A cold and sometimes snowy Park City, Utah, has kicked off the cinematic New Year for more than three decades. However, following Omnicron concerns, the famed Sundance Film Festival has embraced its virtual setting for the second year in a row. While some remain pessimistic about this development, increased accessibility is rarely a bad thing. After CODA, Summer of Soul, and Passing emerged from last year’s festival with awards buzz, considerable attention is being paid to the 2022 Sundance field.
Below I’ve highlighted some films that are sure to draw eyes, as well as several that we hope are among the gems of the festival. We hope you check back over the next week for our reviews of the festival over the next two weeks.
US Dramatic Competition
Alice – Dir. Krystin Ver Linden
Festival Program Synopsis: “When a woman in servitude in 1800s Georgia escapes the 55-acre confines of her captor, she discovers the shocking reality that exists beyond the tree line… it’s 1973. Inspired by true events.”
2022 seems poised for a Keke Palmer breakthrough. Alice looks to jumpstart her year with a high concept drama. Palmer also serves as an executive producer, along with co-star Common. The film has already been acquired by Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment, who set the film for a March 18th release. As the debut feature for Krystin Ver Linden, the fast acquisition and quick turnaround bodes well.
Duel – Dir. Riley Stearns
Festival Program Synopsis: “After receiving a terminal diagnosis, Sarah commissions a clone of herself to ease the loss for her friends and family. When she makes a miraculous recovery, her attempt to have her clone decommissioned fails and leads to a court-mandated duel to the death.”
Riley Stearns’ takedown of toxic masculinity made The Art of Self Defense a surprise critical darling in 2019. His return to the director’s chair provides Karen Gillan another starring role in a high-concept sci-fi. She proved her worth as an action star with Gunpowder Milkshake. Giving us a double dose of Gillan can only be a good thing. Aaron Paul seems like the perfect co-star for Gillan as well.
Master – Dir. Mariama Diallo
Festival Program Synopsis: “Three women strive to find their place at an elite New England university. As the insidious specter of racism haunts the campus in increasingly supernatural fashion, each fights to survive in this space of privilege.”
The first of two Regina Hall starring vehicles at the festival, Master features an intriguing premise and stellar cast. Joining Hall is relative newcomer Zoe Renee (Jinn) and Broadway star Amber Gray (Hadestown). Writer-director Mariama Diallo makes her feature debut, but her work on Random Acts of Flyness and her Sundance-winning short “Hair Wolf” showcased considerable talent.
Descendant – Dir. Margaret Brown
Festival Program Synopsis: “Clotilda, the last known ship carrying enslaved Africans to the United States, arrived in Alabama 40 years after African slave trading became a capital offense. It was promptly burned, and its existence denied. After a century shrouded in secrecy and speculation, descendants of the Clotilda’s survivors are reclaiming their story.”
Margaret Brown returns to the director’s chair for her first feature since her Emmy-winning The Great Invisible in 2014. Brown’s return to her hometown shines a light on another civil rights story that has been pushed into the shadows. Descendant is also produced by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who won this category at last year’s festival.
Free Chol Soo Lee – Dir. Julie Ha & Eugene Yi
Festival Program Synopsis: “After a Korean immigrant is wrongly convicted of a 1973 San Francisco Chinatown gang murder, Asian Americans unite as never before to free Chol Soo Lee. A former street hustler becomes the symbol for a landmark movement. But once out, he self-destructs, threatening the movement’s legacy and the man himself.”
During the last year, America has seen hate crimes against Asian and Pacific Islanders spike to new levels. COVID-19 might have perpetuated a rise in these crimes, but anti-Asian sentiments go back decades in American history. The events surrounding Chol Soo Lee’s conviction resulted from systemic problems in our justice system, and his story deserves the spotlight this film should provide.
World Dramatic Competition
KLONDIKE – Dir. Maryna Er Gorbach
Festival Program Synopsis: “The story of a Ukrainian family living on the border of Russia-Ukraine during the start of war. Irka refuses to leave her house even as the village gets captured by armed forces. Shortly after, they find themselves at the center of an air crash catastrophe on July 17, 2014.”
Last year, Quo Vadis, Aida? drew raves despite its tragic subject matter. KLONDIKE could draw attention. The stills released for the film indicate some very emotional performances, and the inciting incident led to the deaths of nearly 300 passengers. Given the current situation at the Ukraine/Russian border, it is hard to imagine a more relevant film this weekend.
Leonor Will Never Die – Dir. Martika Ramirez Escobar
Festival Program Synopsis: “Fiction and reality blur when Leonor, a retired filmmaker, falls into a coma after a television lands on her head, compelling her to become the action hero of her unfinished screenplay.”
