It’s that time again! After two years of covering the Park City event remotely via online screenings, the RogerEbert.com team is hitting the Sundance Film Festival in person this week, and we can’t wait to bring you coverage of dozens of new films that should garner attention all year long. There are so many movies that we plan to cover this year, but we thought we’d present the Sundance-approved synopses for 15 of them to give you a taste of what to expect. Come back starting Friday for coverage by Nick Allen, Robert Daniels, Marya Gates, and yours truly. All synopses courtesy of Sundance.
“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt”
Tender caresses and enveloping embraces are portals into the life of Mack, a Black woman in Mississippi. Winding through the anticipation, love, and heartbreak she experiences from childhood to adulthood, the expressionist journey is an ode to connection — with loved ones and with place.
Raven Jackson’s striking debut is an assured vision, unafraid to immerse us in moments of grief and longing, or within the thickness of things left unsaid. Her camera is patient and loving, capturing the beauty of Black bodies and life. Rural quietness is filled with the transportive sounds of crickets, frogs, and water in its many forms. Jackson's nontraditional narrative borrows from the language of memory. Shifts in time are prompted by movement and emotion — the feeling of mud between fingers or the release felt from being outside during a storm. Dialogue is restrained, and performances are subtle and powerful. Jackson employs the power of touch to communicate what evades spoken language. It’s an embodied experience that honors the sumptuousness of life and leaves you feeling the rain on your skin.
Lucy seeks enlightenment. The former child actress makes a pilgrimage to join her guru, Elon Bello (Ben Whishaw), for a silent retreat at a beautiful mountain resort with a Tesla-crammed parking lot. Before she shuts off her phone to the world, Lucy reaches out to her daughter, Dylan — a stunt person training for a dangerous fight scene — to interrupt her concentration and announce that she will be unavailable and out of range, and that she is very worried about her, and that she might extend her stay. It is co-dependent, bad behavior. When a young model/DJ/influencer at the retreat is paired up with Lucy to do a mother/daughter role-playing exercise, hellfire stokes Lucy’s bad behavior to an astonishing low.
Director Alice Englert’s sophisticated feature debut delivers a surprising, tongue-in-cheek, dark comedic dismemberment of a toxic white woman. Jennifer Connelly is pitch-perfect as Lucy, a woman whose sublimated pain has transformed her into an unavoidable mortal vortex. Bad Behaviour shows that purging anger as a redemption strategy can really get someone hurt.
Rose is a pathologist who prefers working with corpses over social interaction. She also has an obsession — the reanimation of the dead. Celie is a maternity nurse who has built her life around her bouncy, chatterbox 6-year-old daughter, Lila. One unfortunate day, their worlds crash into each other. The two women and young girl embark on a dark path of no return where they will be forced to confront how far they are willing to go to protect what they hold most dear.
The devilishly perceptive script by Laura Moss and Brendan J. O’Brien reimagines a classic horror myth with such a complete, contemporary understanding that it becomes something exciting, terrifying, and singularly new. They ground this chilling fantasy in the complex psychologies of its leads, all too convincingly played by Judy Reyes, Marin Ireland, and A.J. Lister. This standout directorial debut by Laura Moss is a wonderfully twisted tale that is sure to be one of the big cerebral shockers of the year.
Margot, a college student working concessions at an art house theater, meets frequent filmgoer — and rather older local — Robert, on the job. Flirtation across the counter evolves into continuous texting. As the two inch toward romance, shifts between them, awkward moments, red flags, and discomforts pile up. Margot feels both attached and reticent, as her gnawing hesitations blossom into vivid daydreams where Robert realizes his most threatening potential. As her distrust and uncertainty mount, an evening, their relationship, and possibly their lives unravel.
Exploring power dynamics, the terrifying nature of some gray areas, and the way young women must balance their relationships to themselves alongside their lovers, Cat Person is a provocative portrait of modern dating. Director Susanna Fogel (co-writer of Booksmart) brings these questions to the screen with a vibrant tension that packs a serious punch, aided by great performances from Emilia Jones (CODA) and Nicholas Braun (Succession). Inspired by the most-read piece of fiction ever published in The New Yorker, Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person”, the film continues a conversation whose urgency is clear, present, and dangerous.
Having fled war-torn Liberia, Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo), the formerly wealthy daughter of a government loyalist, finds herself struggling to survive on a Greek island. She gives foot massages to tourists on the beach, steals food to survive, and squats in caves and abandoned buildings. In the evenings, Jacqueline is haunted by memories of her homeland and the violent uprising that forced her escape. When she meets Callie (Alia Shawkat), a lonely American tour guide, Jacqueline takes a chance on friendship.
