2021 Sundance Film Festival Preview

The Sundance Film Festival is finally upon us! While the COVID restrictions will bring an entirely new experience for festival regulars, the new format change opens the door for film fans across the world to embrace the latest indie fare. Ahead of the festivities, here is a preview of the marquee titles we plan to cover on the site.

On the Count of Three
Directed by Jerrod Carmichael 

Cast: Jerrod Carmichael, Christopher Abbott, Tiffany Haddish, J.B. Smoove, Lavell Crawford, Henry Winkler

Premise: Val (Jerrod Carmichael) has reached a place where he feels the only way out is to end things. But he considers himself a bit of a failure—his effectiveness lacking—so he figures he could use some help. As luck would have it, Val’s best friend, Kevin (Christopher Abbott), is recovering from a failed suicide attempt, so he seems like the perfect partner for executing this double suicide plan. But before they go, they have some unfinished business to attend to. 

The Skinny: Jerrod Carmichael was never afraid to thoughtfully address hot-button topics on his acclaimed TV show. Now, the talented writer/director/star looks to do the same on the big-screen. With a volatile set-up based on two disgruntled loners, Carmichael’s debut seems destined to garner significant attention for its bold verve.

Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Cast: Riz Ahmed, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

Premise: Amin arrived as an unaccompanied minor in Denmark from Afghanistan. Today, he is a successful academic and is getting married to his long-time boyfriend. A secret he has been hiding for 20 years threatens to ruin the life he has built.”

The Skinny: Expectations are set high for this Cannes entry about the European immigration crisis that is already getting compared to the likes of Waltz With Bashir in which it blends a hyper-real animation style with personal recollections. It was also recently announced Riz Ahmed would be lending his voice, who had high praises for the movie after an early first look at it. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau joins Ahmed in the cast and both will executive produce. Sundance gave this animated documentary entry a prime spot for discovery on Day One with few high profile conflicts. This should be one of the essential watches of the film festival. 

Directed by Ninja Thyberg 

Cast: Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle, Evelyn Claire, Chris Cock, Dana DeArmond, Kendra Spade

Premise: Newly arrived Swedish transplant Bella Cherry coyly announces to an airport immigration official that she’s come to Los Angeles for “pleasure,” but upon her subsequent dive into the world of adult entertainment, she soon realizes it is clearly business. Though she warms to the friendly affirmations of the more seasoned girls, eager-but-green Bella relies on her instincts to navigate her experiences with predatory managers, male-dominated sets, and backbiting competitors.

The Skinny: The porn industry’s malicious practices are a common fixture in big-screen narratives, but Ninja Thyberg’s latest looks to delve deeper into the abusive male behaviors behind the revealing business model. If the tricky premise is delivered with enough weight and empathy for its subject, Thyberg could have a major breakout on her hands. 

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair 
Directed by Jane Schoenbrun 

Cast: Anna Cobb, Michael J. Rogers

Premise: Late on a cold night somewhere in the U.S., teenage Casey sits alone in her attic bedroom, scrolling the internet under the glow-in-the-dark stars and black-light posters that blanket the ceiling. She has finally decided to take the World’s Fair Challenge, an online role-playing horror game, and embrace the uncertainty it promises. After the initiation, she documents the changes that may or may not be happening to her, adding her experiences to the shuffle of online clips available for the world to see. As she begins to lose herself between dream and reality, a mysterious figure reaches out, claiming to see something special in her uploads.

The Skinny: What’s a good festival without some quality genre movies? In this Unfriended meets Nerve hybrid, director Jane Schoenbrun attempts to elicit a thrilling narrative from our all-too-common computer habits. Along with unraveling an inventive narrative yarn, Schoenbrun’s effort could potentially ruminate on the ways tech disconnects us from ourselves. 

Together Together 
Directed by Nikole Beckwith

Cast: Ed Helms, Patti Harrison, Tig Notaro, Julio Torres, Anna Konkle

Premise: When 26-year-old Anna becomes a gestational surrogate to a single, middle-aged app designer named Matt, she expects only a transactional bit of good karma and the payday that will allow her to finish her college degree. But as Matt’s unbridled enthusiasm for impending parenthood leads him to persistently insert himself into her life and invite her into his, the initially annoyed Anna finds herself reluctantly charmed. The pair of self-described loners gradually open up to each other, give in to the intimacy of their admittedly finite shared experience, and forge an unlikely friendship.

The Skinny: Billed as the next feel-good dramedy to come from Sundance, Nikole Beckwith’s Together Together certainly has the roots of a future audience-favorite. It will be a joy to see Helm’s often overeager persona tap into a more genuine character, while Patti Harrison and Tig Notaro will likely make a strong impression in their given roles. 

First Date 
Directed by Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp

Cast: Tyson Brown, Shelby Duclos, Jesse Janzen, Nicole Berry, Ryan Quinn Adams, Brandon Kraus

Premise: Mike, a high school kid with a crush, finally summons the courage to ask Kelsey out on a date. With a date but no wheels, Mike borrows money and gets duped into buying a clunker ’65 Chrysler. Although many a first date goes awry, Mike’s swiftly descends into a surreal misadventure that finds him inexplicably targeted by a pair of cops, a criminal gang, and a vengeful cat lady—with all roads leading to a showdown.