Finding absurd or experimental films is what audiences expect out of the Sundance Film Festival. For those looking for comedic and non-linear storytelling, Leonor Will Never Die appears to be what the doctor ordered. While the film took eight years to complete, the premise is too exciting to ignore. If the filmmaking matches the creative story, Leonor Will Never Die has breakout potential.
World Documentary Competition
The Territory – Dir. Alex Pritz
Festival Program Synopsis: “When a network of Brazilian farmers seize a protected area of the Amazon rainforest, a young Indigenous leader and his mentor must fight back in defense of the land and an uncontracted group living deep within the forest.”
As indigenous land rights continue to build support among the general public, stories of indigenous relations abroad have been given a spotlight. Brazilian indigenous rights have come under scrutiny in recent years, and previously uncontacted Amazonian indigenous tribes have been encroached upon as the rainforest is destroyed. These stories strike a chord with climate change and indigenous activists, and The Territory appears to address several issues in its subject matter.
We Met in Virtual Reality – Dir. Joe Hunting
Festival Program Synopsis: “Filmed entirely inside the world of VR, this vérité documentary captures the excitement and surprising intimacy of a burgeoning cultural movement, demonstrating the power of online connection in an isolated world.”
Recent Sundance documentaries have relished new frontiers in the digital world. Last year, A Glitch in the Matrix drew raves, and We Met in Virtual Reality poses similar potential. With Sundance embracing VR as part of its programming, it seems unlikely they would accept a subpar documentary that utilizes the medium.
Am I OK? – Dir. Stephanie Allynne & Tig Notaro
Festival Program Synopsis: “Lucy and Jane have been best friends for most of their lives and think they know everything there is to know about each other. But when Jane announces she’s moving to London, Lucy reveals a longheld secret. As Jane tries to help Lucy, their friendship is thrown into chaos.”
One Mississippi remains one of the most underrated series of the past decade. Fans of the series should be excited to hear Am I Okay? gives Tig Notaro and collaborator Stephanie Allynne their feature debut. Notaro & Allynne have never shied away from difficult material, and the combination of Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno should provide plenty of fireworks. Notaro also steps in front of the camera, with Kiersey Clemons, Molly Gordon, and Sean Hayes filling out the ensemble.
Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul – Dir. Adamma Ebo
Festival Program Synopsis: “In the aftermath of a huge scandal, Trinitie Childs, the first lady of a prominent Southern Baptist megachurch, attempts to help her pastor husband, Lee-Curtis Childs, rebuild their congregation.”
The second starring role for Regina Hall at the festival, Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul features the star power to hit big with comedy audiences. The Ebos, siblings Adamma & Adanne, make their feature debut based on their short form 2018. In addition to Hall, Honk for Jesus attracted Sterling K. Brown as a sketchy pastor and Daniel Kaluuya as a producer. Nichole Behari, the breakout actress from Miss Juneteenth, seems to have a supporting role in the film as well.
Resurrection – Dir. Andrew Semans
Festival Program Synopsis: “Margaret’s life is in order. She is capable, disciplined, and successful. Soon, her teenage daughter, whom Margaret raised by herself, will be going off to a fine university, just as Margaret intended. Everything is under control. That is, until David returns, carrying with him the horrors of Margaret’s past.”
Rebecca Hall‘s Passing was a highlight of last year’s festival, and the actress returns to a role in front of the camera this year. Hall’s performance in The Night House remains one of the most underrated roles of 2021, and a thriller like Resurrection could continue her impressive run of late. The script for Resurrection appeared on the 2020 Black List, another positive sign for the film.
Mija – Dir. Isabel Castro
Festival Program Synopsis: “Doris Muñoz is a young, ambitious music manager whose undocumented family depends on her ability to launch pop stars. When she loses her biggest client, Doris hustles to discover new talent and finds Jacks, another daughter of immigrants for whom “making it” isn’t just a dream: it’s a necessity.”
Changing the perspectives of those in well-explored territory can provide surprising results. While there are still new tales emerging from undocumented American perspectives, Castro’s film places the weight on a generation of American-born immigrants. This slight perspective shift should yield emotional footage. Given Muñoz’s past musical relationships, her latest collaborator could be a future star in the making.
Riotsville, USA – Dir. Sierra Pettengill
Festival Program Synopsis: “Welcome to Riotsville, a fictional town built by the U.S. military. Using footage shot by the media and government, the film explores the militarization of the police and the reaction of a nation to the uprisings of the late ’60s, creating a counternarrative to a critical moment in American history.”
Director Sierra Pettengill’s last feature, The Reagan Show, showcased the power of the media in establishing narratives. Since 2015, Pettengill has continued her work as an archivist on Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., and 20th Century Women. She also walks into the festival as a producer of the Oscar-nominated Cutie and the Boxer. With her background and the subject matter, Riotsville, USA, seems poised to be one of 2022’s most talked-about documentaries.