Award-winning Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s (Ilo Ilo) English-language debut is an uncommon refugee drama and a psychologically acute character study. Adapted by Susanne Farrell and Alexander Maksik from Maksik’s 2013 novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, the film sensitively examines both Jacqueline’s fraught attempt to resume life in the aftermath of unimaginable tragedy and her growing bond with a fellow expat. Erivo, who was nominated for an Oscar for 2019’s Harriet, vividly portrays Jacqueline’s bone-deep grief and all-too-fresh fears, as well as her guarded attempts at human connection.
Based on the book of the same name by literary powerhouse Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen follows a peculiar young woman whose dreary life stretches on toward unending misery. In frigid 1960s Boston, Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) shuffles between her father’s dingy, emotionally haunted home and the prison where she works alongside colleagues who have ostracized her. When an intoxicating woman (Anne Hathaway) joins the prison staff, Eileen is taken. Just when the possibility of a salvational friendship (or maybe more) takes hold and forms a singular glimmer in Eileen’s darkness, her newfound confidant entangles her in a shocking crime that alters all.
William Oldroyd’s connection to Sundance began in 2013 when his short film, Best, won the Short Film Competition at Sundance Film Festival: London. Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth) is sure to make a splash with this imaginative and forceful adaptation. With a seductive and savage performance from Sundance alum Hathaway (Song One, The Last Thing He Wanted) and an unhinged, powerhouse showing from McKenzie, Eileen is brought to the screen with brilliant gloom.
“Flora and Son”
Flora, a young mother living in Dublin, lost touch with aspiration long ago. She juggles a sustenance-necessitated child care job and a fraught co-parenting arrangement with her unkind ex as she tries to raise her son, Max. Flora and Max’s brash rapport is both hilarious and revealing of their struggle to understand each other — she searches for autonomy and self-love masquerading as selfishness, while his longing for independence and self-expression manifests as delinquency. When the two connect over a twice-discarded used guitar, the uniting power of music brings them closer than what simple proximity can provide.
In John Carney’s signature melodic style, Flora and Son is charming, uplifting, and musically dazzling. A high-energy performance from Eve Hewson and her oceans-crossing chemistry with her online guitar teacher (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) bring sweeping romance with an Irish punch to this buoyant piece. A story of how music can re-energize a life and resurrect long-dormant dreams, as well as a testament to the new connective tissues we grow in isolation, Flora and Son is an all-around revelry in the beauty of relationship.
Killian Maddox lives with his ailing veteran grandfather, obsessively working out between court-mandated therapy appointments and part-time shifts at a grocery store where he harbors a crush on a friendly cashier. Though Killian’s struggles to read social cues and maintain control of his volatile temper amplify his sense of disconnection amid a hostile world, nothing deters him from his fiercely protected dream of bodybuilding superstardom, not even the doctors who warn that he’s causing permanent damage to his body with his quest.
Writer-director Elijah Bynum masterfully reveals the duality of Killian’s existence, depicting the toll of a toxic stew of self-imposed pressure to meet unrealistic expectations and hypermasculine role modeling while simultaneously conveying his genuine, if fraught, efforts to fulfill an underlying desire for human connection. Jonathan Majors, in a committed performance of tremendous physicality, powerfully embodies the lengths Killian will go in his desperate need to be seen. Magazine Dreams is a provocative film that respects the dignity of its protagonist as it pulls no punches in portraying the most physically and emotionally painful moments of his darkening odyssey.
“Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields”
Brooke Shields, ’80s icon and household name, was a child model before she came to prominence in Louis Malle’s controversial film Pretty Baby at age 12. With a series of provocative Calvin Klein jeans ads and leading roles in 1980s teensploitation hits The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love, Shields’ early career was defined by a sexuality that she could neither claim nor comprehend.
In this two-part documentary, director Lana Wilson (Miss Americana, 2020 Sundance Film Festival) reveals Shields’ story through media appearances and archival footage, bringing full context to the time when Shields was coming of age in public. Wilson creates space for the adult Shields to share her intelligence, vulnerability, and humanity while reflecting on her career and life, including her complex relationship with her mother, Teri, her marriage to Andre Agassi, and her own struggles with motherhood. Honest and incisive, Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields critiques a toxic culture and power structure that perpetuates misogyny and is complicit in the sexualization and objectification of young girls. But, above all, it tells the moving story of Brooke Shields discovering and embracing her own identity and agency.
“Rotting in the Sun”
Sebastián Silva is depressed. When he's not sleeping, the filmmaker is taking absurd amounts of ketamine and searching the internet for painless suicide methods. In an attempt to snap him out of it, his manager sends him on vacation to a nude gay beach. There, he almost dies trying to save social media influencer Jordan Firstman from drowning. The over-the-top Jordan wants to collaborate on a series, but Sebastián is resistant until a network shows interest. When Jordan arrives in Sebastián's Mexico City studio to get to work but can't find him anywhere, he begins to suspect that the put-upon housekeeper, Vero (Catalina Saavedra, The Maid, World Cinema Special Jury Prize for Acting, 2009 Sundance Film Festival), knows more than she's letting on.
