The challenge of covering a film festival as vast as Sundance is that no one human being can see everything. So consider this collection of acting highlights merely a sampling of everything that Park City festival had to offer—and a sneak preview of some movies you should definitely put on your radar.
Part of Mia Wasikowska’s appeal has been her allusiveness—that sense that you can’t always get a bead on her characters. In the Zellner brothers’ loopy, oddly moving Western Damsel, she gets to be a little more demonstrative as Penelope, a no-nonsense woman in the Old West who doesn’t need a man to rescue her—even if he’s played by Robert Pattinson. To explain the intricacies of Penelope’s character would be to spoil Damsel’s surprises, so let’s just say that Wasikowska punches holes in genre stereotypes, upsetting the whole concept of a “damsel in distress.” She’s never been funnier than she is in Damsel, brandishing a deadpan sense of humor as skillfully and as lethally as a shotgun.
The coming-of-age drama comes in many forms. In Leave No Trace, it’s seen through the eyes of Tom, a teenager who’s lived a life cut off from civilization. She and her father Will (a very good Ben Foster) make do off the grid, camping in the Oregon woods far from society. The reasons why Will has chosen that existence for his daughter are complicated, but the consequences of those decisions are felt deeply by Tom, and relative newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie illustrates the love and sorrow that this young woman feels as she begins to understand that her life is so different from those her age. Winter’s Bone filmmaker Debra Granik has an eye for outsiders, and McKenzie beautifully charts Tom’s journey from dutiful daughter to a self-actualized individual.
Director Aneesh Chaganty shaped his feature debut around a clever premise: A worried widowed father (John Cho) has to track down his missing teenage daughter by using electronic devices and social media, and the entire movie is seen through those portals. But for Search to work, it needs an actor who can easily elicit sympathy. A year after appearing at Sundance in the under-seen, touching Columbus, Cho returned with a very different kind of performance—but one that’s no less affecting. We only see Cho through FaceTime and other screens, so there’s an element of distancing that occurs in Search. But Cho erases that distance, making us feel this father’s growing dread as the accumulation of clues suggests that something terrible has happened to his baby girl.
With an assist by her flawless scene partner Paul Giamatti, Kathryn Hahn gives perhaps her best big-screen performance in Private Life, in which they play a frustrated married couple struggling to have a baby. Hahn’s Rachel is a struggling novelist but, more profoundly, she’s at a crossroads in her life as a fortysomething woman who fears her relationship has flatlined and that she’s a failure because she hasn’t had a child. These are common anxieties, but writer-director Tamara Jenkins shows a remarkable specificity for her characters’ predicament, illustrating how frustration in one aspect of your life bleeds into every other area. Hahn’s biting comedic tone is well-served in Private Life—this film is often caustically funny—but she’s just as talented in showing the emotional wear and tear that’s going on inside Rachel as she tries to conceive. It’s very hard to make normal life feel profound. Private Life and Kathryn Hahn do it effortlessly.
We’ve all been that one person at the party who feels left out. It’s a terrible feeling, but it’s never been articulated as tensely as it is in Tyrel, Sebastián Silva’s moody drama about a bunch of dudes kicking it in the Catskills. Jason Mitchell plays Tyler, the one black guy in the group—and the guy who isn’t as close to everyone else in this friend posse. Mitchell makes you feel Tyler’s alienation with all its paranoia and self-loathing. It’s a performance that’s almost suffocating in its discomfort: The other guys aren’t overtly racist, but the ways in which they marginalize him make him feel endangered nonetheless. Cringe comedy is nothing new, but what Tyrel offers is a palpable sense of unease that’s hard to shake—it’s the anxiety of being stuck in a situation you can’t escape. This may be one of the most terrifying non-horror movies you’ll ever see.