The Skinny: Tapping into the adolescent zeitgeist with its own genre spin, First Date looks to be an endearingly spunky debut for its talented filmmaker duo. Boasting a bevy of intriguing plot detours, this has all the makings of a crowd-pleasing favorite akin to Dope and Spree.

Wild Indian 
Directed by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. 

Cast: Michael Greyeyes, Chaske Spencer, Jesse Eisenberg, Kate Bosworth, Phoenix Wilson, Julian Gopal

Premise: Makwa, a young Anishinaabe boy, has a rough life. He often appears at school with bruises he says he got falling down, but no one believes him. He and his only friend, Ted-O, like to escape by playing in the woods, until the day Makwa shockingly murders a schoolmate. After covering up the crime, the two boys go on to live very different lives. Now, as adult men, they must face the truth of what they have done and what they have become.

The Skinny: Telling a tale of personal strife from a well-articulated lens, Wild Indian marks a bold debut for director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. The hard-hitting premise could potentially speak towards Native American’s generational struggle for acceptance, as well as the lingering demons stemming from Makwa’s shocking act. This film also marks co-star Jesse Eisenberg’s second producing credit.

The World to Come 
Directed by Mona Fastvold 

Cast: Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Casey Affleck, Christopher Abbott

Premise: In eighteenth-century upstate New York, Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is increasingly defeated by grief and the drudgery of rural life. Her deference and propriety maintain a mundane equilibrium with her husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck), but her narrated diaries offer a picture into a richer internal life. When spring brings newcomers Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) to the otherwise empty landscape, the journal entries frantically anticipate—and then enthusiastically document—an affair with Tallie. As menial machinations are interrupted and patriarchal sovereignty is questioned, both marriages buckle. The wives’ connection is threatened, but Abigail and Tallie’s love for each other is steadfast, both onscreen and in handwritten pages.

The Skinny: Debuting ahead of its February release date, The World to Come features an exemplary cast to tell its personal period story. With shades of Ammonite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Mona Fastvold’s latest looks to ruminate on women’s suppression in a male-dominant lifestyle.

Judas and the Black Messiah
Directed by Shaka King 

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Lil Rey Howery, and Martin Sheen

Premise: Fred Hampton’s cathartic words “I am a revolutionary” became a rallying call in 1969. As chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Hampton demanded all power to the people and inspired a growing movement of solidarity, prompting the FBI to consider him a threat and to plant informant William O’Neal to infiltrate the party.

The Skinny: While Oscar contenders have started their award’s run at Sundance, none have had the unique opportunity to release amidst the heat of Oscar season. Judas and the Black Messiah sets its sights on a historical period that speaks volumes to our current racial unrest. Expect major attention for Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield’s dynamic central performances.

Directed by Siân Heder

Cast: Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin

Premise: Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of a deaf family. At 17, she works mornings before school to help her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) keep their Gloucester fishing business afloat. But in joining her high school’s choir club, Ruby finds herself drawn to both her duet partner (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and her latent passion for singing. Her enthusiastic, tough-love choirmaster (Eugenio Derbez) hears something special and encourages Ruby to consider music school and a future beyond fishing, leaving her torn between obligation to family and pursuit of her dream.

The Skinny: Set to kick-off the festival week, Coda looks to continue the vital representation for the death community on the big-screen. Including Oscar-winner Marlee Martlin along a bevy of talented supporting players (Eugeino Derbez refreshingly stepping into a grounded role), this down-to-earth narrative looks to intimately open up about familial dynamics within the death community. 

How It Ends 
Directed by Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones

Cast: Zoe Lister-Jones, Cailee Spaeny, Olivia Wilde, Fred Armisen, Helen Hunt, Lamorne Morris

Premise: On the day an asteroid is scheduled to obliterate Earth, freewheeling Liza (Zoe Lister-Jones) scores an invite to one last wild gathering before it all goes down. Making it to the party won’t be easy, though, after her car is unceremoniously stolen, and the clock is ticking on her plan to tie up loose ends with friends and family. With a little help from her whimsical younger self (Cailee Spaeny), Liza embarks on a journey by foot across Los Angeles as she seeks to make peace with her regrets—and find the right company for those last few hours.

The Skinny: Zoe-Lister Jones enjoyed a career breakout with the indie darling Band Aid in 2017. She’s now re-teaming with her frequent collaborator Daryl Wein for a narrative that looks to speak towards self-acceptance and closure. I’m getting some major Seeking a Friend for the End of the World vibes from this one, but it will be intriguing to see how Jones and Wein add their own quirky brand to the material. 