Sebastián Silva returns to Sundance playing a derisive version of himself in his latest black comedy, skewering not only the business of filmmaking, but also our modern solipsistic culture. Darkly funny, refreshingly audacious in its depiction of sex, and with pitch-perfect performances, this wildly unconventional quasi-detective story adds to the unpredictable Silva's eclectic body of work.
Ben, a struggling filmmaker, lives in Berkeley, California, with his girlfriend, Miko, who works for a local Asian American film festival. When he’s not managing an art house movie theater as his day job, Ben spends his time obsessing over unavailable blond women, watching Criterion Collection DVDs, and eating in diners with his best friend, Alice, a queer grad student with a serial dating habit. When Miko moves to New York for an internship, Ben is left to his own devices and begins to explore what he thinks he might want.
Cleverly and precisely scripted by Adrian Tomine (based on his own acclaimed graphic novel of the same title), the delightful Shortcomings is Randall Park’s assured directorial debut. Exposing a multiplicity of Asian American identities in a fresh and groundbreaking way, the film is poised to challenge audiences with its protagonist Ben — who is cynical and snobbish with a dash of charm — gamely played by Justin H. Min. With wit, humor, and a deep understanding of being an outsider within a marginalized community, Shortcomings embraces the complexity of being human, flaws and all.
“Sometimes I Think About Dying”
Lost on the dreary Oregon coast, Fran wastes her daylight hours in the solitude of a cubicle, listening to the constant hum of officemates, occasionally daydreaming to pass the time. She is ghosting through life unable to pop her bubble of isolation. And then Robert starts up at the company. He is new to town and the dynamics of the office. He is a naturally friendly person who keeps trying to chat with Fran. Though it goes against every fiber of her being, she may have to give this guy a chance.
Director Rachel Lambert and team craft beautiful cinema for this delicately told story of love for the socially awkward and emotionally challenged. The film is made all the more human by its lovely cast, most prominent in the penetrating eyes of lead actor-producer Daisy Ridley and the caring smile of lead actor, Dave Merheje. Sometimes I Think About Dying is an unexpected fable on the virtues of living.
“STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie”
At age 16, an undersized army brat landed a part as a 12-year-old on a Canadian television show. Confident he could make it in the U.S., he moved into a tiny apartment in the slums of Beverly Hills. Three years later, he was struggling to scrape by and ready to retreat. But then came his breakout roles — Alex P. Keaton on the sitcom Family Ties and Marty McFly in the Back to the Future trilogy — and a superstar was born. Michael J. Fox dominated the industry for most of the 1980s and '90s, but a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease at age 29 threatened to derail his career.
Fox's improbable story sounds like the stuff of Hollywood, so what better way to tell it than through scenes from his own work, supplemented with stylish recreations? Owning his own narrative, the actor playfully recounts his journey with intimacy, candor, and humor. In the hands of Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, 2006 Sundance Film Festival), Still reveals what happens when an eternal optimist confronts an incurable disease.
As summer rolls around again, kids are gathering from all over to attend AdirondACTS, a scrappy theater camp in upstate New York that’s a haven for budding performers. After its indomitable founder Joan (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma, her clueless “crypto-bro” son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) is tasked with keeping the thespian paradise running. With financial ruin looming, Troy must join forces with Amos (Ben Platt), Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon), and their band of eccentric teachers to come up with a solution before the curtain rises on opening night.
First-time feature directorial duo Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman authentically celebrate the brilliant and slightly unhinged educators and magical spaces that allow kids to be themselves and find their confidence, nailing the details after experiencing decades of camp life. With a winning comedic ensemble cast and boundless creativity, Theater Camp wears its cult-following potential squarely on its sequined shoulders, gifting us with instantly quotable lines and zany, lovable characters in the kind of hilarious mockumentary that deserves rapturous applause.
“You Hurt My Feelings”
New York novelist Beth has been working for years on the follow-up to her somewhat successful memoir, sharing countless drafts with her approving, supportive husband Don. Beth’s world quickly unravels when she overhears Don admit to her brother-in-law, Mark, that actually, he doesn’t like the new book. She vents to her sister Sara that decades of a loving, committed marriage pale in comparison to this immense betrayal. Meanwhile, therapist Don faces his own professional problems as he finds himself unable to care about or even recall his unhappy patients' issues anymore… and they’ve begun to notice.
Writer-director Nicole Holofcener returns to Sundance for the fourth time with a cleverly observed, witty film that delicately skewers its sharply drawn, imperfect characters’ insecurities, privilege, and narcissism. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies lead a uniformly superb, funny cast, as they pull everyone around them into the fallout of navigating whether loving someone also requires loving their work. Michaela Watkins stands out as the frank, unflappable Sara, who handles her own marriage to sensitive actor, Mark (played with charm by Arian Moayed), much more deftly.