Adapted from an Israeli drama, this enigmatic drama stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lisa, a kindergarten teacher who becomes obsessed with one of her students (Parker Sevak), who appears to be a genius at poetry. (He can spontaneously spout beautiful stanzas.) The Kindergarten Teacher asks troubling questions about motherhood and mentorship, but what’s even more upsetting is that Gyllenhaal never allows us inside her inscrutable character’s head. As a result, we’re never sure what percentage of genuine concern and self-centered interest are at play as Lisa spends more and more time with the boy, inserting herself into his life and disregarding his parents’ concern. This is a gutsy performance—there’s no net for this kind of high-wire act—but Gyllenhaal is so serenely composed as Lisa that it’s almost hypnotic. Is this kindergarten teacher the boy’s savior or his nightmare? Gyllenhaal makes us soak in that uncertainty.
In the early 2000s, Bishop Carlton Pearson, a respected Tulsa pastor with a large following, risked heresy by changing his tune, arguing that God wouldn’t send people to hell—even if they didn’t believe in Him. Inspired by a This American Life episode, Come Sunday charts Pearson’s dark night of the soul as he struggles with his conscience and faces the anger of his superiors and his flock. Chiwetel Ejiofor has portrayed anguish before—most notably in 12 Years a Slave—but the spiritual suffering on display in Come Sunday requires an especially nuanced actor. Neither strident nor blandly pious, Pearson is a man who simply wants to communicate God’s will to the world—except he’s no longer sure if what he’s been raised to believe about God punishing nonbelievers is true. It’s hard to convey something as interior as faith on screen, but Ejiofor does it with heavenly grace.
Laura Dern has been on a roll lately between Twin Peaks: The Return, Big Little Lies and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Her hot streak only intensifies with her work in The Tale, in which she plays Jenny Fox, an accomplished New York documentarian who must confront her past and the sexual relationship she had with a man when she was 13. This would be harrowing subject matter regardless, but Dern is a stand-in for The Tale’s writer-director, Jennifer Fox, who based her feature film debut on her own experiences. Dern presents every stage of Jenny’s journey to acceptance about her sexual abuse, and as a result this is a tricky, thorny performance—one with lots of jagged edges but also infinite empathy. Throughout The Tale, Dern makes you feel Jenny’s mix of emotions—shame, anger, sadness, confusion—so that we can fully grasp this woman’s collapse and reconstruction.
On its surface, Wildlife is a pretty familiar mid-century portrait of white-picket-fence America. (Spoiler alert: The nuclear family isn’t as harmonious as you might imagine.) But Paul Dano’s directorial debut is often subtler and more moving than would be expected, and the film is guided by Carey Mulligan’s stunning performance as Jeanette, a mother left to look after her teen son once her failure of a husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) leaves town for a temporary job. Based on Richard Ford’s novel, Wildlife sets up expectations about this woman—oh, poor Jeanette, the helpless, sensitive lass—which Mulligan expertly explodes, constantly surprising us with the character’s capacity for reinvention and calculation. Whether plotting to find a replacement for her husband or confiding in her son about what a disappointment his father is, Jeanette expresses a whole generation of women’s frustration at being repressed by a patriarchal society. Mulligan makes that frustration sexy, poignant and liberating—even if we never stop seeing the character’s increasing desperation to free herself.
Toni Collette received her one and only Oscar nomination almost 20 years ago for playing the concerned mother in The Sixth Sense. It’s too early to make predictions about her exceptional work in Hereditary, another horror movie, but her portrayal of Annie, a wife and mother haunted by her own mother’s recent death, is the kind that deserves (but often doesn’t receive) awards consideration. The chills in writer-director Ari Aster’s debut feature come slowly and steadily, but they’re anchored by Collette’s deeply emotional and tormented performance. Annie’s very ordinariness is what makes the character so empathetic: Struggling as both an artist and a member of her family, she feels adrift, even after strange, terrible things start happening to those around her. Rarely is a film’s horror such a potent manifestation of the broken inner life of its main character, and Collette plays each scene with such vulnerability and realism that it’s heartbreaking to see what becomes of her. Hereditary is the horror of the everyday—Collette gives it heart and soul.