy satire of life in the world of comedy, written by and starring Mindy Kaling. She plays Molly Patel, an untested writer who’s hired by the sharp but disaffected talk-show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) after the program is criticized for not employing female writers. The film is way too stuffed with plot—Newbury is trying to rescue a show in decline, Molly is trying to establish herself, and there are a few unnecessary story twists. But as a Devil Wears Prada–like tale of an intense boss-employee relationship, it works. The movie’s actual joke-writing could be sharper, and at times it feels like Kaling is shying away from really tackling the structural sexism of her industry, inexplicably giving her character an absurd fairy-tale origin story (she’s hired from a job at a chemical plant rather than from the comedy world). But Thompson’s performance is imperious and cutting enough to keep the whole project afloat.
For the past few festivals, Netflix and Amazon have scooped up multiple projects at Sundance. But this year, the companies seem to have throttled back, relying more on their own productions. As a result, A24 has been the biggest powerhouse here, screening several movies worth recommending. Chief among them is Joe Talbot’s debut feature, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, co-written by and starring his friend Jimmie Fails. The film is a whimsical, sometimes heartbreaking story of how gentrification has swallowed up the duo’s beloved hometown. Fails plays a character based on himself who surreptitiously moves back into his old family home while it stands empty on the market—his way of trying to reclaim a place in a neighborhood he can no longer afford. Talbot supplies painterly visuals and a somewhat abstract storytelling style, while Fails and Jonathan Majors (who plays the protagonist’s best friend) give deftly funny, melancholic performances.
Another splendid A24 title is The Souvenir, a coming-of-age drama directed by Joanna Hogg, a British filmmaker who has drawn acclaim but little attention overseas for her previous movies Unrelated, Archipelago, and Exhibition (all of which star a young Tom Hiddleston). The Souvenir is based on Hogg’s life in her early 20s—the experience of trying to be a director in 1980s London and falling in love with an older, arrogant, but undeniably compelling man.
Honor Swinton-Byrne (the daughter of Tilda Swinton) is a revelation as Julie, Hogg’s surrogate, while Tom Burke plays her on-again, off-again lover, Anthony; Swinton herself contributes a lovely, restrained performance as Julie’s mother. Hogg lets crucial plot information trickle out slowly, and the quieter moments of the couple’s relationship are as important to depict as the big, emotionally harrowing fights. When The Souvenir’s two-hour running time draws to a close, you’ll likely feel as though you’ve lived Julie’s life, painfully and powerfully. A24 will release the film this year, and a sequel, amazingly enough, is set to start shooting this summer.
HBO snapped up the rights to Rashid Johnson’s Native Son, which was scripted by the acclaimed playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and adapted from Richard Wright’s 1940 novel. Parks has updated the searing tale of Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders) for the present, and what’s most compelling about her screenplay is what she’s excised. Though the book’s chief horrifying act of violence remains, other major plot points have been moved around or taken out entirely, in an attempt to account for the way things have changed in the past 79 years.
Certain elements of Wright’s story, which follows a young African American man living in Chicago who accepts a job as a rich businessman’s driver, feel just as relevant now as they did decades ago. In retaining those details, Parks is underlining the enduring, racist inevitabilities of life in Chicago that originally angered Wright. Sanders (who did terrific work in the middle section of Moonlight) is mesmerizing, but the film struggles to keep hold of his character in the final act, as things swerve into irrevocable darkness and what initially felt insightful becomes a bit of a slog.
If Native Son is polemical, then Scott Z. Burns’s The Report is entirely clinical, a thoroughly researched, hard-hitting recounting of the Senate investigation into the George W. Bush administration’s legacy of torture. Burns is a writer who has crafted several candid (but excellent) screenplays for Soderbergh, including The Informant, Contagion, and Side Effects. In his feature-film debut behind the camera, Burns aims to be sober and workmanlike. Adam Driver plays the movie’s deeply effective moral center: Daniel Jones, the real-life researcher who compiled the report for Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening). In doing so, Jones runs into CIA intransigence and hemming and hawing from Barack Obama’s administration, the latter of which is represented in the film mostly by Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm). Nobody gets away clean in this movie, but Burns lets them all have their say rather than reducing them to cartoon villains (à la Adam McKay’s Vice).
Perhaps the strangest project I’ve seen so far at the festival is Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy, a wrenching drama about a child actor living with his alcoholic father. This actor, Otis (played by Noah Jupe), is an obvious avatar for Shia LaBeouf, who got his start as a Disney Channel star before becoming a blockbuster icon and then spiraling into substance abuse and depression. The personal connection is clear because LaBeouf wrote the screenplay, and because he plays the character based on his own father, a former rodeo clown with a stringy, receding mane. In flash-forwards to the present, Lucas Hedges plays an older Otis, reckoning with his father’s abuse. The whole experience is akin to being in therapy with LaBeouf as he works through major revelations. Har’el (an obvious talent) translates close-to-the-bone emotional content into a stark vision of life balanced on a knife-edge, with just enough humor and heart to keep things from feeling too miserable.
As for the rest of the festival, there will be premieres for Netflix’s gonzo art thriller Velvet Buzzsaw, Chinonye Chukwu’s much-hyped prison drama Clemency with Alfre Woodard, the Lupita Nyong’o–starring dark comedy Little Monsters, and the oddball comedy Brittany Runs a Marathon. Studios will also start to settle on their major acquisitions, and the competition prizes will be awarded, firing the starting pistol on 2019’s movie season many months before next year’s Oscars are on anyone’s mind.