In The Earth
Directed by Ben Wheatley 

Cast: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Hayley Squires, Reece Shearsmith

Premise: As a deadly virus ravages the world, Dr. Martin Lowery embarks on a mission to reach test site ATU327A, a research hub deep in the Arboreal Forest. The arduous journey, guided by park scout Alma, is set back by a nighttime attack that leaves the two bruised and shoeless. When they run into Zach, a man living off the grid, they gratefully accept his help. Zach’s intentions aren’t exactly what they seem, however, and a path out of the forest and into safety quickly fades as the line between myth and science blurs.

The Skinny: Ben Wheately continues to be a polarizing figure in the industry, with his recent string of genre efforts dividing eager festival audiences. His latest appears to have a direct connection to our last year of hardship, although it will be a test to see if Wheately can pull deeper sentiments from the high-concept premise. 

John and the Hole 
Directed by Pascual Sisto

Cast: Charlie Shotwell, Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle, Taissa Farmiga

Premise: While exploring the neighboring woods, 13-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell) discovers an unfinished bunker—a deep hole in the ground. Seemingly without provocation, he drugs his affluent parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and older sister (Taissa Farmiga) and drags their unconscious bodies into the bunker, where he holds them captive. As they anxiously wait for John to free them from the hole, the boy returns home, where he can finally do what he wants.

The Skinny: Based on the provocative premise alone, John and the Hole will certainly garner significant attention for Pascual Sisto’s bold descent into the dark side of adolescence. It also doesn’t hurt to have a stacked supporting cast on display, with Michael C. Hall, Taissa Farmiga, and the highly-underrated Jennifer Ehle marking a few notable draws.

Directed by Robin Wright

Cast: Robin Wright, Demián Bichir, Kim Dickens

Premise: When Edee’s life is tragically altered, she loses the ability to connect with the world and people she once knew. She retreats to a forest in the Rocky Mountains with a few supplies and leaves her old life behind indefinitely. The beauty of her new surroundings is undeniable yet quickly humbling as she struggles to adjust and prepare for the winter ahead. When Edee is caught on the brink of death, a local hunter and his family miraculously save her, but she alone must find a way to live again. 

The Skinny: Robin Wright’s directorial debut looks to be a moving tale of recovery, as well as a sneaky dark-horse Oscar player. Following Edee’s embrace of a transcendentalist lifestyle, the barebones narrative could offer a refreshingly low-steaks appeal compared to some of the festival’s more boisterous titles.

Directed by Karen Cinorre 

Cast: Grace Van Patten, Mia Goth, Havana Rose Liu, Soko, Théodore Pellerin, Juliette Lewis

Premise: An unusual storm is approaching, and it’s about to change everything for Ana (Grace Van Patten). After a short circuit at her workplace mysteriously transports her to an alternate world, she meets a crew of female soldiers caught in an endless war. Along a strange and rugged coastline, men face the stark truth lurking behind damsels who appear to be in distress. Under the leadership of Marsha (Mia Goth), Ana trains as a sharpshooter and discovers a newfound freedom in this uninhibited sisterhood. She soon senses she may not be the ruthless killer they expect, though, and time is running out for her to find a path home.

Directed by Rebecca Hall

Cast: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Alexander Skarsgård, Bill Camp 

Premise: Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson), a refined, upper-class 1920s woman, finds breezy refuge from a hot summer day in the grand tearoom of New York City’s Drayton Hotel. Across the room, she spots a blond woman staring her down. Irene wants to steal away, but before she can, Clare Kendry (Ruth Negga) rushes over to stop her. It turns out the two were in high school together, and while both are African American women who can “pass” as white, they have chosen to live on opposite sides of the color line. Now, their renewed acquaintance threatens them both.

The Skinny: Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut sets its sights on a pertinent tale about class and racial division. Between the resonant subject matter and all-star cast, this has the energy of a marquee hit with 2022 Oscar potential.

Prisoners of the Ghostland 
Directed by Sion Sono

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Nick Cassavetes, Bill Moseley, Tak Sakaguchi, Yuzuka Nakaya

Premise: In the treacherous frontier city of Samurai Town, a ruthless bank robber (Nicolas Cage) is sprung from jail by wealthy warlord The Governor (Bill Moseley), whose adopted granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella) has gone missing. The Governor offers the prisoner his freedom in exchange for retrieving the runaway. Strapped into a leather suit that will self-destruct within five days, the bandit sets off on a journey to find the young woman—and his own path to redemption.

The Skinny: Do I need to say more than Nicholas Cage? The enigmatic star’s latest teams him with Sion Sono for his English-language debut. Boasting an inventive landscape and a wire-to-wire premise, this looks to be another in Cage’s recent run of successful genre vehicles.

Directed by Dash Shaw 

Cast: Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Angeliki Papoulia, Zoe Kazan, Peter Stormare

Premise: Cryptids are creatures whose existence is disputed or unsubstantiated. When Amber and Matt get lost in the woods during a sex date, they stumble upon a high-security fence. On the other side, they find a cryptid—a unicorn—that would change their lives.

The Skinny: Adult animated offerings continue to be a rarity (Sundance will also feature Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee), which makes Dash Shaw’s eccentric debut a welcomed offering. Featuring a talented comedic voice cast and an inventive set-up, Cryptozoo has cult hit potential written all over it.

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